Tag Archives: Public Domain

Archival Fragment of the Amistad Revolt

Sometimes the best cure for archive fever is to share it with the world.

“Pa Raymond,” Sierra Leone Mission Album, box 2, p. 122, Records of the United Brethren in Christ Foreign Missionary Society, United Methodist Archives, Drew University.
I was reminded of the mundane joys of the archive again several months ago when, thanks to a tip from a colleague, I located an extremely rare photograph of one of the survivors of the Amistad slave revolt in the United Methodist Archives in New Jersey. It is difficult to tell whether the old man, called “Pa Raymond” on the reverse of the photo, is the real deal, but circumstantial evidence suggests that he might be Kale Walu, or “Little Kale,” who was just a boy when he was abducted and enslaved in West Africa in 1839. Kale (also spelled Kali or Carly) was the author of the famous “crazy dolts” letter, addressed to John Quincy Adams on the eve of their trial in the United States Supreme Court. He assumed the name George Lewis when he returned to Africa in 1842, part of an ongoing project to reinvent former slaves as anglicized Christians. As one of the youngest among the returning group, he was something of a surrogate son for abolitionist missionary William Raymond and may have taken his surname later in life. Pa is Krio for “father,” an honorific title for village elders.

The photo was probably taken sometime in the early 20th century by the United Brethren in Christ, who had inherited an abolitionist outpost, called the “Mendi Mission,” in what is now southwestern Sierra Leone. Almost all of the photos in the collection date from after the rebellion of 1898. When Canadian missionary Alexander Banfield encountered a man claiming to be an Amistad veteran during a tour of Sierra Leone in 1917 (likely the same man in this photo), he estimated the man was about 100 years old. Although my work does not really focus on the Amistad captives (I’m interested in the larger story of American abolitionists in Africa), it is bracing to look into the eyes of this man. Sole survivor. Adopted son of the missionary, traveling barefoot through the bush. White-haired patriarch, holding something mysterious with his right hand. What have those eyes seen? Where are they looking now?

Thanks to the generous (and underpaid and understaffed) archivists in New Jersey and the embattled public domain laws of the United States, I am able to share this treasure with the world (I think) for the first time. It belongs to the world. I am just returning it.

A Curious Artifact

Christopher Hitchens died last week. He was an arrogant and abrasive man and a souse. He was also a frightful intellect and a dazzling writer, capable of holding forth on any topic from oral sex to the ten commandments. One obituary writer describes him as “an excitingly dangerous orator.” Although I did not always agree with him, in a weird way, I felt sorry for him.

Some years ago, a friend and I organized a debate between Hitch and political scientist Michael Parenti. It was a learning experience. Even with support from a motley coalition of faculty and student groups, we managed to run a debt. A few weeks later, we graduated. My friend ended up in Venezuela, and I ended up in New Zealand.

When I learned that Hitch had died, I dusted off my DVD of the debate. Unfortunately, the quality was not great. There was a gap where the cameraman switched tapes, and the second tape ran out before the end of the event. So I had to do some creative editing. I swapped out the original soundtrack for a more complete audio recording and used Handbrake to encode to mp4. The original DV tapes from which I had authored the DVD were long gone, so I had to transcode from interlaced mpeg2. I think, in retrospect, it would have been better to convert the VOBs to DV using ffmpegX, edit the DV stream in Final Cut or Quicktime, and then export to mp4. If you ever need to extract and remaster a DVD, this is the method I would recommend. By the time I figured this out, however, I had already invested too much in the direct-to-mp4 method.

Surprisingly, uploading to YouTube was the hardest part. YouTube’s transcoding engine did not care for my spliced edits, which introduced several different tracks and bitrates. The mp4 container is wonderfully robust, capable of supporting a range of tracks and even chapter markers, but it took four days of uploads before I found a way to merge everything together in a way that YouTube would accept. The resulting copy is less than spectacular, but it’s better than nothing. The timecode at the very end is still corrupted somehow. Since mp4 is YouTube’s container of choice, I find it frustrating that they insist on running videos through an additional layer of encoding, over which I have no control. Why not provide their specs and allow users to upload directly to the back end with little or no downsampling?

The video is freely available under a Creative Commons license. A curious historical document, like Hitch, it now belongs to the ages (but definitely not to the angels).