A Slave's Gripping Odyssey

ECHO OF LIONS By Barbara Chase-Riboud, New York: William Morrow & Co. Inc., 376 pp. $19.95. LIKE the drug lords of today, the slave traders of the 19th century were lawless men of power and greed, supplying a desired though often illegal commodity to the New World.

The slave trade was outlawed by Great Britain in 1807, and by the attending members of the Congress of Vienna in 1814, yet it flourished well into the mid-19th century. High profits and the lack of an adequate naval patrol encouraged its continued practice. Within this framework of the kidnapping and enslavement of thousands of West African blacks and their brutal transportation to North America, Barbara Chase-Riboud unfolds the history of Joseph Cinque in her new novel, ``Echo of Lions.'' Her tale is horrible and true.

In 1839, Sengbe Pieh was kidnapped by Spanish slavers, taken to the coast of West Africa in shackles and loaded on board a slave ship bound for Havana. There he was purchased by a Spaniard and his name changed to Joseph Cinque.

On board the Spaniard's ship, he led a revolt with the other 60 newly purchased slaves. They slew the ship's crew, and demanded that the Spaniard navigate the ship back to Africa. The Spaniard guided the ship east by day, and by night returned to hug the coast of North America. After 56 days, the ship came to rest off Montauk, N.Y., and Joseph Cinque became the central figure in an extended trial to determine the Africans' legal status as free men or slaves, and of which crimes, if any, they were guilty.

Chase-Riboud complements the facts of Cinque's story with precise and evocative prose. The actual trial speeches are explosively dramatic. The author heightens their impact with finely drawn details about the crowds, the lawyers, and the Africans engaged in this struggle. It became the abolitionists' cause c'el`ebre. The disruption and terror the blacks experienced during their capture, enslavement, and subsequent trial is gut-wrenching.

``Echo of Lions'' is full of carefully and clearly defined characters. The portrait of beleaguered John Quincy Adams, fighting for the abolition of slavery in the House of Representatives, is particularly adept. Hedge-sitting President Van Buren is no less finely drawn. To the Africans in ``Echo of Lions,'' though, the author brings a particular vividness.

This is Barbara Chase-Riboud's best work, to date. A thorough historian, she has risen to the demands of her subject. She presents the issue of slavery not as a black and white issue, but as one of an ennobling right striving against a corrupting wrong. Joseph Cinque's life story resounds in our ears and minds ``as when a lion roareth.''

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