Amistadt Slave Rebellion - History

Amistadt Slave Rebellion - History

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1839- Amistad Slave Rebellion

In July 1839 slaves rebelled on the Spanish slaveship Amistad. They seized the ship that was eventually captured by the US navy off of Long Island. The slaves were charged with murder of the captain of the Amistad. The case rose all the way to the Supreme Court were former President Adams appeared on behalf of the former slaves. The Supreme Court freed the defendents and a year later they returned to Africa.

At 4:00 AM on July 2, 1839 20 miles off the shore of Cuba, Cinque led a slave mutiny aboard the Spanish vessel "Amistad". They killed all but two of the crew. Instead of sailing back to Africa the ship ended off Long Island. There it was captured by the USS Washington. The slaves were seized and imprisoned. The owners of the slaves began proceedings to obtain the return of the their "property". Attorney Roger Baldwin was hired to defend the slaves. He based his argument on the fact that the slaves were not born in Cuba, but had been kidnaped from Africa, thus their slavery was illegal. The slaves according to Baldwin had the "natural right" to be free thus they were just acting in self defense. The US government took the position that the slaves needed to be returned under the terms of the Pinckney Treaty. The former slaves demanded their freedom under a writ of Habes Corpus. That was denied by Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Smith Thompson. He stated in his decision that it was up to the district court to decide if the slaves were property or not. The presiding judge in the case was Andrew T Judson. He rendered an opinion that the slaves had been illegally kidnapped and should be returned to Africa. The government was surprised by the decision, and appealed the decision. The appeal court upheld the decision. The government then appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court. The abolitionist then requested 73 year old former President John Quincy Adams present the case to the court. He agreed. Adams delivered an emotional eight hour appeal to the court asking the the African be set free. Justice Story wrote to his wife about Adams arguments: "extraordinary for its power, for its bitter sarcasm, and its dealing with topics far beyond the records and points of discussion." The Supreme Court rendered an opinion in favor the Africans and they were set free.

Supreme Court rules on Amistad slave ship mutiny case

At the end of a historic case, the U.S. Supreme Court rules, with only one dissent, that the enslaved Africans who seized control of the Amistad slave ship had been illegally forced into slavery, and thus are free under American law.

In 1807, the U.S. Congress joined with Great Britain in abolishing the African slave trade, although the trading of enslaved people within the U.S. was not prohibited. Despite the international ban on the importation of enslaved Africans, Cuba continued to transport captive Africans to its sugar plantations until the 1860s, and Brazil to its coffee plantations until the 1850s.

On June 28, 1839, 53 enslaved people recently captured in Africa left Havana, Cuba, aboard the Amistad schooner for a life of slavery on a sugar plantation at Puerto Principe, Cuba. Three days later, Sengbe Pieh, a Membe African known as Cinque, freed himself and the other enslaved people and planned a mutiny. Early in the morning of July 2, in the midst of a storm, the Africans rose up against their captors and, using sugar-cane knives found in the hold, killed the captain of the vessel and a crewmember. Two other crewmembers were either thrown overboard or escaped, and Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, the two Cubans who had purchased the enslaved people, were captured. Cinque ordered the Cubans to sail the Amistad east back to Africa. During the day, Ruiz and Montes complied, but at night they would turn the vessel in a northerly direction, toward U.S. waters. After almost nearly two difficult months at sea, during which time more than a dozen Africans perished, what became known as the 𠇋lack schooner” was first spotted by American vessels.

On August 26, the USS Washington, a U.S. Navy brig, seized the Amistad off the coast of Long Island and escorted it to New London, Connecticut. Ruiz and Montes were freed, and the Africans were imprisoned pending an investigation of the Amistad revolt. The two Cubans demanded the return of their supposedly Cuban-born enslaved people, while the Spanish government called for the Africans’ extradition to Cuba to stand trial for piracy and murder. In opposition to both groups, American abolitionists advocated the return of the illegally bought enslaved people to Africa.

The story of the Amistad mutiny garnered widespread attention, and U.S. abolitionists succeeded in winning a trial in a U.S. court. Before a federal district court in Connecticut, Cinque, who was taught English by his new American friends, testified on his own behalf. On January 13, 1840, Judge Andrew Judson ruled that the Africans were illegally enslaved, that they would not be returned to Cuba to stand trial for piracy and murder, and that they should be granted free passage back to Africa. The Spanish authorities and U.S. President Martin Van Buren appealed the decision, but another federal district court upheld Judson’s findings. President Van Buren, in opposition to the abolitionist faction in Congress, appealed the decision again.

On February 22, 1841, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing the Amistad case. U.S. Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, who served as the sixth president of the United States from 1825 to 1829, joined the Africans’ defense team. In Congress, Adams had been an eloquent opponent of slavery, and before the nation’s highest court he presented a coherent argument for the release of Cinque and the 34 other survivors of the Amistad.

On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled that the Africans had been illegally enslaved and had thus exercised a natural right to fight for their freedom. In November, with the financial assistance of their abolitionist allies, the Amistad Africans departed America aboard the Gentleman on a voyage back to West Africa. Some of the Africans helped establish a Christian mission in Sierra Leone, but most, like Cinque, returned to their homelands in the African interior. One of the survivors, who was a child when taken aboard the Amistad, eventually returned to the United States. Originally named Margru, she studied at Ohio’s integrated and coeducational Oberlin College in the late 1840s, before returning to Sierra Leone as evangelical missionary Sara Margru Kinson.

The Amistad Mutiny, 1839

The Amistad Mutiny occurred on the Spanish schooner La Amistad on July 2, 1839. The incident began In February 1839 when Portuguese slave hunters illegally seized 53 Africans in Sierra Leone, a British colony, whom they intended to sell in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Several weeks into the slave-raiding trip, the 53, along with 500 other captured Africans were loaded on to the Tecora, a Portuguese slave ship. After a two month voyage the Tecora landed in Havana, Cuba. There Jose Ruiz purchased 49 adult slaves and Pedro Montes bought four children. Ruiz and Montes wanted to bring the slaves to the sugar plantations in Puerto Principe (now Camaguey), Cuba where they would resell them. The slave merchants boarded the 53 African captives on the Amistad which departed from Havana, Cuba on June 28, 1839.

Because the captives on the ship experienced harsh treatment by their captors, four days into the voyage on July 2, 1839, one of them, Joseph Cinqué (also known as Sengbe Pieh), freed himself. After freeing other captives and helping them find weapons, Cinqué led them to the upper deck where they killed the ship’s cook, Celestino. They then killed the ship’s captain, Ramon Ferrer, although in the attack two captives died as well. Two Amistad crew members escaped from the ship by boat. Ruiz and Montes were spared during the revolt on the promise that they would sail the Amistad back to Sierra Leone as captives demanded.

Instead they sailed the ship toward the United States. Along the way several Africans died from dysentery and dehydration. On August 26, 1839, the Amistad landed off the eastern end of Long Island, New York at Culloden Point where a U.S. Navy ship took it into custody. Ruiz and Montes were freed while the surviving Africans were arrested and imprisoned at New London, Connecticut.

When the Spanish embassy claimed the African captives were slaves and demanded their return to Cuba, a trial ensued on January 1840 in a federal court in Hartford, Connecticut. The judge ruled that the Africans were illegally brought to Cuba since Great Britain, Spain, and the United States signed agreements outlawing the international slave trade. Under pressure from Southern slaveholders, however, U.S. President Martin Van Buren appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that anti-piracy agreements with Spain compelled the U.S. to return the Africans to Cuba. Meanwhile Northern Presbyterian and Congregational denominations led by abolitionist Lewis Tappin organized the Amistad Committee in New York City to support the legal defense of the Africans. Former President John Quincy Adams, then a Massachusetts Congressman, agreed to represent the Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling in The United States v. The Amistad with a 7-1 decision declaring that the captives were illegally kidnapped and thus were free. Soon afterwards Northern abolitionists raised funds to pay for African men and boys, and three girls, to return to Sierra Leone. On November 25, 1841, the surviving Amistad captives departed from New York harbor for Sierra Leone. They were accompanied by James Covey, a British sailor and former slave who spoke their language, and five white missionaries, all sailing on the Gentleman. The British governor of Sierra Leone, William Fergusson, led the colony in welcoming the captives when they arrived in Freetown, in January 1842.

The Deception

The crew deceived the Africans and sailed North at night in order to draw attention to themselves by the Americans. They anchored off of Montauk, Long Island to get supplies, and were intercepted by the USS Washington. Lieutenant Thomas Gedney of the USS Washington took custody of the Amistad and the Africans.

The Amistad being spotted by the USS Washington

Gedney purposely took them to Connecticut where slavery was still legal, in an attempt to profit off of his findings. He gave up the Africans to the US District Court of Connecticut.

Amistadt Slave Rebellion - History

In early 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of African people in Sierra Leone and transported them aboard the slave ship Tecora to Havana, Cuba, for auction to the highest bidder. Two Spaniards, Don Pedro Montez and Don Jose Ruiz, purchased 53 of the captives (members of the Mende people) in Havana and loaded them aboard the schooner Amistad for a trip to a nearby plantation. Just three days into the journey, however, the would-be slaves revolted, when 25-year-old Sengbe Pieh (known as Cinque) escaped from his shackles and set about releasing the other captives.

The Mende killed members of the ship’s crew, including the captain, and ordered Montez and Ruiz to sail for Africa. The ship sailed east during the day, using the sun’s position to determine its direction, but at night, the slave traders quietly redirected their course away from Africa. This process continued for over two months until, on August 24, 1839, the Amistad reached Long Island, New York. There the federal brig Washington seized the ship and its cargo.

American authorities charged the Mende with murder, imprisoned them in New Haven, Connecticut, and towed the Amistad to New London.

Local Courts and International Relations

Upon learning of the capture of the Amistad, Spain’s foreign minister argued that the holding of the ship and its cargo constituted a violation of a 1795 treaty between the United States and Spain, and he demanded their return. Fear of inflaming relations with Spain induced President Martin Van Buren to acquiesce, but Secretary of State John Forsyth stepped in and explained that, by law, an executive, such as the president of the United States, did not have the power to interfere in judicial proceedings. The American court system needed to decide the fate of the Mende captives.

At a US Circuit Court trial in Hartford, a judge ruled in favor of dropping murder and conspiracy charges against the enslaved Mende, but felt that competing property claims filed by the Spanish, as well as the crew of the Washington, fell under the jurisdiction of the Federal District Court. A district court judge then ruled that, as former free men living in Africa, the Spanish had no right to enslave the Mende. He ordered the captives released and returned to Africa. Once again, however, considerations of international diplomacy complicated the case. Under pressure from the Spanish government, Van Buren’s administration ordered an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court began hearing the case in January of 1841. American abolitionists rallied to the defense of the Mende, raising money to hire future Connecticut governor Roger Sherman Baldwin and former US president John Quincy Adams to represent them in court. Arguing in favor of the basic rights of human beings, Adams and Baldwin convinced the court to set the Mende free. The decision came in March of 1841, and later that year, five American missionaries and the 35 remaining Mende (18 having died at different stages of their voyage or while in prison) sailed for Sierra Leone.


Cinqué was born c. 1814 in what is now Sierra Leone. His exact date of birth remains unknown. He was a rice farmer, and married with three children, when he was captured illegally by African slave traders in 1839 and sold to Pedro Blanco, a Spanish slave trader. He was imprisoned on the Portuguese slave ship Tecora, in violation of treaties prohibiting the international slave trade. Cinqué was taken to Havana, Cuba, where he was sold with 110 others to Spaniards José Ruiz and Pedro Montez.

The Spaniards arranged to transport the captives on the coastal schooner Amistad, with the intention of selling them as slaves at ports along the coast in Cuba for work at sugar plantations. On June 30, Cinqué led a revolt, killing the captain and the cook of the ship two slaves also died, and two sailors escaped. The Africans took Ruiz and Montez, the merchants who had purchased them, as prisoners and demanded that they direct the ship back to Sierra Leone. Instead, at night, they directed the navigator in the opposite direction, toward the Americas, in the hope of attracting the attention of one of their fellow Spaniards who would save their ship and regain control. The ship had an uneven course between the coasts of the United States and Africa. After about two months, Amistad reached United States waters near Long Island, New York. Members of the USS Washington boarded the vessel. When they discovered what had happened (according to the Spaniards), they charged the Africans with mutiny and murder. The ship and the Mende were taken to New Haven, Connecticut to await trial.

The two Spaniards claimed that the Africans had been born in Cuba and were already slaves at the time of their purchase, and were therefore legal property. Interpreters from Mende to English were found, who enabled the Africans to tell their story to attorneys and the court. Cinqué served as the group's informal representative.

After the case was ruled in favor of the Africans in the district and circuit courts, the case was appealed by the Spanish parties, including its government, to the Supreme Court of the United States. In March 1841, the Supreme Court ruled that the Africans mutinied to regain their freedom after being kidnapped and sold illegally. The advocacy of former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, [2] together with Roger Sherman Baldwin, was critical to the Africans' defense. The court ordered the Africans freed and returned to Africa, if they wished. This decision was against the protests of President Martin Van Buren, who worried about relations with Spain and implications for domestic slavery.

Cinqué and the other Mende reached their homeland in 1842. In Sierra Leone, Cinqué encountered civil war. He and his company maintained contact with the local mission for a while, but Cinqué left to trade along the coast. Little is known of his later life, and rumors circulated. Some maintained that he had moved to Jamaica. [3] Others held that he had become a merchant or a chief, perhaps trading in slaves himself. [4]

The latter charge derived from oral accounts from Africa cited by the twentieth-century author William A. Owens, who claimed that he had seen letters from AMA missionaries suggesting Cinqué was a slave trader. More recently historians such as Howard Jones in 2000 and Joseph Yannielli in 2009 have argued that, although some of the Africans associated with the Amistad probably did engage in the slave trade upon their return, given the nature of the regional economy at the time, the allegations of Cinqué's involvement seem implausible in view of the lack of evidence, and the unlikelihood of a conspiracy of silence leaving no traces. [5]

Amistad: How it Began

Oil painting of the Amistad off the coast of Long Island.

The Amistad’s story began in 1839 when slave hunters captured large numbers of native Africans near Mendeland in present-day Sierre Leone. These captives were sent to Havana, Cuba to be sold into slavery. Two Spanish plantation owners, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez, bought 53 African captives in Havana. They then began preparations to transport the captives on the schooner La Amistad to their plantations near Porto Principe in Cuba.

Three days into the trek a 25-year old Mendi man, Sengbe Pieh (also known as Joseph Cinque), was able to unshackle himself and the others. They took control of the schooner by killing the captain and the cook, and ordered Ruiz and Montez to sail east to the rising sun - towards Africa. Rather than comply, Ruiz and Montez secretly changed course at night. They sailed the schooner around the Caribbean and eventually up the East Coast of the United States.

On August 24, 1839, the U.S. brig Washington seized the vessel off of Montauk Point in Long Island, New York. Pieh and his companions escaped the ship, but were caught onshore by private citizens. Pieh and the others were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut on charges of murder and piracy. They were further claimed as salvage property by the men who captured them.

Then-President Martin Van Buren received a request from Spain that the African captives be returned to Cuba under international treaty. If Van Buren complied he could be seen as interfering with the judicial process and the Constitutional separation of powers. If he let the judicial process continue he risked a court decision that would free the captives. This decision would anger Southern, pro-slavery voters that Van Buren relied on for an upcoming election.

The judicial process moved forward.

At the heart of the battle was the legality of slavery in both Spain and the United States. At the time slavery and the slave trade was legal in Spain if those enslaved were Spanish or were from Spanish territories. Sengbe Pieh and the other captives were bought and sold in Cuba, which was then a Spanish territory. However, they were kidnapped from a non-Spanish territory in Africa. The importation of enslaved Africans was made illegal in the United States in 1807.

What followed would set off a 2 year-long legal battle that would reach the Supreme Court. Questions around the case centered on citizenship. Were the African captives Spanish citizens? If so, they would return to Ruiz and Montez in Cuba and be enslaved. Or were they kidnapped illegally from Africa? If so they would return to Africa as free men.

This is just one story associated with the Amistad event. To learn more, please visit the main Stories page of this travel itinerary.

“John Quincy Adams and the Amistad Event” pamphlet produced by Adams National Historical Park.


Rebellion at sea and capture Edit

On June 27, 1839, La Amistad ("Friendship"), a Spanish vessel, departed from the port of Havana, Cuba (then a Spanish colony), for the Province of Puerto Principe, also in Cuba. The masters of La Amistad were the ship's captain Ramón Ferrer, José Ruiz, and Pedro Montes, all Spanish nationals. With Ferrer was Antonio, a man enslaved by Ferrer to serve him personally. Ruiz was transporting 49 Africans, entrusted to him by the governor-general of Cuba. Montez held four additional Africans, also entrusted to him by the governor-general. [4] As the voyage normally took only four days, the crew had brought four days' worth of rations, not anticipating the strong headwind that slowed the schooner. On July 2, 1839, one of the Africans, Cinqué, freed himself and the other captives using a file that had been found and kept by a woman who, like them, had been on the Tecora (the Portuguese ship that had transported them illegally as slaves from West Africa to Cuba).

The Mende killed the ship's cook, Celestino, who had told them that they were to be killed and eaten by their captors. The Mende also killed Captain Ferrer the armed struggle resulted as well in the deaths of two Africans. Two sailors escaped in a lifeboat. The Mende spared the lives of the two Spaniards who could navigate the ship, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, upon the condition that they would return the ship east back across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. They also spared Antonio, a creole, [5] and used him as an interpreter with Ruiz and Montez. [6]

The crew deceived the Africans and steered La Amistad north along the East Coast of the United States, where the ship was sighted repeatedly. They dropped anchor half a mile off eastern Long Island, New York, on August 26, 1839, at Culloden Point. Some of the Africans went ashore to procure water and provisions from the hamlet of Montauk. The vessel was discovered by the United States Revenue Cutter Service ship USS Washington. Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, commanding the USRCS cutter (ship), saw some of the Africans on shore and, assisted by his officers and crew, took custody of La Amistad and the Africans. [7]

Taking them to the Long Island Sound port of New London, Connecticut, he presented officials with a written claim for his property rights under international admiralty law for salvage of the vessel, the cargo, and the Africans. Gedney allegedly chose to land in Connecticut because slavery was still technically legal there, under the state's gradual abolition law, unlike in nearby New York State. He hoped to profit from sale of the Africans. [8] Gedney transferred the captured Africans into the custody of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, at which time legal proceedings began. [4]

Parties Edit

  • Lt Thomas R. Gedney filed a libel (a lawsuit in admiralty law) for salvage rights to the African captives and cargo on board La Amistad as property seized on the high seas. [4]
  • Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham filed a libel for salvage, claiming that they had been the first to discover La Amistad. [4]
  • José Ruiz and Pedro Montes filed libels requesting that their property of "slaves" and cargo be returned to them. [4]
  • The Office of the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, representing the Spanish Government, libelled that the "slaves", cargo, and vessel be returned to Spain as its property. [9]
  • Antonio Vega, vice-consul of Spain, libelled for "the slave Antonio," on the grounds that this man was his personal property. [10]
  • The Africans denied that they were slaves or property, and argued that the court could not "return" them to the control of the government of Spain. [10]
  • José Antonio Tellincas, with Aspe and Laca, claimed other goods on board La Amistad. [11] [clarification needed]

British pressure Edit

As the British had entered into a treaty with Spain prohibiting the slave trade south of the equator, they considered it a matter of international law that the United States release the Africans. They applied diplomatic pressure to achieve this, including invoking the Treaty of Ghent with the US, which jointly enforced their respective prohibitions against the international slave trade.

While the legal battle continued, Dr. Richard R. Madden, "who served on behalf of the British commission to suppress the African slave trade in Havana," arrived to testify. [12] He made a deposition "that some twenty-five thousand slaves were brought into Cuba every year – with the wrongful compliance of, and personal profit by, Spanish officials." [12] Madden also "told the court that his examinations revealed that the defendants were brought directly from Africa and could not have been residents of Cuba," as the Spanish had claimed. [12] [ page needed ] Madden (who later had an audience with Queen Victoria concerning the case) conferred with the British Minister in Washington, D.C., Henry Stephen Fox, who pressured U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth on behalf "of her Majesty's Government." [13]

. Great Britain is also bound to remember that the law of Spain, which finally prohibited the slave-trade throughout the Spanish dominions, from the date of the 30th of May, 1820, the provisions of which law are contained in the King of Spain's royal cedula of the 19th December, was passed, in compliance with a treaty obligation to that effect, by which the Crown of Spain had bound itself to the Crown of Great Britain, and for which a valuable compensation, in return, was given by Great Britain to Spain as may be seen by reference to the 2d, 3d, and 4th articles of a public treaty concluded between Great Britain and Spain on the 23d of September, 1817.

It is next to be observed, that Great Britain and the United States have mutually engaged themselves to each other, by the 10th article of the treaty of Ghent, to use their best endeavors for the entire abolition of the African slave-trade and there can be no doubt of the firm intention of both parties religiously to fulfill the terms of that engagement.

Now, the unfortunate Africans whose case is the subject of the present representation, have been thrown by accidental circumstances into the hands of the authorities of the United States Government whether these persons shall recover the freedom to which they are entitled, or whether they shall be reduced to slavery, in violation of known laws and contracts publicly passed, prohibiting the continuance of the African slave-trade by Spanish subjects.

It is under these circumstance that her Majesty's Government anxiously hope that the President of the United States will find himself empowered to take such measures, in behalf of the aforesaid Africans, as shall secure to them the possession of their liberty, to which, without doubt they are by law entitled. [13]

Forsyth responded that under the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, the President could not influence the court case. He said that the question of whether the "negroes of the Amistad" had been enslaved in violation of the Treaty was still an open one, "and this Government would with great reluctance erect itself into a tribunal to investigate such questions between two friendly sovereigns." [13] He noted that when the facts were determined, they could be taken into account. He suggested that if the Court found for Spanish rights of property, the Africans would be returned to Cuba. At that point, Great Britain and Spain could argue their questions of law and treaties between them. [13]

Spanish argument Edit

Secretary of State Forsyth requested from the Spanish Minister, Chevalier de Argaiz, "a copy of the laws now in force in the island of Cuba relative to slavery." [13] In response, the Captain General of Cuba sent Argaiz "everything on the subject, which had been determined since the treaty concluded in 1818 between Spain and England". [13] The Minister also expressed dismay that the Africans had not already been returned to Spanish control. [13]

The Spanish maintained that none but a Spanish court could have jurisdiction over the case. The Spanish minister stated "I do not, in fact, understand how a foreign court of justice can be considered competent to take cognizance of an offence committed on board of a Spanish vessel, by Spanish subjects, and against Spanish subjects, in the waters of a Spanish territory for it was committed on the coasts of this island, and under the flag of this nation." [13] The Minister noted that the Spanish had recently turned over American sailors "belonging to the crew of the American vessel 'William Engs'", whom it had tried by request of their captain and the American consul. The sailors had been found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to "four years' confinement in a fortress." [13] Other American sailors had protested this and when the American ambassador raised the issue with the Spaniards, on March 20, 1839 "her Majesty, having taken into consideration all the circumstances, decided that the said seamen should be placed at the disposition of the American consul, seeing that the offence was committed in one of the vessels and under the flag of his nation, and not on shore." [13] The Spaniards asked how, if America had demanded that these sailors in an American ship be turned over to them despite being in a Spanish port, they could now try the Spanish mutineers.

The Spaniards held that just as America had ended its importation of African slaves but maintained a legal domestic population, so too had Cuba. It was up to Spanish courts to determine "whether the Negroes in question" were legal or illegal slaves under Spanish law, "but never can this right justly belong to a foreign country." [13]

The Spaniards maintained that, even if it was believed that the Africans were being held as slaves in violation of "the celebrated treaty of humanity concluded between Spain and Great Britain in 1835", this would be a violation of "the laws of Spain and the Spanish Government, being as scrupulous as any other in maintaining the strict observance of the prohibitions imposed on, or the liberties allowed to, its subjects by itself, will severely chastise those of them who fail in their duties." [13]

The Spaniards pointed out that by American law the jurisdiction over a

vessel on the high seas, in time of peace, engaged in a lawful voyage, is, according to the laws of nations, under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State to which her flag belongs as much so as if constituting a part of its own domain. . if such ship or vessel should be forced, by stress of weather, or other unavoidable cause, into the port and under the jurisdiction of a friendly Power, she, and her cargo, and persons on board, with their property, and all the rights belonging to their personal relations as established by the laws of the State to which they belong, would be placed under the protection which the laws of nations extend to the unfortunate under such circumstances. [13]

The Spaniards demanded that the U.S. "apply these proper principles to the case of the schooner Amistad." [13]

The Spanish were further encouraged that their view would win out when U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun and the Senate's Committee of Foreign Relations on April 15, 1840 issued a statement announcing complete "conformity between the views entertained by the Senate, and the arguments urged by the [Spanish Minister] Chevalier de Argaiz" concerning La Amistad. [13]

Applicable law Edit

The Spanish categorized the Africans as property to have the case fall under Pinckney's Treaty of 1795. They protested when Judge William Jay construed a statement by their Minister as seeming to demand "the surrender of the negroes apprehended on board the schooner Amistad, as murderers, and not as property that is to say founding his demand on the law of nations, and not on the treaty of 1795." [13]

The Spanish pointed out that the statement to which Jay was referring was one where the Spanish minister was "speaking of the crime committed by the negroes [slave revolt], and the punishment which they merit". They went on to point out that the Minister had stated that a payment to compensate the owners "would be a slender compensation for though the property should remain, as it ought to remain, unimpaired, public vengeance would be frustrated". [13]

Judge Jay took issue with the Spanish Minister's request that the Africans be turned over to Spanish authorities (which seemed to imply that they were fugitives instead of misbehaving property), because the 1795 treaty said that property should be restored directly to the control of its owners. The Spanish denied that this meant that the Minister had waived the contention that they were property.

By insisting that the case fell under the treaty of 1795, the Spanish were invoking the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which would put the clauses of the treaty above the state laws of Connecticut or New York, where the ship had been taken into custody, "no one who respects the laws of the country ought to oppose the execution of the treaty, which is the supreme law of the country." [13] The case was already in the federal district court.

The Spanish also sought to avoid talk about the Law of Nations, as some of their opponents argued that America had a duty under the Law of Nations to treat the Africans with the same deference they would accord any other foreign sailors.

John Quincy Adams later argued this issue before the Supreme Court in 1841, saying,

The Africans were in possession, and had the presumptive right of ownership they were in peace with the United States: . they were not pirates they were on a voyage to their native homes . the ship was theirs, and being in immediate communication with the shore, was in the territory of the State of New York or, if not, at least half the number were actually on the soil of New York, and entitled to all the provisions of the law of nations, and the protection and comfort which the laws of that State secure to every human being within its limits. [14]

When pressed with questions concerning the Law of Nations, the Spanish referred to a concept of Hugo Grotius (credited as one of the originators of the Law of Nations). [ clarification needed ] Specifically, they noted that "the usage, then, of demanding fugitives from a foreign Government, is confined . to crimes which affect the Government and such as are of extreme atrocity." [13]

Initial Court Proceedings Edit

A case before the circuit court in Hartford, Connecticut, was filed in September 1839, charging the Africans with mutiny and murder on La Amistad. The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction, because the alleged acts took place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters. [ citation needed ] It was entered into the docket books of the federal court as United States v. Cinque, et al. [15]

Various parties filed property claims with the district court to many of the African captives, to the ship, and to its cargo: Ruiz and Montez, Lieutenant Gedney, and Captain Henry Green (who had met the Africans while on shore on Long Island and claimed to have helped in their capture). The Spanish government asked that the ship, cargo and slaves be restored to Spain under the Pinckney treaty of 1795 between Spain and the United States. Article 9 of this treaty holds that "all ships and merchandises of what nature soever, which shall be rescued out of the hands of pirates or robbers on the high seas, . shall be restored, entire, to the true proprietor." The United States filed a claim on behalf of Spain. [ citation needed ]

The abolitionist movement had formed the "Amistad Committee", headed by New York City merchant Lewis Tappan, and had collected money to mount a defense of the Africans. Initially, communication with the Africans was difficult, since they spoke neither English nor Spanish. Professor J. Willard Gibbs, Sr. learned from the Africans to count to ten in their Mende language. He went to the docks of New York City, and counted aloud in front of sailors until he located a person able to understand and translate. He found James Covey, a twenty-year-old sailor on the British man-of-war HMS Buzzard. Covey was a former slave from West Africa. [16]

The abolitionists filed charges of assault, kidnapping, and false imprisonment against Ruiz and Montes. Their arrest in New York City in October 1839 had outraged pro-slavery rights advocates and the Spanish government. Montes immediately posted bail and went to Cuba. Ruiz, "more comfortable in a New England setting (and entitled to many amenities not available to the Africans), hoped to garner further public support by staying in jail. . Ruiz, however, soon tired of his martyred lifestyle in jail and posted bond. Like Montes, he returned to Cuba". [12] [ page needed ] Outraged, the Spanish minister Cavallero Pedro Alcántara Argaiz made "caustic accusations against America's judicial system and continued to condemn the abolitionist affront. Ruiz's imprisonment only added to Alcántara's anger, and he pressured Forsyth to seek ways to throw out the case altogether." [12] [ page needed ] The Spanish held that the bailbonds that the men had to acquire (so that they could leave jail and return to Cuba) caused them a grave financial burden, and "by the treaty of 1795, no obstacle or impediment [to leave the U.S.] should have [been] placed" in their way. [13]

On January 7, 1840, all the parties, with the Spanish minister representing Ruiz and Montes, appeared before the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut and presented their arguments. [17]

The abolitionists' main argument before the district court was that a treaty between Britain and Spain of 1817 and a subsequent pronouncement by the Spanish government had outlawed the slave trade across the Atlantic. They established that the slaves had been captured in Mendiland (also spelled Mendeland, current Sierra Leone) in Africa, sold to a Portuguese trader in Lomboko (south of Freetown) in April 1839, and taken to Havana illegally on a Portuguese ship. As the Africans were victims of illegal kidnapping, the abolitionists argued they were not slaves and were free to return to Africa. Their papers wrongly identified them as slaves who had been in Cuba since before 1820 (and were thus considered to have been born there as slaves). They contended that government officials in Cuba condoned such mistaken classifications. [ citation needed ]

Concerned about relations with Spain and his re-election prospects in the South, the Democratic President Martin Van Buren sided with the Spanish position. He ordered the schooner USS Grampus to New Haven Harbor to return the Africans to Cuba immediately after a favorable decision, before any appeals could be decided. [18]

The district court ruled in favor of the abolitionists and Africans' position. In January 1840, it ordered that the Africans be returned to their homeland by the U.S. government, and that one-third of La Amistad and its cargo be given to Lieutenant Gedney as salvage property. (The federal government had outlawed the slave trade between the U.S. and other countries in 1808 an 1818 law, as amended in 1819, provided for the return of all illegally traded slaves. [ citation needed ] ) The captain's personal slave Antonio was declared the rightful property of the captain's heirs and was ordered restored to Cuba. (Sterne said that he returned to Cuba willingly. [19] [ page needed ] Smithsonian sources say that he escaped to New York, [20] or to Canada, with the help of an abolitionist group). [ citation needed ]

In detail, the district court ruled as follows:

  • It rejected the claim of the U.S. Attorney, argued on behalf of the Spanish minister, for the restoration of the slaves. [17]
  • It dismissed the claims of Ruiz and Montez. [17]
  • It ordered that the captives be delivered to the custody of the President of the United States for transportation to Africa, since they were, in fact, legally free. [17]
  • It allowed the Spanish vice-consul to claim the slave Antonio. [17]
  • It allowed Lt. Gedney to claim one-third of the property on board La Amistad. [17]
  • It allowed Tellincas, Aspe, and Laca to claim one-third of the property. [17]
  • It dismissed the claims of Green and Fordham for salvage. [17]

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, by order of Van Buren, immediately appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Connecticut District. He challenged every part of the district court's ruling except the concession of the slave Antonio to the Spanish vice-consul. Tellincas, Aspe, and Laca also appealed to gain a greater portion of the salvage value. Ruiz and Montez, and the owners of La Amistad, did not appeal. [17]

The circuit court of appeals affirmed (upheld) the district court's decision in April 1840. [17] The U.S. Attorney appealed the federal government's case to the United States Supreme Court. [17]

Arguments before the Supreme Court Edit

On February 23, 1841, Attorney General Henry D. Gilpin began the oral argument phase before the Supreme Court. Gilpin first entered into evidence the papers of La Amistad, which stated that the Africans were Spanish property. Gilpin argued that the Court had no authority to rule against the validity of the documents. Gilpin contended that if the Africans were slaves (as indicated by the documents), then they must be returned to their rightful owner, in this case, the Spanish government. Gilpin's argument lasted two hours. [21]

John Quincy Adams, former president of the United States and at that time a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, had agreed to argue for the Africans. When it was time for him to argue, he said he felt ill-prepared. Roger Sherman Baldwin, who had already represented the captives in the lower cases, opened in his place. [21]

Baldwin, a prominent attorney, contended that the Spanish government was trying to manipulate the Court to return "fugitives". He argued that the Spanish government sought the return of slaves who had been freed by the district court but the Spanish government was not appealing the fact of their having been freed. Covering all the facts of the case, Baldwin spoke for four hours over the course of February 22 and 23. [21] (He was of no relation to Justice Baldwin of the Court.)

John Quincy Adams rose to speak on February 24. He reminded the court that it was a part of the judicial branch and not part of the executive. Introducing copies of correspondence between the Spanish government and the Secretary of State, he criticized President Martin Van Buren for his assumption of unconstitutional powers in the case: [21]

This review of all the proceedings of the Executive I have made with utmost pain, because it was necessary to bring it fully before your Honors, to show that the course of that department had been dictated, throughout, not by justice but by sympathy – and a sympathy the most partial and injust. And this sympathy prevailed to such a degree, among all the persons concerned in this business, as to have perverted their minds with regard to all the most sacred principles of law and right, on which the liberties of the United States are founded and a course was pursued, from the beginning to the end, which was not only an outrage upon the persons whose lives and liberties were at stake, but hostile to the power and independence of the judiciary itself. [21]

Adams argued that neither Pinckney's Treaty nor the Adams–Onís Treaty were applicable to the case. Article IX of Pinckney's Treaty referred only to property, and did not apply to people. As to The Antelope decision (10 Wheat. 124), which recognized "that possession on board of a vessel was evidence of property", [22] Adams said that did not apply either, since the precedent was established prior to the prohibition of the foreign slave trade by the United States. Adams concluded on March 1 after eight and one-half hours of speaking. (The Court had taken a recess following the death of Associate Justice Barbour). [21]

Attorney General Gilpin concluded oral argument with a three-hour rebuttal on March 2. [21] The Court retired to consider the case.

Supreme Court Edit

On March 9, Associate Justice Joseph Story delivered the Court's decision. Article IX of Pinckney's Treaty was ruled off topic since the Africans in question were never legal property. They were not criminals, as the U.S. Attorney's Office argued, but rather "unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board a certain vessel". [23] The documents submitted by Attorney General Gilpin were not evidence of property, but rather of fraud on the part of the Spanish government. Lt. Gedney and the USS Washington were to be awarded salvage from the vessel for having performed "a highly meritorious and useful service to the proprietors of the ship and cargo". [24] When La Amistad anchored near Long Island, however, the Court believed it to be in the possession of the Africans on board, who had never intended to become slaves. Therefore, the Adams-Onís Treaty did not apply, and the President was not required to return the Africans to Africa. [21]

In his judgment, Story wrote:

It is also a most important consideration, in the present case, which ought not to be lost sight of, that, supposing these African negroes not to be slaves, but kidnapped, and free negroes, the treaty with Spain cannot be obligatory upon them and the United States are bound to respect their rights as much as those of Spanish subjects. The conflict of rights between the parties, under such circumstances, becomes positive and inevitable, and must be decided upon the eternal principles of justice and international law. If the contest were about any goods on board of this ship, to which American citizens asserted a title, which was denied by the Spanish claimants, there could be no doubt of the right to such American citizens to litigate their claims before any competent American tribunal, notwithstanding the treaty with Spain. A fortiori, the doctrine must apply, where human life and human liberty are in issue, and constitute the very essence of the controversy. The treaty with Spain never could have intended to take away the equal rights of all foreigners, who should contest ther claims before any of our courts, to equal justice or to deprive such foreigners of the protection given them by other treaties, or by the general law of nations. Upon the merits of the case, then, there does not seem to us to be any ground for doubt, that these negroes ought to be deemed free and that the Spanish treaty interposes no obstacle to the just assertion of their rights. .

When the Amistad arrived, she was in possession of the negroes, asserting their freedom and in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves. In this view of the matter, that part of the decree of the district court is unmaintainable, and must be reversed.

The view which has been thus taken of this case, upon the merits, under the first point, renders it wholly unnecessary for us to give any opinion upon the other point, as to the right of the United States to intervene in this case in the manner already stated. We dismiss this, therefore, as well as several minor points made at the argument. .

Upon the whole, our opinion is, that the decree of the circuit court, affirming that of the district court, ought to be affirmed, except so far as it directs the negroes to be delivered to the president, to be transported to Africa, in pursuance of the act of the 3rd of March 1819 and as to this, it ought to be reversed: and that the said negroes be declared to be free, and be dismissed from the custody of the court, and go without delay. [24]

The Africans greeted the news of the Supreme Court's decision with joy. Abolitionist supporters took the survivors – 36 men and boys and three girls – to Farmington, a village considered "Grand Central Station" on the Underground Railroad. Their residents had agreed to have the Africans stay there until they could return to their homeland. Some households took them in supporters also provided barracks for them. [25] [26] [27]

The Amistad Committee instructed the Africans in English and Christianity, and raised funds to pay for their return home. One missionary was James Steele, an Oberlin graduate, previously one of the Lane Rebels. "In 1841 he joined the Amistad Mission to Mendhi, which returned freed slaves to Africa and worked to establish a mission there. However, Steele soon found that the Amistad captives belonged to seven different tribes, some at war with one another. All of the chiefs were slave traders and authorized to re-enslave freed persons. These findings led to the decision that the mission must start in Sierra Leone, under the protection of the British. [28]

Along with several missionaries, in 1842 the surviving 35 Africans returned to Sierra Leone, the other having died at sea or while awaiting trial. [29] The Americans constructed a mission in Mendiland. Numerous members of the Amistad Committee later founded the American Missionary Association, an evangelical organization which continued to support the Mendi mission. With leadership of black and white ministers from mostly Presbyterian and Congregational denominations, it was active in working for abolitionism in the United States and for the education of Blacks, sponsoring the founding of Howard University, among other institutions. After the American Civil War, it founded numerous schools and colleges for freedmen in the South. [ citation needed ]

In the following years, the Spanish government continued to press the US for compensation for the ship, cargo, and slaves. Several Southern lawmakers introduced resolutions into the United States Congress to appropriate money for such payment but failed to gain passage, although it was supported by presidents James K. Polk and James Buchanan.

Joseph Cinqué returned to Africa. In his final years, he was reported to have returned to the mission and re-embraced Christianity. [30] Recent historical research suggests that the allegations of Cinqué's later involvement in the slave trade are false. [31]

In the Creole case of 1841, the United States dealt with another ship rebellion similar to that of the Amistad.

Related laws Edit

The US prohibited the international slave trade in 1808, but kept domestic slavery until 1865. Connecticut had a gradual abolition law passed in 1797 children born to slaves were free but had to serve apprenticeships until young adulthood the last slaves were freed in 1848.

The US-Spain Pinckney's Treaty of 1795 provided that, if a vessel of either nation was forced to enter the other's ports, that ship would be released immediately. By international law of the seas, ships and property found helpless at sea were subject to claims (salvage rights for property) made by those who rescued them.

In popular culture Edit

The slave revolt aboard the Amistad, the background of the slave trade and its subsequent trial is retold in a celebrated [32] poem by Robert Hayden entitled "Middle Passage", first published in 1962. Howard Jones published Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy in 1987.

A movie, Amistad (1997), was based on the events of the revolt and court cases, and Howard Jones' 1987 book Mutiny on the Amistad.

African-American artist Hale Woodruff painted murals portraying events related to the revolt on The Amistad in 1938, for Talladega College in Alabama. A statue of Cinqué was erected beside the City Hall building in New Haven, Connecticut in 1992. [33] There is an Amistad memorial at Montauk Point State Park on Long Island.

In 2000, Freedom Schooner Amistad, a ship replica, was launched in Mystic, Connecticut. The Historical Society of Farmington, Connecticut offers walking tours of village houses that housed the Africans while funds were collected for their return home. [34] The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, has numerous resources for research into slavery, abolition, and African Americans.

Redbone Nation

The Intriguing saga of Thomas Nash Mutiany & Murder At High Seas!

The Amistad revolt

In January 1839, 53 African natives were kidnapped from eastern Africa and sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were then placed aboard a Spanish slave ship bound for Havana, Cuba.

Once in Havana, the Africans were classified as native Cuban slaves and purchased at auction by two Spaniards, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez. The two planned to move the slaves to another part of Cuba. The slaves were shackled and loaded aboard the cargo schooler Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) for the brief coastal voyage.

However, three days into the journey, a 25-year-old slave named Sengbe Pieh (or “Cinque” to his Spanish captors) broke out of his shackles and released the other Africans. The slaves then revolted, killing most of the crew of the Amistad, including her cook and captain. The Africans then forced Montez and Ruiz to return the ship to Africa.

During the day, the ship sailed due east, using the sun to navigate. However, at night Montez and Ruiz would change course, attempting to return to Cuba. The zig-zag journey continued for 63 days.

The ship finally grounded near Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York State. The United States federal government seized the ship and its African occupants — who under U.S. law were “property” and therefore cargo of the ship. On August 29, 1839, the Amistad was towed into New London, Connecticut.

The government charged the slaves with piracy and murder, and classified them as salvage property. The 53 Africans were sent to prison, pending hearing of their case before the U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut.

The stage was set for an important, controversial, and highly politicized case. Local abolitionist groups rallied around the Africans’ cause, organizing a legal defense, hiring a translator for the Africans, and providing material support. Meanwhile, the Spanish government pressured the U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, to return the slaves to Spain without trial.

“The Captured Slaves,” The Richmond Enquirer, 10 Sept. 1839.

To the Editors of the Compiler.

Gentlemen- The articles which you sent me from the Northern papers, in relation to the persons in custody for offenses alleged to have been committed on board a Spanish vessel, suggest several questions of a good deal of interest.

Montes (right) identifies Cinque in court

Roger Baldwin John Quincy Adams

The whole of the particulars concerning the piracy, mutiny, and murders on board the Spanish schooner Amistad (New Bedford Mercury, Sept. 6, 1839)
The Abolitionists at the North making great efforts in favor of the Amistad Negroes (Fayetteville Observer NC, Sept. 18, 1839)
New Haven obituary (The Liberator, Sept. 20, 1839, 150)
The captured Africans of the Amistad (N.Y. Morning Herald, Oct. 4, 1839)
Another Captured African Dead (Philadelphia North American, Nov. 2, 1839)
Africans of the Amistad shovelling snow (Philadelphia Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, Dec. 28, 1839)
Kab-ba obituary (Philadelphia North American and Daily Advertiser, Jan. 4, 1840)
Monies Received for the Amistad Captives (The Emancipator, March 26, 1840, p. 191)
Amistad Captives (Norwich Aurora CT, Sept. 2, 1840)
Sale of the Amistad (Boston Courier, Oct. 26, 1840)
Sale of the Amistad (Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov. 10, 1840)
Letter of John Quincy Adams to Roger Bladwin, March 9, 1841
Trial of the Amistad captives (The Emancipator, March 11, 1841, p. 282)
The Case of the Amistad. Supreme Court of the United States. January Term 1841 (Boston Courier, March 22, 1841)
The Amistad Negroes have been discharged from the prison in New Haven (Cleveland Daily Herald, March 29, 1841)
Antonio, slave of Captain Ferrer (New York Spectator, March 31, 1841)
The Amistad Africans (Philadelphia Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, May 29, 1841)
Departure of the Amistad Africans (New York Spectator, Dec. 1, 1841)
The Amistad Africans sailed from New York (Vermont Watchman and State Journal, Dec. 6, 1841)
The Amistad Africans (Philadelphia Pennsylvania Inquirer and National Gazette, April 13, 1842)
The Amistad Negroes (New York Herald, Sept. 6, 1842)
The Case of the Amistad (The Emancipator and Free Soil Press, Oct. 25, 1848)

The Amistad Claims: Inconsistencies of Policy. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Sep., 1933), pp. 386-412
Black Mutiny on the Amistad. The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer, 1969), pp. 493-532
Historical Memory and a New National Consciousness: The Amistad Revolt Revisited in Sierra Leone. The Massachusetts Review, Spring, 1997, pp. 63-83
Federal Historical Records on the Amistad Case. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 18 (Winter, 1997-1998), pp. 124-125
Review: Dreamworking Amistad: Representing Slavery, Revolt, and Freedom in America, 1839 and 1997. The New England Quarterly, Mar., 1998, pp. 127-133
Virgil’s Aeneid and John Quincy Adams’s Speech on Behalf of the Amistad Africans. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 473-477
Amistad: A True Story of Freedom. The Journal of American History, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Jun., 1999), pp. 170-173
Cinque of the Amistad a Slave Trader? Perpetuating a Myth. The Journal of American History, Vol. 87, No. 3 (Dec., 2000), pp. 923-939
Amistad America
Amistad film censored in Jamaica
Thousands crowd Mystic Seaport to watch launch of Amistad replica

No production of papers, no entreaties availed them: they were compelled to submit. Had these men been enterprising, or an opportunity offered, and they had possessed themselves of their oppressors, and brought them into port: or had they, in the attempt to regain their freedom, been obliged to destroy them, while the world would have applauded the act, the judge must, from the decision, have delivered them to a similar demand neither influence, fortune, or friends could have saved them. However superior in these, in political privileges they were only equal to the unknown and friendless Robbins. A consistent and inflexible magistrate must view them with the same impartial eye: he must give to them the same construction of the law or constitution he could not vary them without the immediate loss of character. An enlightened people, therefore, will as attentively, nay, they ought more carefully to guard them in the person of a poor and unprotected than a rich or considerable man. The latter will always find powerful friends to support and protect his privileges while the rights of the former may in silence and with impunity be unattended to merely because he is unknown, and has not an advocate to assert them. This would probably have been the case in the present instance, had not some gentlemen voluntarily offered themselves to examine and discuss its consequences. The public are obliged to them: it is an excellent example, I hope it will be followed upon every occasion, and that it will make us infinitely more vigilant of our rights than ever. We must never forget that in this country the poor and the rich, the humble and the influential, are entitled to equal privileges that we ought to consider a violation of the rights of the most indigent and unprotected man, as an injury to the whole while we have a pen to guide, or a voice to lift, they should constantly be exerted against the exercise of tyranny or oppression, by whatever nation committed or to whomsoever the violence may be done.




May it please your Honors,–

In preparing to address this honorable Court on the questions arising upon this record, in behalf of the humble Africans whom I represent,–contending, as they are, for freedom and for life, with two powerful governments arrayed against them,–it has been to me a source of high gratification, in this unequal contest, that those questions will be heard and decided by a tribunal, not only elevated far above the influence of Executive power and popular prejudice, but from its very constitution exempt from liability to those imputations to which a Court, less happily constituted, or composed only of members from one section of the Union, might, however unjustly, be exposed.

In a case like this, involving the destiny of thirty-six human beings, cast by Providence on our shores, under circumstances peculiarly fitted to excite the sympathies of all to whom their history has become accurately known, it is much to be regretted that attempts should have been made in the official paper of the Government, on the eve of the trial before this Court of dernier resort, to disturb the course of justice, not only by passionate appeals to local prejudices, and supposed sectional interests, but by fierce and groundless denunciation of the honorable Judge before whom the cause was originally tried, in the Court below: and, as if this were not enough, that two miserable articles from a Spanish newspaper, denouncing these helpless victims of piracy and fraud, as murderers, and monsters in human form, should have been transmitted by the minister of Spain to the Department of State, and published in

Notes extradited 1800 and hung by the British for mutiny and murder on the frigate Hermione. The slaves onboard the frigate where Spanish/Portuguese captured slaves.

Amistad Revolt 1839-1842

By the late 18th century, the clamor to abolish the slave trade increased in Western Europe and in the northern colonies of America. Denmark was the first to answer the call to end the importation of slaves from Africa to its colonies in the West Indies. But in spite of fierce resistance from slaveholders at home, the North American abolitionist movement led by the Quakers was quick to gather steam. The abolitionist movement finally bore fruit between 1811 and 1848 when several Western European nations officially put an end to slavery through legislation.

By 1811, Spain had outlawed the slave trade and slavery itself. However, it was not until 1886 that Cuba, one of Spain’s overseas colonies, followed suit. In what would become the United States, slavery would become a contentious and bitter issue that would eventually lead an entire nation to a civil war in 1861. Amidst these developments was the controversial Amistad Revolt (1839-1842). This mutiny captivated the American public when it was tried in American courts between 1840 and 1841. Apart from its political, societal, and legal repercussions at home, the Amistad also sent ripples across the Atlantic when Spain decided to intervene with the case. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.

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La Amistad : From the Lomboko to Cuba

Britain had outlawed the slave trade in its colonies in 1807, and this was soon followed by the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. Despite the British ban, the illicit slave trade remained lucrative thanks to the steady demand in some colonies in the West Indies. At the center of this illegal activity was the Lomboko slave fortress in Sierra Leone, a facility owned by the wealthy Spanish slave trader Pedro Blanco.

Many of the men, women, and children kidnapped and sold to Blanco belonged to the Mende people. Others belonged to different tribes such as the Bembe and Kono. Some people were kidnapped because they failed to repay their debts on time. Others meanwhile were prisoners of war or were captured from slave raids. A few were accused of adultery and were punished by some disgruntled husbands by capturing and selling them into slavery.

A doctor checked the health and viability of each slave upon their arrival at the Lomboko. They spent some weeks in Blanco’s slave fortress before they were loaded into the Tecora , a Portuguese slave ship. After separating them from the women and children, the men were shackled together inside the cramped holds to prevent them from rebelling or from committing suicide by throwing themselves overboard. During the voyage, they were given meager rations of food. They had to relieve themselves where they were shackled together so that the poorly ventilated hold quickly stank and soon became a petri dish for diseases. The Tecora’s crew disposed of dead captives by throwing them into the ocean. Sick or dying captives were also thrown into watery graves because of the crew’s fears that they would infect the rest of the “cargo.”

The Tecora finally docked in the port of Havana in June 1839. The slave traders cautiously auctioned the slaves in Havana for fear of British naval officers who patrolled the area. Among those who arrived in Havana for the slave auctions were the Spanish merchants and slaves owners Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz. After purchasing 49 men, one boy, and three girls, the Spaniards chartered the vessel La Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) and sailed for Camaguey, Cuba. Ramon Ferrer owned and captained the ship, and was assisted by two crew members. Also on board were the ship’s cook Celestino and the cabin boy Antonio.

The Amistad Mutiny

La Amistad left Havana for Camaguey on June 28, 1839. Unlike in the Tecora , Montes and Ruiz did not shackle the slaves during the day. They were allowed to roam the ship if they wanted during daylight but were once again shackled at night. During the voyage, Sengbe (Cinque) Pieh (one of the Mende captives) tried to find out what Montes and Ruiz intended to do to him and the other captives. He asked the cook Celestino who insinuated that the Africans would be chopped up, cooked, and eaten by the crew. The cook’s joke was not only in bad taste but also ill-timed. He would eventually pay for his morbid sense of humor with his life.

Sengbe saw for himself the atrocities committed by white men during the Middle Passage, so he readily believed Celestino. He wasted no time in planning a rebellion with the help of fellow captives Grabeau and Burnah. On the eve of July 1, 1839, Sengbe was able to pick the locks of the shackles with a nail and free himself and the other slaves. Once freed, they found cane machetes stashed in the hold. Each man took a machete and headed to the deck where their first victim, Captain Ramon Ferrer, was sleeping.

Ferrer woke up and managed to warn Montes and Ruiz of the mutiny. The Africans, however, easily overpowered him and strangled him to death. Montes was wounded during the fight, while the two seamen immediately abandoned the ship. The depth of the slaves’ anger was reserved for Celestino who they hacked to death. Only the cabin boy Antonio was spared from the slaves’ wrath.

With the ship now under their control, Sengbe and the other Africans decided to sail for home. Since none of them knew how to steer the vessel toward Sierra Leone, they forced Montes and Ruiz to steer for them. The two agreed but craftily directed the ship in a meandering course toward the coast of North America in hopes that a United States ship would eventually find and help them. The Amistad sometimes came across merchant ships, but the Africans concealed the mutiny by hiding Montes and Ruiz below deck. With the slave owners’ money, they were able to buy food and water from passing ships when their stocks ran dangerously low.

The sailors of the vessels the Amistad came across were mystified by the appearance of the all-African crew and the ship’s derelict condition. Soon, wild rumors of a pirate ship commandeered by Africans spread to the American East Coast and fired up the locals’ imagination. Some people claimed it was a pirate ship loaded with gold, while others believed that it was the ghostly ship of the Flying Dutchman.

Sengbe, Grabeau, and Burnah decided to drop anchor in Long Island and buy food there by the end of August 1839. The men stood out like a sore thumb, and they were soon spotted by Captain Henry Green and his men. Green realized that this must be the mysterious ship that he heard about in the news, so he immediately made moves to ingratiate himself with Sengbe and his companions so he could eventually claim for himself the Amistad , its cargo, and the Africans. Despite not knowing each other’s language, both sides agreed through gestures to meet again on the following day.

As agreed, both parties appeared on the beach and met again the next day. Captain Green’s dream of salvaging the Amistad was dashed when the revenue cutter USS Washington appeared and interrupted them. Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney of the USS Washington ordered his crew to seize the Amistad and subdue its crew.

To the American crew’s surprise, they found the ship full of Africans and quickly realized that they were the mutineers. Gedney also saw an opportunity to claim the Amistad and acquire the Africans as his own slaves. He then had Sengbe seized and isolated in the USS Washington to prevent him from launching another mutiny. Gedney did not want to stay in New York as slavery had been outlawed in the State, so he had it towed to New London, Connecticut where slavery was still legal. He then submitted his claims to the Amistad and its cargo for hearing to Judge Andrew T. Judson of Connecticut.

Preparing for a Legal Battle

The Africans (the four children included) were jailed in New Haven while the judge examined Amistad’s papers. He also listened to the testimonies of Ruiz and Montes, as well as those given by the cabin boy Antonio. All three identified Sengbe, Burnah, and Grabeau as the leaders of the mutiny. The judge did not bother to interview the Africans because not one of them knew how to speak English or Spanish. In addition, no one living in Connecticut at that time knew the Mende language. Sengbe and his companions were charged with piracy and murder after the judge heard the Spaniards’ testimonies. Their trial was set on September 19, 1839.

News of the plight of the Amistad mutineers soon reached prominent Connecticut abolitionists. The Quaker abolitionist and New London grocer Dwight P. Janes were the first to take up their cause and form the Amistad Committee. He was joined by fellow abolitionists Lewis and Arthur Tappan, Reverend Simeon Jocelyn, and Reverend Joshua Leavitt.

These men took it upon themselves to raise funds for the mutineers’ legal fees. The Committee managed to convince Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin to represent the Africans in the long legal battle. They also wrote to the press about the plight of the mutineers and spread the news about their situation. Their efforts became so successful (perhaps too successful) as thousands of well-meaning visitors and gawkers flocked to New Haven prison where the Africans were kept.

The Amistad Case and its Political Implications

For the US President Martin Van Buren, the arrival of the Amistad could not have come at the worst time. He was up for reelection in 1840 and his campaign was in full swing. The Amistad case was both a domestic and international issue, so he sought a decision that would satisfy the American voters (both abolitionists and staunch slaveholders) and prevent a diplomatic row with Spain. He found neither.

Van Buren’s top advisers (who also happened to be Southern slaveholders) wanted him to return the Amistad , its cargo, as well as Sengbe and his friends, to Cuba to pacify Spain. There they would eventually be tried and hanged if found guilty. The Spanish foreign minister also reminded the president of the two treaties America signed with Spain in 1795 and 1819 in regards to aiding ships in distress. Spain only wanted the Amistad issue silenced because of some thorny and embarrassing facts about its legality. Spain had abolished the slave trade in 1811, so its citizens had no business transporting enslaved people across the Atlantic. Its law enforcement too had been so weak that it was unable to impose the ban in Cuba. Spain also wanted the Amistad matter resolved quietly and quickly because it had signed an anti-slavery treaty with Britain in 1833. If the Amistad issue Britain, Spain surmised that British government would consider this a violation of the treaty and would immediately intervene in Cuba.

Van Buren, on the other hand, was torn between the abolitionists (mostly concentrated in the North) and the staunch slaveholders (who mostly lived in the South) at home. The abolitionists believed that the Africans had gained their freedom by launching a mutiny and should be allowed to go back to Sierra Leone. The slaveholders, meanwhile, wanted to return the Africans to Ruiz and Montes. They insisted that the Africans should go back to Cuba and be hanged there for murdering the ship captain and the cook. They readily believed the Spaniards’ story that Sengbe and his friends were born in Cuba and they had been slaves there for many years. This in spite of the fact that none of the Africans understood Spanish, and none of them answered to their alleged Spanish names read out to them during the trial.

The Amistad Trial

The Amistad trial for murder and piracy began on September 19, 1839, in Hartford, Connecticut. The case was presided by Justice Smith Thompson of the United States Circuit Court. U.S. District Attorney W.S. Holabird led the prosecution, while Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin led the Amistad defense. Baldwin was assisted by lawyers Seth Perkins Staples and Theodore Sedgwick.

The defense first asked the court to issue a writ of habeas corpus for the captive girls, but this was immediately blocked by Holabird. He asserted that the African children were considered as properties and not humans, so the principles of the writ of habeas corpus did not apply to them. Besides, he already had secret orders from President Van Buren to wrap the case up so it could be transferred to Cuba as quickly as possible.

Baldwin countered this and presented the little girls to the court to garner sympathy for their plight. The children were visibly distressed during their appearance. The argument whether to grant the girls the writ of habeas corpus went on for two days before Holabird did an abrupt about-face. He acknowledged that the girls were humans and were born free so that a writ was completely unnecessary. He also asserted that the girls should be sent back to Africa as soon as possible. The truth, however, was Holabird was pressured to deflect anything in the trial that might taint Van Buren’s reputation and damage his campaign.

On September 23, Justice Thompson declared that the case could not be tried by a U.S. court as the mutiny happened in waters controlled by Spain. The judge, however, did not issue a writ of habeas corpus as the matter of whether the Africans were properties of Ruiz and Montes was yet to be decided. The second trial was set in a U.S. District Court.

The District Court Trial

The Amistad Committee had already realized that their case might be in danger when they learned that it was assigned to Judge Andrew T. Judson. The prejudiced Judson had prosecuted the Connecticut schoolteacher Prudence Crandall when she tried to integrate an African-American girl into her school in 1833. The odds were against the abolitionists and the Amistad mutineers , but the Committee and the legal defense continued to prepare for the trial.

While they awaited the trial, members of the Committee were busy combing through New York Harbor in search of a Mende interpreter. They were lucky to find James Covey, a native of Sierra Leone and former captive himself, who worked as a sailor on a British vessel.

To the Committee’s surprise, however, Judson allowed a little improvement on the prisoners’ living conditions. He permitted them to be brought outside every now and then to do some exercises and breathe in some fresh air. The captive children were sent to private homes where foster families taught them the English language. Students from the nearby Yale College visited the captives to evangelize and teach them English.

Dr. Richard Madden, an Irish abolitionist who lived and worked in Havana, had hurried to Connecticut to give his sworn testimony on the thriving slave trade in Cuba. This damning testimony shredded the credibility of Montes and Ruiz, and they were soon charged with imprisonment. Both men were arrested and sent to prison in New York in October 1839. Montes posted bail and quickly sailed to Cuba, while Ruiz refused to post bail (he did not want to admit to any wrongdoing) and remained in prison. He eventually posted bail and also fled to Cuba. The indictment and imprisonment of his compatriots outraged the Spanish foreign minister. The events only added to the pressure on the beleaguered Van Buren.

The District Court hearing of the Amistad finally began on January 7, 1840, in New Haven. With James Covey as interpreter, Sengbe was able to narrate how they were captured in Sierra Leone and eventually sold in Havana. While the Amistad narration was ongoing, two ships were already waiting on the dock to take the Africans away. The first one was the USS Grampus, a vessel sent by Van Buren to take the captives to Cuba after the trial. The Amistad Committee, however, had prepared their own chartered ship. The abolitionists’ ship was to take the Africans to Canada after the trial.

Judge Judson shocked everyone when he ruled in favor of the captives on January 13, 1840. The court granted Lieutenant Gedney one-third of the value of the Amistad and its cargo as per U.S. law of salvage. He, however, was not allowed to claim the captives as part of the salvage as the Africans were transported to Cuba illegally. The judge ruled that the captives should be returned to Africa posthaste. Captain Green’s claim, on the other hand, was denied by the court. Perhaps one of the most unhappy persons at that time was Van Buren who, despite his illegal maneuvers, was not successful in his reelection bid later that year.

The Final Showdown

The prosecution, naturally, was unhappy with the decision and decided to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. A new trial was set on February 22, 1841.

For the defense, the chances of winning the case did not look too good once again as five out of nine Justices (including the Chief Justice) came from the South. The abolitionists, therefore, was forced to look for a prominent anti-slavery advocate who would support their case and lend a voice to the cause. They found one in the former U.S. president John Quincy Adams.

The 73-year old John Q. Adams was the son of the United States second president John Adams and his progressive first lady, Abigail Adams. A staunch anti-slavery advocate, he had already served the United States as a senator, ambassador, and Secretary of State. He served as U.S. President between 1825 and 1829 and was serving as a Representative of Massachusetts when Attorney Baldwin approached him. He was initially hesitant to accept the Committee’s offer because of his age, but Baldwin eventually convinced him to join the defense team.

The Supreme Court trial began on February 22, 1841. The U.S. Attorney General Henry D. Gilpin led the prosecution this time and was first to deliver the opening statements. Baldwin’s opening statements, meanwhile, hinged on three premises. First, he questioned and demolished the truthfulness and validity of the papers produced by Montes and Ruiz. He then argued that the Adams-Onis Treaty did not apply to the captives as they were not born in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Lastly, he argued that since Sengbe and the other captives were free men, the U.S. Federal government had no right to send them to Cuba as it would go against the U.S. Constitution.

Four days later, John Quincy Adams himself addressed the Supreme Court. He stated that the Adams-Onis Treaty could only be used during wartime, and its terms did not apply to the Amistad case. He also blasted former President Van Buren in front of the Supreme Court for interfering with the Amistad case. His lecture on the Amistad case went on for another eight hours.

The Supreme Court finally reached a decision in March 1841. The Court determined that Sengbe and the other mutineers were free men, and as such, they were to be released from prison and be allowed to return to their homeland immediately. The Justices also decided that Ruiz, Montes, and the Spanish foreign minister had no right to hold the captives or prevent them from returning to Sierra Leone. To the Amistad Committee’s relief, the Justices asserted that all human beings have the right to fight for their freedom and the captives had earned theirs through the mutiny. Gedney’s claims to a portion of the cargo were also affirmed. Attorney Baldwin was not present when the Supreme Court handed the decision on the case so Adams sent him an ecstatic note instead.

B ittersweet Victory

Sengbe and his fellow captives were at first skeptical when the news of their freedom reached them. But celebrations and joy replaced their initial skepticism when they realized that they were finally going home. The abolitionists also met the news with great joy and were quick to publicize the Amistad victory. The Africans stayed in Connecticut for several months while the abolitionists were raising funds so they could charter a ship back to Sierra Leone. Sengbe and his companions helped in raising funds by creating and selling handicrafts.

T he Africans boarded the ship Gentleman on November 25, 1841, and said tearful farewells to their American friends. They were accompanied by American missionaries who saw an opportunity to evangelize in Sierra Leone. The Amistad mutineers and the American missionaries arrived in Sierra Leone in January 1842.

Picture by: Unknown – New Haven Colony Historical Society and Adams National Historic Site, Public Domain, Link

Osagie, Iyunolu Folayan. The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone . Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Zeinert, Karen. The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition. North Haven, CT: Linnet Books, 1997.

Watch the video: What Was the Most Famous Slave Ship Revolt? American History Curriculum Sample