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La Amistad: How the AP Commonly Muffs American History

Written By : Warner Todd Huston
March 31, 2010

The Associated Press has a famous book on grammar and style that its news writers use to govern their work, a book that is also popular with the whole American news industry. It has served as a standard for many years. The AP, however, seems to have no style or rule for reporting history. Or rather, perhaps it does and the rule is to purposefully garble American history, always skewing it. The APs recent report on a re-creation of the famous 19th century, two-masted schooner La Amistad, famous for its connection to America’s slave trade history, is a case in point.

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As it happens a replica of the famous ship was built to highlight history of the slave trade as part of UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, “to remind the world of the consequences of slavery and to promote cultural exchanges.” The problem with APs coverage, though, is that it does not mention the facts about La Amistad leaving the impression that the ship was an American slave trader. In truth it was not an American slaver, though. On top of that the AP seems to think the ship was “made famous in a Stephen Spielberg movie” instead of made famous by the trial that resulted in its seizure by U.S. authorities in 1839.

A replica of the 19th century slave ship Amistad, made famous in a Stephen Spielberg movie, sailed into Havana Bay on Thursday with U.S. and Cuba flags flying side by side in a hopeful display of friendship.

The fact is, La Amistad was famous long before movies were ever invented, not that the AP seems to understand that. As mentioned the ship was not a “slave ship” even as the AP identifies “The U.S.-built Amistad” as a slave ship anyway.

The AP goes on to garble things further…

The original Amistad set sail from Havana with captives from Sierra Leone in 1839 en route to Haiti. The Africans killed the captain and took over the ship but ended up at Long Island in New York.

They were sold as slaves before abolitionists took up their cause, paving the way for their freedom in 1841.

Spielberg made a 1997 film — “Amistad” — about the saga.

Notice how the AP does not mention that La Amistad was not an American slave ship? The fact is that while the ship was built in the U.S. — it was originally named The Friendship — it was purchased by a Spanish citizen living in Cuba and used to transport cargo among the Americas in costal trade. It was not an American owned ship when its captain decided to use it to transport slaves between Havana, Cuba and Puerto Principe, Cuba.

La Amistad was not a “slave ship” at all even though its cargo during its time in the eyes of history was a shipment of slaves. La Amistad was not a slaver but was a standard-built cargo ship. Slave ships were specially built for that trade with decks arranged close together so that more slaves could be transported at once. La Amistad was not a slaver’s ship.

The true history of this foreign owned ship is not quite as simple as the AP wants to paint it. Its Spanish owner had arranged to transport some slaves between Havana and Puerto Principe and during the voyage the slaves mutinied, killed the crew, took control of the ship, and ended up in U.S. waters near Long Island, New York. The importation of slaves was already illegal in the U.S. by 1839 and the case ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court which famously ruled that the slaves be freed in 1841. The freed slaves returned to Africa the following year. It was a sort of trial of the century in its day. The Spielberg movie had nothing to do with its fame.

None of these facts are in the AP story, sadly. Unfortunately, a full read of the AP story leads folks to assume that La Amistad was an American slave ship and does not tell any part of the story where the U.S. government freed those slaves.

But, perhaps the goal wasn’t to tell a full story, but was instead an effort not to tell that story so that a misconception is fostered by readers? And if it isn’t outright bias, it is certainly poor writing.

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