“All we want is make us free.” Letter from an 11 year old Amistad captive to President John Quincy Adams

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Part of my work for Discovery Education is highlighting “this day in history” content on social media. I look up the date, and see what makes sense to “geek out” about on Discovery Education’s Twitter and Facebook page. This morning I learned John Quincy Adams began his oral arguments to the Supreme Court in the Amistad case on this day in 1841.

As a curriculum writer, I try very hard not to overemphasize presidential history (although Adams was a former president at the time), and I also try hard not to support “white savior” narratives without having students analyze the everyday people who make history through activism, courage, and conviction. See my earlier blog post on Teaching Presidential History with Context and Inquiry, and my Black History Month blog post titled Black History IS American History.

So I read some of Adams’ oral arguments to the Court, and thought, I’m not going to highlight this speech without the context, and without the everyday heroes. It’s far easier for an elderly former president to use his clout to sway the Court than to well–be an Amistad captive petitioning the former president to use that clout.

KaleIf I were to discuss this with my students, I would use the letter Kale, a Mende captive on the Amistad, sent to John Quincy Adams asking for his help. He was only 11 years old when the Supreme Court heard the Amistad case in 1841. Using Kale’s letter serves several purposes: 1) It is a primary document highlighting the ethnicity of slaves, not as generic “African American slaves,” but as enslaved Mendes, 2) It shows the activism of a lesser-known person, and a child, that caused a “white savior” action, the former president arguing the case before the court, 3) If one argument was slaves were property, this source shows Kale and other enslaved Africans were  intelligent human beings with emotions and a soul, and 4) It helps contextualize the anti-slavery and abolitionist movement during a time period that doesn’t get too much analysis–the 1830’s and 1840’s. We may think of this as the era of the “gag rule” in Congress, when slavery wasn’t allowed to be discussed, when the the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was generally keeping the peace until the turmoil of the 1850’s.

A transcript of Kale’s letter to President Adams is below. Discovery Education Streaming has several resources on the Amistad case, including a video on Adams’ oral arguments.

Citation Information: Kale, “All we want is make us free,” Kale to John Quincy Adams. January 4, 1841. Simon Baldwin. “The Captives of the Amistad.” Reprinted in Papers of the New Haven-Colony Historical Society. Vol. IV. 1888. 354-55.
  1. 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. Jose Ruiz [one of the two surviving whites on the Amistad] 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—we no understand the Spanish language. Mendi people been in America 17 moons. We talk American language a little, not very good. We write every day; we write plenty letters. We read most all time. We read all 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 Americans keep us in prison. Some people say Mendi people crazy, Mendi people dolt, because we no talk American language. American people no talk Mendi language. American people crazy dolts? They tell bad things about Mendi people and we no understand. Some men say Mendi people very happy because they laugh and have plenty to eat. Mr. Pendelton [the jailer] come and Mendi people all look sorry because they think about Mendiland and friends we no see now. Mr. Pendelton say we feel anger and white men afraid of us. Then we no look sorry again. That’s why we laugh. But Mendi people feel bad. O, we can’t tell how bad. Some people say, Mendi people no have souls. Why we feel bad, we no have no souls? We want to be free very much.

  2. Dear friend Mr. Adams, you have children, you have friends, you love them, you feel very sorry if Mendi people come and take all to Africa. We feel bad for our friends, and our friends all feel bad for us. Americans not take us in ship. We were on shore and Americans tell us slave ship catch us. They say we make you free. If they make us free they tell truth, if they not make us free they tell lie. If America give us free we glad, if they no give us free we sorry—we sorry for Mendi people little, we sorry for America people great deal because God punish liars. We want you to tell court that Mendi people no want to go back to Havana, we no want to be killed. Dear friend, we want you to know how we feel. Mendi people think think, think. Nobody know. Teacher, he know, we tell him some. Mendi people have got souls. We think we know God punish us if we tell lie. We never tell lie; we speak the truth, What for Mendi people afraid? Because they have got souls. Cook say he kill, he eat Mendi people—we afraid—we kill cook. Then captain kill one man with knife, and cut Mendi people plenty. We never kill captain if he no kill us. If Court ask who bring Mendi people to America, we bring ourselves. Ceci hold the rudder. All we want is make us free, not send us to Havana. Send us home. Give us Missionary. We tell Mendi people Americans spoke truth. We give them good tidings. We tell them there is one god. You must worship him. Make us free and we will bless you and all Mendi people will bless you, Dear friend Mr. Adams.

 

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One Comment;

  1. Nancy McCullough said:

    This is a thoughtful and terrific resource for teachers. It will prompt countless discussions and nurture exactly the kinds of historical insight we wish for in students. Thank you.

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