Part I compares the nineteenth century cases of the Antelope and the Amistad to identify why they resulted in different outcomes despite having similar fact patterns. The Antelope concerned the fate of approximately 280 African captives discovered on a slave trade ship upon its interception by a U.S. revenue cutter. Since the slave trade in the United States was illegal at the time, the captives were transported to Savannah for trial through which their status—free or slave—would be determined. After a lengthy trial and appeals process in which Spain and Portugal laid claim to the captives, the Supreme Court determined that those captives claimed by a non-U.S. nation were slaves. The Court reasons that however “abhorrent” the slave trade was, the United States was obligated to recognize the rights of other nations to participate in it. In comparison, the Amistad concerned the fate of captives aboard a slave trade ship in which the captives committed mutiny, attempted to sail to Africa, but were captured by a U.S. vessel. The Supreme Court ordered them free despite the Spanish government’s claim that the captives were its property. Part I explores these different outcomes and argues that the absence of Antelope captives’ stories in the litigation process was partly due to the decision to isolate captives in slavery before their status was determined. In particular, it argues that this isolation affected the outcome of the Antelope by preventing captives from sharing their anecdotes and translating them to a format that would resonate with their legal counsel, the public, and judges. In contrast, the Amistad captives, while also detained, were situated close to those who could help them. They were able to transform their truths into a winning narrative for the court by understanding and leveraging the talents and expertise of counsel, and the biases of judges and the public.
Part II argues that 200 years later, a similar environment of isolation suppresses the stories of another group with undetermined legal status: asylum seekers. Although slave ship captives were forced into the country with chains, while asylum seekers are driven into the country by fear, the legal status of both groups in their respective time periods was undetermined upon their arrival. Both groups deserved, by legal and moral standards, the opportunity to present the truth behind their arrival and to prove their legal status. Part II argues that the detention of asylum seekers mirrors the isolation of the Antelope captives by removing detainees from those most able to help them develop a persuasive narrative truth. Detention silences important voices, aggravates ineffective representation, damages public perception, and ultimately harms case outcomes.
Distant Voices Then and Now: The Impact of Isolation on the Courtroom Narratives of Slave Ship Captives and Asylum Seekers,
Mich. J. Race & L.
Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjrl/vol23/iss1/5