from Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels
Electric Fruit

from Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels

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In the summer of 1839, fifty-three Africans illegally sold in Havana mutinied on the schooner Amistad while being taken to Puerto Principe. The rebels, mostly men from the Mendi people of Sierra Leone, killed the captain and the cook but spared their masters to help steer toward the rising sun and Africa.  For nearly two months, the would-be slaveholders re-routed by night until a navy brig captured the ship off the coast of Long Island.  Authorities quickly threw the Africans in Connecticut jails while deciding either to return their men to their Spanish masters or award them as “salvage” to the U.S. sailors.

White abolitionists took up the case, converting the Mendi to Christianity and teaching them English in preparation for the trial. Ardency‘s second section, “Correspondance,” partially excerpted here, consists of the Mendi’s letters and speeches from jail—and during their subsequent freedom.



                                                                                                       October 30, 1840
dear Sir    Mr tappan

             I want tell you Some thing    I going to write you a letter    I will write you
a few lines my friend    I am began to write you a letter    I bless you because
I love you    I want pray for you every night and every morning and evening
and I want love you too much    I will write letter for you from that time
Jesus began to preach and say repent    for the kingdom of heaven is at
hand    My Dear friend I thanks you a plenty because you Send me letter
and I thank you for it and I want pray for you every evening and every
night and every morning by day and by night and his always

             Mr Tappin    Love us    pray our father who art in heaven hallowed be
I want to tell you Some thing    I have no hat    Dear Sir I write you if you
please and so kind I please you    that I please you Let me have A hat to
cover my head    that I please you dear friend I tell you Some thing    I please
you that you let me have A bible    my friend I want you give me A hat
and I thank you a plenty    and I have no bible and hat both

             my friend I give you good loves    I believe you are my friend    my Sir I
want you tell your friends my good loves    I want love all teachers who
teach me and all my people good things about Jesus Christ God and heaven
and every things    I bless them that teach me good    I pray for them I want
write some    your name    thy kingdom come thy will be done in earth as it is
in heaven give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we
forgive forgive our debtors for thine is the kingdom and the power
and the glory for ever Amen    O Lord    my friend I write this paper to you
because I love you too much    my Sir    I want to tell you Some thing

             When we in havana vessel we have no water to drink     when we eat rice
white man no give us to drink    when Sun Set white men give us little water
when we in havana vessel white men give rice to all who no eat    fast he
take whip you    a plenty of them died and havana men take them put in
water    I try to write letter of paper for Mr you    and Jesus said unto him No
man having put his hand to the plough and looking back is fit for
the kingdom of God    my friend I am Stop writing your letter    Gone To you
a letter    my name Kale    I am your friend    I give you this letter


having English now
I hope to tell you what
it meant to hear your
words it was a river
slowly icing over it was
rain falling into water
was the night following
rain into water a father
crocodile waking early
to eat his children it
became the memory

of a gourd at my lips
the salt surrounding
the ship so white
& useless it was a thirst
a message thrown over
board a bottle a sudden
ash upon our skin our
tongues grown dark
& unavoidable as bay
leaves I thank you gentle
men for lending us yours


                                            New Haven
                                                                                         January 4, 1841
Dear Friend Mr. Adams,

               I want to write a letter to you because you love Mendi
people and you talk to the grand court. We want to tell you
one thing; stranger say we born in Havana, he tell lie. We stay
in Havana 10 days and 10 nights, we stay no more. We all
born in Mendi. Mendi people been in Merica 17 moons. We.
write every day; we write plenty letters; we read most all
ways; we read Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and John,
and plenty of little books. We love books very much.

       We want you to ask the court what we have done wrong. What
for Mericans keep us in prison? Some men say Mendi people.
very happy because they laugh and have plenty to eat. No body
give Mendi people any these things. Mr. Judge come with bars
and sentences and Mendi people all look sorry. O we can’t tell
how sorry. Some people say Mendi people no got souls, white
men afraid of Mendi people. Then we laugh. Why we feel bad
we got no souls?

                        Dear friend Mr. Quincy, you have children, you have
friends, you love them, you feel very sorry if Mendi people come
and carry them all to Africa. When Mr. Jailer came hear with
chains he put on some hands and he whip them to hard, he no feel
a shame. We afraid for Merica people because Merica people say
we make you free. If Merica people give us free we glad, if they no
give us free we sorry; sorry for Mendi people little; sorry for Merica
people great deal because God punish liars.

        We want you to tell the court that Mendi people no want to go back
to New Havana, we no want to be killed. Dear friend you tell our Judges
let us free. Dear friend we want to know how we feel. Mendi people
think, think, think. No body know what we think. We think we know God
punish us if we have lie. We never tell lie; we fill truth. What for
Mendi people afraid? Because they got souls.

                               Cook says he kill, he eat Mendi people;
we afraid; we kill cook. Then captain kill one man with knife, and lick
Mendi people plenty. We never kill captain, he kill us. If court ask who
brought Mendi people to Merica? We bring ourselves. We hold
the rudder. All we want is make us free.

                                                                             This from my hand,


                                                                     April 1, 1841
Dear Friend
Mr. L. Tappan

       I embrace this opportunity of writing a few
lines to you to inform you that I am well & when
this come to your hand & I hope that it may find you
in good health    & yesterday our Judge set little
girls free & we are thankful    & girls have free
now    & I hope great God will bless you & keep
those who want hurt you

       & Tuesday night I wish & thank you very much
because you make us free & Mr Adams he made us
free & Menda people thank you very much    I pray for you
& I am sorry to hear your Children have sick    I hope God
to make them get well    & I hope great God will bless you
& be my dear benefactory

       & I will pray for you when I go to bed and when
you rise in the morning & when you go to bed    & what
we want you to do will you do it    & I call you Dear Father
because you so kind to poor Menda    & I wish pray to great
God to send us to our home    he sent his Son to the world
to save us from going down to held

       all men have some work to do    & suppose you must
let us go home & tell them about you   jesus said unto him
foxes have holes & birds of the air have nests but the son
of man hath not where to lay his head    My friend I want
you to carry us into Sierra Leone

       & this from your friend


You call us rebels    we were spoons
in that ship for so long   the wood
dark, drowned as the men who
made it from song    sold on land
like ships   like us   christened
out of water    You call us rebels
we were thrown with schools of fish
in the stomach of that ship    we slept
with the dead    which is not at all
You call us rebels    one day we took
the wheel from men with eyes of
water    we turned the ship towards
the rising sun   let the wind grace
our backs    that night we slept like
anchors   that night the sailors
turned us towards a Newborn
England   in dawn we saw blesséd
land   then felt the sun’s heat
betraying our backs   too late
we saw the sunless men   their navy
racing   to rescue us into chains
now we know the edge of setting
sun    where only the dead are free
to come and go as you please



                                    October 5, 1841
President Tyler:

        You have done a great deal
for us. Now we want to go home, very
much, very soon. When we get to Sierra
Leone, we get home, we find a good
place for our teachers, then tell enemies
and friends come see them. We want
plenty of calicoes, not cut, for men’s coats,
pantaloons. For we think we wear Merica
dress as long as we live. We want plenty
to give our friends and have them give
us elephant teeth, camwood, palm
oil, and other things to send you
to Merica. We will take good care
of our teachers. We will not
leave them.
               When we are in Mendi we never
hear of such a thing as men taken away
and carried to Cuba, and then return back
home again. The first thing we tell
them will be that great wind bring
us back. We tell them all about
Merica. We tell them about God
and how Jesus Christ, his only beloved
Son, came to down to die for us, and we
tell them to believe, for these your sons
were lost before now. We want you
to give your children to us, give
to the teachers to teach them
to pray, and not to pray to any
thing but God.
                Some wicked people here
laugh at all our Committee
for spending so much on Mendi
people. They say we are like dogs
without any home. But if you will
send us home, you will see whether we
be dogs or not. O please let us go
to the Africa. We want to see no more
snow. We no say this place no good,
but we afraid of cold. Cold catch us all
the time.

                 With becoming respect &c.,


                     Boston, Mass.

                                                    November 8,1841
To the Hon. John Quincy Adams:

Most Respected Sir,—the Mendi people will never
forget your defence of their rights before the Great

Court of Washington. They feel that they owe
to you, in a large measure, their delivery from evil

hands. They will pray for you as long as you live
Mr. Adams. They never forget you. We are about

to go home, to Africa, we reach Mendi very quick,
then tell the people of your kindness. Good

missionary will go with us. We will take black
Bibles in our mouths,—it has been a precious book

in prison, in writing you, in fire, and we love
to read it now we are free. Mr. Adams we want

to make you a present of a beautiful
Bible. Please accept it, and when you look

at it, remember your grateful clients. We read
in this holy book:—If it had not been the Lord

upon our backs when men rose up against us,
then they had swallowed us up quick. Blesséd

be the Lord, who has not given us a prey
to their teeth. Our soul is escaped as a bird

out of the fowler’s snare,—the snare is broken
and we soar into the gate and airs of Heaven.

                                                     For the Mendi people,


        at sea, near Sierra Leone

                              January 13, 1842

Dearest Tappan—this Captain good—
no touch Mende people. We have seen
great water—no danger fell upon
us. I tell you to make letters
for those who no touch us. All
Mende people glad for white men

you give to go with us. Mister
Steele—he left ship to find place. He stop
in Tucker’s town—who drink rum all
the time—who is a drunkard. Who like
money better than his own soul. He
tell us the ground costs six hundred

bars—Steele would not give so much.
All the rest of Mende left ship to find
their parents. I think that they will
come again. If they no come, I think
God will punish them forever—one
day. You see we are ten now to stay

behind Steele, and three girls. We will
work wood, we will farm and cut
for him every day. You no feel
bad for that—dear friend—some
Mende men will take care
of your mission. Soon I catch

Sierra Leone—my country—make
home—and take care of white
man. Oh, dear Mister Tappan
how I feel for these wondrous
things! I cannot write so true
because the ship rolls. Pray—

Jesus will hear you—if I never
see you in this world—send word
from the next and the new—


This excerpt appears in At Length with the generous permission of the author and Alfred A. Knopf. We strongly encourage you to buy the entire book online or from your local bookseller.

Kevin Young is the author of six previous collections of poetry and editor of five others. Jelly Roll was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and won the Paterson Poetry Prize; For the Confederate Dead won the 2007 Quill Award for poetry. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a United States Artists James Baldwin Fellowship, Young is currently the Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English and curator of Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University.


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