The Long, Low Black Schooner (pages 114-118 from above)
On September 2, 1839, three days after the Amistad Africans arrived at the New Haven jail and thousands of people had already filed through to see them, the Bowery Theatre of New York began its performance of The Black Schooner, or, The Pirate Slaver Armistead; or The Long, Low Black Schooner, as it was more commonly called. An advertisement announced “an entire new and deeply interesting Nautical Melo-Drama, in 2 acts, written expressly for this Theatre, by a popular author,” almost certainly Jonas B. Phillips, the Bowery Theatre’s “house playwright” during the 183os.36 Based on “the late extraordinary Piracy! Mutiny! & Murder!” aboard the Amistad and the sensa-tional newspaper reports of “black pirates” that had appeared in the press before their capture, the play demonstrated how quickly the news of the rebellion spread, and with what cultural resonance. The title of the play came from the title of the New York Sun article about the Amistad rebellion published on August 31, 1839, which in turn had drawn on the recent descriptions of a pirate ship captained by a man named Mitchell, who had been marauding in the Gulf of Mexico.37
In 1839 the Bowery Theatre was notorious for its rowdy, raucous working-class audiences: youthful Bowery b’hoys and g’hals (slang for young working-class men and women of Lower Manhattan) and dandies, as well as sailors, soldiers, journeymen, laborers, apprentices, street urchins, and gang members. Prostitutes plied their trade in the theater’s third tier. The audience cheered, hissed, drank, fought, cracked peanuts, threw eggs, and squirted tobacco juice everywhere. During an especially popular performance, the overflow crowd might sit on the stage amid the actors and props, or they might simply invade it and become part of the performance. The owner and manager of the theatre, Thomas Hamblin, employed a pack of constables to prevent riots, which on several occasions exploded anyway. That the Bowery Theatre was associated with a big, violent anti-abolitionist riot in 1834 makes its staging of The Long, Low Black Schooner all the more remarkable.38
Paired with Giafar al Barmeki, or, The Fire Worshippers, an orientalist fantasy set in Baghdad, the play attracted “multitudes” to the nation’s largest theater. If performed every other day for two weeks (it may have run longer) at only two-thirds capacity of the theater’s thirty-five hundred seats (it may have been greater), the play would have been seen by roughly fifteen thousand people, about one in twenty of the city’s population. Another way of estimating the number in attendance is to divide the production’s gross earnings of $5,250 by prevailing ticket prices (most were twenty-five cents, some were fifty and seventy-five cents), which also suggests roughly fifteen thousand viewers. The play therefore played a major role not only in interpreting the Amistad rebellion, but in spreading the news of it soon after it happened. It was not uncommon for playwrights to work with timely and controversial events in order to draw larger audiences to their theaters.39
No script survives, but a detailed playbill provides a “Synopsis of Scenery, Incidents, &c.” Set on the main deck of the Amistad, the play featured the actual people who were involved in the uprising. The leading character was “Zemba Cinques, an African, Chief of the Mutineers,” based on Cinque and played by Joseph Proctor, a “young American tragedian,” perhaps in burnt-cork blackface, as was common at the Bowery.40 The “Captain of the Schooner, and owner of the Slaves” was Pedro Montes, the actual owner of four of the enslaved who sailed the vessel after the rebellion. The supercargo was Juan Ruez, based on Jose Ruiz, owner of forty-nine slaves on board. Cudjo, “a deformed Dumb Negro,” who resembles the “savage and deformed slave” Caliban in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, was apparently based on the “savage” Konoma, who was ridiculed for his tusk-like teeth and decried as a cannibal. Lazarillo, the “overseer of the slaves,” probably drew on the slave-sailor Celestino. Other characters included Cabrero the mate, sailors, and the wholly invented damsel soon to be in distress, Inez, the daughter of Montes and the wife of Ruez.41
Act 1 begins as the vessel sets sail from Havana, passing Moro Cas-tle and heading out to sea. The history of Zemba Cingues, the hero of the story, is recounted as a prelude to entry into the “hold of the schooner,” where lay the “wretched slaves!” The bondsmen plot and soon take an “Oath of vengeance.” In a rising storm, also noted in the accounts of the rebellion, “The Slaves, led by Zemba Cingues” force open the hatchway, which results in “MUTINY and MURDER!” The rebels seize the vessel and reset its course, heading eastward across the Atlantic to their native Sierra Leone. “Prospects of liberation” are at hand.42 Act 2 shifts to the captain’s cabin, now occupied, after the rebellion, by Zemba Cingues, as Montes and Rues sit, as prisoners, in the dark hold of the vessel (as their counterparts actually did). The world has been turned upside down: those who were below are now above, and vice versa. The reversal poses great danger to Inez, who has apparently fallen into the clutches of Cudjo and now faces “terrible doom.” Someone, probably Zemba Cinques, rescues her, forcing Cudjo to “surrender his intended victim.” Did the audience see a black hero rescue a white woman from the hands of a black villain? This is a theme of no small significance, given prevailing popular fears of racial “amalgamation,” which had ignited anti-abolition riots.
Zemba Cingues then sees a vessel (the U.S. brig Washington) sailing toward them, and holds a council among his fellow mutineers to decide what to do. They choose death over slavery—a sentiment repeatedly ascribed to Cinque in the popular press—and decide to “Blow up the Schooner!” (The Amistad rebels made no such decision, as many of them were off the vessel at Long Island when the sailors of the Washington captured their vessel.) Alas, it is too late as the “Gallant Tars” of the Washington drop into the cabin from its skylight and take control of the Amistad.
The end of the play is left uncertain, much like the fate of the Amis-tad captives, who were sitting in the New Haven jail not far away, awaiting trial on charges of piracy and murder. The playbill states: “Denoument—Fate of Cingues!” What indeed will be his fate? Did the play enact his execution, an ending that many, including Cinque him-self, expected? Or did it dramatize his liberation along with all of his comrades?43 The Long, Low Black Schooner was not an unusual play for its time. Slave revolt and piracy were common themes in early American theater. Rebellious slaves appeared in Obi, or, Three-Finger’d Jack, a play about a Jamaican runaway slave turned bandit, which was a staple after its American premiere in 1801; and in The Slave, an opera by Thomas Morton about a revolt in Surinam, first acted in 1817 and many times thereafter, into the 1840s. The Gladiator dramatized the famous slave revolt led by Spartacus in ancient Greece. It premiered in 1831, starred working-class hero Edwin Forrest, and may have been the most popular play of the decade. Pirates headlined popular nautical melodramas of the 183os, such as Captain Kyd, or, The Wizard of the Sea, performed first in 183o and numerous times thereafter, then published as a novel by J. H. Ingraham in 1839. John Glover Drew adapted Byron’s The Corsair for performance at Brook Farm in the early 184os. The great African American actor Ira Aldridge would soon act the lead in The Bold Buccaneer. Slave rebels and pirates sometimes appeared in the same plays, as they did in The Long, Low Black Schooner: “Three-Finger’d Jack” was something of a pirate on land, and indeed had been called “that daring freebooter.” Pirates also played a significant role in The Gladiator.44
Like other melodramas of the times, The Long, Low Black Schooner featured virtuous common people, usually laborers, battling villain-ous aristocrats—in this case, enslaved Africans striking back against the Spanish slaveholders Montes and Ruez. “Low” characters like Zemba Cingues spoke poetic lines in honorable resistance. They were routinely celebrated for their heroism, encouraging some degree of popular identification with the outlaw who dared to strike for free-dom. As Peter Reed has noted, audiences “could both applaud and fear low revolts, both mourn and celebrate their defeats.”45
The theater shaped the news of the Amistad rebellion as it spread it. A sympathetic, even romantic view softened the violence of the original event. Cinque’s poised and dramatic personal bearing during the legal proceedings earned him comparison to Shakespeare’s Othello.46 He was also likened to “a colored dandy in Broadway.” He clearly had the “outlaw charisma” so common to the “rogue performances” of the era. Having captured the attention of the theater world and the public at large, it was fitting that The Long, Low Black Schooner should be followed, in December 1839, by a production of Jack Sheppard, or, The Life of a Robber!, also written by Jonas B. Phillips. Like Sheppard, whose jailbreaks became “the common discourse of the whole nation” in Britain in the 1720s, and to whom the public flocked, paying admis-sion to see him in his cell, the “black pirates” of the Amistad were winning in their own bid to take the good ship Popular Imagination. A “Nautical Melo-Drama,” based on real people and dramatic current events, was playing out in American society as a whole.47