Ann: New Book on Atlantic Slavery & Childhood by List Member

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Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery, and Smuggling (Yale University Press)

by Benjamin N. Lawrance

The true story of the takeover of the Cuban schooner La Amistad in 1839 by Africans who had been illegally captured to be sold as slaves is well known, immortalized in books, poetry, theater, and film. Six African children ranging from nine to sixteen years old were embroiled in the fateful voyage and ensuing court battles. In this fascinating revisionist history, author Benjamin Lawrance recounts the experiences of these young people through eyewitness testimonies, court records, and the children’s own writings, and casts a new light on the transatlantic slave trade of the nineteenth century. 


Allowing the children to speak for themselves wherever the historical record permits, Lawrance reconstructs their lives from birth in what is now Sierra Leone through their enslavement and the aftermath of the historic uprising at sea. In so doing, the author illuminates the dismal world of child slavery, demonstrating its qualitative difference from adult slavery, while cogently analyzing the slave systems on both the African and American continents. Lawrance’s work is an important contribution to the literature of the slave trade, challenging widely held beliefs about children and slavery by bringing the captured young ones to the forefront of the La Amistad narrative.






“There is no study that focuses on the experiences of children from the point of capture in Africa through trade to the coast and the Middle Passage to the Americas. This manuscript stands alone. A unique topic. An important revisionist history.”—Walter Hawthorne, Michigan State University.

"Lawrance brilliantly analyzes the extensive documentation left by the surviving 'orphans' of the Amistad who were returned to Sierra Leone to expose the tragic alienation that slavery thrust on the victims of the trans‑Atlantic slave trade."--Paul E. Lovejoy, York University, Toronto

"In the recent commemorations of the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, two facts were frequently lost: first, that the trade did not actually end, but continued for more than a half a century; and second, that a growing proportion of those trafficked were children...[T]his searching, searing book...explores these twin facts through a close examination of the lives of six children....In the process, he challenges us to think anew not only about slavery and abolition but also about the meaning of childhood, family, and freedom." James T. Campbell, Stanford


Benjamin N. Lawrance is the Hon. Barber B. Conable Jr. Endowed Chair in International Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology.


416 pp. | 44 b/w illus.