Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery and Smuggling

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A. Sue Weisler

Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery and Smuggling, written by Benjamin Lawrance, College of Liberal Arts

It was 2007 when Benjamin Lawrance, who had a fellowship at Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, held an 1840 letter from an African boy written to former President John Quincy Adams.

Lawrance, RIT’s Hon. Barber B. Conable Jr. Chair in International Studies, was struck by how rarely he heard stories directly from enslaved children and imagined that other former child slaves would have unique perspectives about their lives and their passage to liberty.

After years of research, including travels to archives and communities in England, Canada, Cuba and Sierra Leone, Lawrance, wrote Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery and Smuggling. He received support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The book is a deeply personal story of six African children, ages 9 to 16, showing their pain, suffering and survival, offering insight into the African child slave experience.

“I believe it is a great personal story about the largest forced migration in human history,” he said. “Children make for a very compelling retelling of the celebrated Amistad story. They were a critical and highly desirable constituency of 19th-century Atlantic slave-trading networks.”

Yale University Press released Amistad’s Orphans in December. Walter Hawthorne, of Michigan State University, describes it as “a fascinating revisionist history” that recounts the experiences of these young people through eyewitness testimonies, court records and the children’s own writings, casting a new light on the transatlantic slave trade of the 19th century.

The 416-page hardcover book and e-book are $85 and available through Amazon and the Yale University Press website. Go to