Filed Under Film

The Newport Colony House and Amistad

In March 1997, the Newport Saint Patrick’s Day Parade was rerouted so that a group of Mende tribesmen could be tried for murder in the Colony House. However, parade music was still audible inside the courtroom, and the filming of Stephen Spielberg’s Amistad had to be postponed until the afternoon.

Amistad is based on the 1839 story of Sierra Leone tribesmen, kidnapped as slaves, who staged a mutiny. The mutineers ordered the crew to return them to Africa, but the navigator instead sailed to New England. Importing slaves had been illegal since 1808, but since the Mende couldn’t talk with their captors, authorities presumed them to be American-born runaway slaves. The Mende were arrested and tried for murder in New Haven, Connecticut. While imprisoned, they taught a Yale linguist, Josiah Willard Gibbs, how to count to ten in Mende. Gibbs walked along the docks counting until a Mende sailor looked up. With the sailor serving as a translator, the men told their story and were set free.

In Amistad, Newport’s Washington Square stands in for the New Haven Green, with Colony House serving as the courthouse. Djimon Hounsou starred as Cinque, leader of the Mende, and Anthony Hopkins played an astute John Quincy Adams.  Matthew McConaughey played the Mende’s lawyer, Roger Sherman Baldwin; Stellan Skarsgård was Lewis Tappan, an abolitionist who supported the Mende; and Morgan Freeman was cast as fictional abolitionist Theodore Joadson. The film crew used the first floor of the Colony House for staging, while the second and third floors became the court. Secondary locations included Queen Anne Square and Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Newport’s Point neighborhood. During filming, McConaughey was often spotted at Newport’s bars.

The film encountered modern-day challenges beyond parades. Heavy wind turned the dirt used to cover modern asphalt roads into billowing clouds. The barely clothed actors portraying the Africans suffered in the cold. They covered themselves with blankets between takes although Spielberg reportedly wanted them to look genuinely cold. Newport’s changing weather posed a lighting issue for interior scenes. To handle fluctuations, the film crew mounted giant, adjustable screens on the outside of the building.

Visitors can still tour the Colony House, now operated by the Newport Historical Society. Though not the site of the actual Amistad trial, the Colony House has served many purposes since its construction in 1736. The Declaration of Independence was read on its steps, the British Army resided in the building during the Revolutionary War, and it served as the statehouse of Rhode Island until 1901. 


"Give us Free", 1997 Cinque, played by Djimon Hounsou, demands his freedom in this scene shot in Newport's Colony House. Date: 1997
"Flashback" to the filming of Amistad in Newport, 2015 Rhode Island television station NBC 10 WJAR remembers the Newport filming of Amistad eighteen years later. Date: 2015


<em>Amistad</em> theatrical release poster, 1997
Amistad theatrical release poster, 1997 The cast of Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, included Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, and Matthew McConaughey. Date: 1997
Filming <em>Amistad</em> at the Newport Colony House
Filming Amistad at the Newport Colony House Giant mesh screens moderated the natural light coming through the windows of the Newport Colony House. Source: Available online at Date: 1997
Death of Capt. Ferrer, the Captain of the Amistad, 1840
Death of Capt. Ferrer, the Captain of the Amistad, 1840 This depiction of the rebellion by the captives held aboard the Amistad was published in John W. Barber's 1840, A History of the Amistad Captives. Source: Barber, John W. History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the .. Gale, Making Of Modern Law, 2012. Date: 1840
Filming outside the Newport Colony House
Filming outside the Newport Colony House Filming for Amistad took place inside the Newport Colony House and on Washington Square, which was covered with dirt for a more realistic 19th century appearance. Source: Available online at Date: 1997


Washington Square, Newport, RI 02840


Jeremy Wolin, “The Newport Colony House and Amistad,” Rhode Tour, accessed May 20, 2024,