Echo of Lions centers around the story of Joseph Cinque, the African who led the revolt against the Spanish slave traders. Most of the book focuses on the year-and-a-half of trials and appeals surrounding the revolt, which culminated in the Supreme Court case United States v. Amistad.
Ms. Chase-Riboud also stresses the role of President Martin Van Buren, remembered to history as an abolitionist. Van Buren called for the return of the ships and slaves to Cuba, and made arrangements for the immediate deportation of the slaves to Cuba if the district court ruled against them. After the District Court ruled in favor of the Africans and the Circuit Court affirmed that decision, President Van Buren ordered that the case be appealed to the Supreme Court. The book attributes Van Buren's strong stance to his re-election bid, and to his need to curry the favor of the Southern states, which at that time were still economically dependent upon a slave labor force. (The Supreme Court attributed the government's position to pressures from Spain.)
Echo of Lions starkly contrasts Van Buren's position with that of former President John Quincy Adams. Adams -- not typically portrayed in history as a strong advocate of abolition or slave rights -- returned from effective retirement to argue the Africans' case before the Supreme Court.
The first portion of Echo of Lions, in which Ms. Chase-Riboud describes the slaves' terror at sea, has been widely acclaimed as moving and powerful, even terrifying. Its deep level of historical detail has also been noted, both positively and negatively: one critic lauded her as a "thorough historian," but another bemoaned the book as full of "arcane historical detail." One critic complained that, while the African slaves were compellingly portrayed as a group, their individual characters -- aside from Joseph Cinque -- "blur."
As a work of "historical fiction," Echo of Lions contains some original characters and incidents. An African interpreter, James Covey, and an African-American woman, Vivian Braithwaite, play significant roles during the Africans' tribulations before the American justice system.