When the men and children aboard la Amistad decided to take over the ship and return home, they initiated one of the more memorable events in Connecticut’s history. Steven Spielberg even made a movie about it. But some people actually lived it, like Charlotte Cowles of Farmington, Connecticut, and we are fortunate that she wrote about it. When the Africans were finally set free, they settled for a time in Farmington, and one of the children, a girl called Kenyeh, lived with Charlotte’s family.
Charlotte’s letters to her brother are full of anti-slavery sentiments and relate her many activities against the institution. She also writes about helping slaves escape north, so we know she knew Africans and African Americans. However, it is not until she meets the Africans from the Amistad, who had never been enslaved, that she truly understands the horrors of slavery. I will let her tell you in her own words:
Today I do wish you could be here, to enjoy as we do seeing these poor beings. Kenyeh (we have at last learned to spell her name) is very happy with us, and we have become acquainted with the greater part of them for their coming here so much to see her. Every day we have troops of them calling, usually but for a few minutes; and we are all satisfied of one thing at least, — that there is as great variety of personal appearance and of talent and character among black people as among white. . ..
I cannot realize that any of them are the same beings whom I saw in the Hartford jail—except and indeed Grab-eau—so changed in their whole appearance, in complexion, manners and even features. They looked then a dusky yellow, like some of our mulattoes, and very disagreeable, but now they are so black and some of them so handsome that I can hardly believe I ever saw them before. . ..
Ya-bo-i also comes very often, and we like him very much.
He is one of the chief fun-makers of the company. Grab-eau looks and acts just as he used to in Hartford, and he is the only one. . . Cinque is as choice of his dignity as ever, yet he is often very affable, but none of them are so easy to converse with as Kinna because he speaks English so much more fluently — He is so modest and gentle too, and every one thinks him very fine-looking. Little Fouli is all animation and yet so timid, and little Ka-le is so very bright, and Ya-bo-i is so full of good humor. — I do not know how to say enough about any of them. But Mary’s and my principal favorite, just now at least, is one whom I never heard mentioned. His name is sometimes spelled Ba-gua, but it is entirely unpronounceable, so we call it Banyeh. He is about eighteen, and the most splendid specimen of African beauty I ever saw. I have read in books of this style of beauty, but I never before believed it possible for an African to be very handsome. But if any one sees no beauty in his beaming face and sparkling eyes, all I can say is that their prejudices are control their whole souls and even their fancies. . ..
After all, can you begin to realize that these interesting creatures are but a very small specimen of the victims which the merciless slave- trade is every week—now, this very moment — seizing and destroying! The idea of Cinque and Kinna and Banyeh toiling on a plantation seems incredible. I feel that I never had the least ide conception before of the horrors of that accursed business, or of the mass of misery that exists in this world; and now, how in inadequate!
I wonder if other residents of Farmington had the same “epiphany” as Charlotte upon encountering the Africans—realizing that they were in some ways more human than the African-American slaves she had seen and helped. It made the effects of slavery hauntingly clear and I am sure it is something that stayed with her throughout her life.
The images of the Africans is taken from a book A History of the Amistad Captives by John W. Barber, printed in 1840. You can see Charlotte’s letters and the book with the profiles by visiting the Research Center.