The story

Amistad Mutiny

Amistad Mutiny

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In 1839 Jose Ruiz purchased 49 slaves in Havana, Cuba. With his friend, Pedro Montez, who had acquired four new slaves, Ruiz hired Ramon Ferrer to take them in his schooner Amistad, to Puerto Principe, a settlement further down the coast.

On 2nd July, 1839, the slaves, led by Joseph Cinque, killed Ramon Ferrer, and took possession of his ship. Cinque ordered the navigator to take them back to Africa but after 63 days at sea the ship was intercepted by Lieutenant Gedney and the United States brig Washington, half a mile from the shore of Long Island. The Amistad was then towed into New London, Connecticut.

Joseph Cinque and the other Africans were imprisoned in New Haven. James Covey, a sailor on a British ship, was employed to interview the Africans to discover what had taken place. The Spanish government insisted that the mutineers be returned to Cuba. President Martin van Buren was sympathetic to these demands but insisted that the men would be first tried for murder.

Lewis Tappan and James Pennington took up the African's case and argued that while slavery was legal in Cuba, importation of slaves from Africa was not. The judge agreed, and ruled that the Africans had been kidnapped and had the right to use violence to escape from captivity.

The United States government appealed against this decision and the case appeared before the Supreme Court. The former president, John Quincy Adams, was so moved by the plight of Joseph Cinque and his fellow Africans, that he volunteered to represent them. Although now seventy-three, his passionate eight-hour speech won the argument and the mutineers were released.

Lewis Tappan and the anti-slavery movement helped fund the return of the 35 surviving Africans to Sierra Leone. They arrived in January, 1842, along with five missionaries and teachers who formed a Christian anti-slavery mission in the country.

On the 27th of June 1839, the schooner Amistad, being the property of Spanish subjects, cleared out from the port of Havana, in the island of Cuba, for Puerto Principe, in the same island. On board of the schooner were the master, Ramon Ferrer, and Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, all Spanish subjects. The former had with him a negro boy, named Antonio, claimed to be his slave. Jose Ruiz had with him forty-nine negroes, claimed by him as his slaves, and stated to be his property, in a certain pass or document, signed by the governor-general of Cuba. Pedro Montez had with him four other negroes, also claimed by him as his slaves, and stated to be his property, in a similar pass or document, also signed by the governor- general of Cuba. On the voyage, and before the arrival of the vessel at her port of destination, the negroes rose, killed the master, and took possession of her.

On the 26th of August, the vessel was discovered by Lieutenant Gedney, of the United States brig Washington, at anchor on the high seas, at the distance of half a mile from the shore of Long Island. A part of the negroes were then on shore, at Culloden Point, Long Island; who were seized by Lieutenant Gedney, and brought on board. The vessel, with the negroes and other persons on board, was brought by Lieutenant Gedney into the district of Connecticut, and there libelled for salvage in the district court of the United States.

On the 18th of September, Ruiz and Montez filed claims and libels, in which they asserted their ownership of the negroes as their slaves, and of certain parts of the cargo, and prayed that the same might be 'delivered to them, or to the representatives of her Catholic Majesty, as might be most proper.'

I bought 49 slaves in Havana, and shipped them on board the schooner Amistad. We sailed for Guanaja, the intermediate port for Principe. For the four first days every thing went on well. In the night heard a noise in the forecastle. All of us were asleep except the man at the helm. Do not know how things began; was awoke by the noise. This man Joseph, I saw. Cannot tell how many were engaged. There was no moon. It was very dark. I took up an oar and tried to quell the mutiny; I cried no! no! I then heard one of the crew cry murder. I went below and called on Montez to follow me, and told them not to kill me: I did not see the captain killed.

They called me on deck, and told me I should not be hurt. I asked them as a favor to spare the old man. They did so. After this they went below and ransacked the trunks of the passengers. Before doing this, they tied our hands. We went on our course--don't know who was at the helm. Next day I missed Captain Ramon Ferrer, two sailors, Manuel Pagilla, and Yacinto, and Selestina, the cook. We all slept on deck. The slaves told us next day that they had killed all; but the cabin boy said they had killed only the captain and cook. The other two he said had escaped in the small boat.

3) Statement signed by Antonio, the cabin boy on the Amistad (August, 1839)

We had been out four days when the mutiny broke out. That night it had been raining very hard, and all hands been on deck. The rain ceased, but still it was very dark. Clouds covered the moon. After the rain, the Captain and mulatto lay down on some matresses that they had brought on deck. Four of the slaves came out, armed with those knives which are used to cut sugar cane; they struck the Captain across the face twice or three times; they struck the mulatto oftener. Neither of them groaned. By this time the rest of the slaves had come on deck, all armed in the same way. The man at the wheel and another let down the small boat and escaped. I was awake and saw it all. The men escaped before Senor Ruiz and Senor Montez awoke.

Joseph, the man in irons, was the leader; he attacked Senor Montez. After killing the Captain and the cook, and wounding Senor Montez, they tied Montez and Ruiz by the hands till they had ransacked the cabin. After doing so, they loosed them, and they went below. Senor Montez could scarcely walk. The bodies of the Captain and mulatto were thrown overboard and the decks washed. One of the slaves who attacked the Captain has since died.

We left Havana on the 28th of June. I owned 4 slaves, 3 females and 1 male. For three days the wind was ahead and all went well. Between 11 and 12 at night, just as the moon was rising, sky dark and cloudy, weather very rainy, on the fourth night I laid down on a matress. Between three and four was awakened by a noise which was caused by blows given to the mulatto cook. I went on deck, and they attacked me. I seized a stick and a knife with a view to defend myself. I did not wish to kill or hurt them. At this time the prisoner wounded me on the head severely with one of the sugar knives, also on the arm. I then ran below and stowed myself between two barrels, wrapped up in a sail. The prisoner rushed after me and attempted to kill me, but was prevented by the interference of another man. I recollect who struck me, but was not sufficiently sensible to distinguish the man who saved me. I was faint from loss of blood. I then was taken on deck and tied to the hand of Ruiz.

After this they commanded me to steer for their country. I told them I did not know the way. I was much afraid, and had lost my senses, so I cannot recollect who tied me. On the second day after the mutiny, a heavy gale came on. I still steered, having once been master of a vessel. When recovered, I steered for Havana, in the night by the stars, but by the sun in the day, taking care to make no more way than possible. After sailing fifty leagues, we saw an American merchant ship, but did not speak her. We were also passed by a schooner but were unnoticed. Every moment my life was threatened.

I know nothing of the murder of the Captain. Next morning the negroes had washed the decks. During the rain the Captain was at the helm. They were all glad, next day, at what had happened. The prisoners treated me harshly, and but for the interference of others, would have killed me several times every day. We kept no reckoning. I did not know how many days we had been out, nor what day of the week it was when the officers came on board. We anchored at least thirty times, and lost an anchor at New Providence. When at anchor we were treated well, but at sea they acted very cruelly towards me. They once wanted me to drop anchor in the high seas. I had no wish to kill any of them, but prevented them from killing each other.

Instead of a chivalrous leader with the dignified and graceful bearing of Othello, imparting energy and confidence to his intelligent and devoted followers, he saw a sullen, dumpish looking negro, with a flat nose, thick lips, and all the other characteristics of his debased countrymen, without a single redeeming or striking trait, except the mere brute qualities of strength and activity, who had inspired terror among his companions by the indiscriminate and unsparing use of the lash. And instead of intelligent and comparatively civilized men, languishing in captivity and suffering under the restraints of the prison, he found them the veriest animals in existence, perfectly contented in confinement, without a ray of intelligence, and sensible only to the wants of the brute.

No man, he said, more thoroughly appreciated the hideous horrors of the slave trade, or had conceived a more decided aversion to slavery in all its phases; but he was certain that the natives of Africa would be improved and elevated by transferring them to the genial climate of Carolina, and the mild restraints of an intelligent and humane planter.

Cinque, the leader of the Africans, was then examined. Cinque told Captain Gedney he might take the vessel and keep it, if he would send them to Sierra Leone. His conversation with Captain Gedney was carried on by the aid of Bernar, who could speak a little English. They had taken on board part of their supply of water, and wanted to go to Sierra Leone. They were three and a half months coming from Havana to this country.

Cross examined by General Isham. Cinque said he came from Mendi. He was taken in the road where he was at work, by countrymen. He was not taken in battle. He did not sell himself. He was taken to Lomboko, where he met the others for the first time. Those who took him - four men - had a gun and knives. Has three children in Africa. Has one wife. Never said he had two wives. Can't count the number of days after leaving Havana before the rising upon the vessel. The man who had charge of the schooner was killed. Then he and Pepe sailed the vessel. Witness told Pepe, after Ferrer was killed, to take good care of the cargo.

The brig fired a gun, and then they gave themselves up. When they first landed there they were put in prison. Were not chained. They were chained coming from Africa to Havana, hands and feet. They were chained also on board the Amistad. Were kept short of provisions. Were beaten on board the schooner by one of the sailors. When they had taken the schooner they put the Spaniards down in the hold and locked them down.

Amistad (film)

Amistad is a 1997 American historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the events in 1839 aboard the spanish slave ship La Amistad, during which Mende tribesmen abducted for the slave trade managed to gain control of their captors' ship off the coast of Cuba, and the international legal battle that followed their capture by the Washington, a U.S. revenue cutter. The case was ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841.

The film received largely positive critical reviews and grossed over $44 million at the US box office.

July 2, 1839: The Amistad Mutiny

“The Amistad Trial” by Hale Woodruff from a mural at Talladega College called The Amistad Mutiny, 1939. Click image to learn more.

On July 2, 1839, Africans on the Cuban schooner Amistad rose up against their captors, seizing control of the ship, which had been transporting them to chattel slavery. Here is a description from the Library of Congress:

On July 2, 1839, Joseph Cinqué led fifty-two fellow captive Africans, recently abducted from the British protectorate of Sierra Leone by Portuguese slave traders, in a revolt aboard the Spanish schooner Amistad. The ship’s navigator, who was spared in order to direct the ship back to western Africa, managed, instead, to steer it northward. When the Amistad was discovered off the coast of Long Island, New York, it was hauled into New London, Connecticut by the U.S. Navy.

President Martin Van Buren, guided in part by his desire to woo pro-slavery votes in his upcoming bid for reelection, wanted the prisoners returned to Spanish authorities in Cuba to stand trial for mutiny. A Connecticut judge, however, issued a ruling recognizing the defendants’ rights as free citizens and ordering the U.S. government to escort them back to Africa.

The U.S. government eventually appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Former president John Quincy Adams, who represented the Amistad Africans in the Supreme Court case, argued in their defense that it was the illegally enslaved Africans, rather than the Cubans, who “were entitled to all the kindness and good offices due from a humane and Christian nation.” Cinque testified on his own behalf. The victory in the case of the United States v. The Amistad was a significant success for the abolition movement.

For children, we recommend the picturebook Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad about Margu, a child on the Amistad. The book includes the story of her captivity during the trial, the court case, her eventual return to Mendeland in Sierra Leone, her later return to the United States, and her graduation from Oberlin College.

Read how students learned about slavery and abolitionism in New York, including the Amistad Defense Committee in Reclaiming Hidden History: Students Create a Slavery Walking Tour in Manhattan.

Related Resources

‘If There Is No Struggle…’: Teaching a People’s History of the Abolition Movement

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 16 pages. Rethinking Schools.
In this lesson, students explore many of the real challenges faced by abolitionists with a focus on the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Mutiny on the Amistad

The news stories that began in late August 1839 bore a whiff of both mystery and menace, writes Donald Dale Jackson. A long, black schooner was sailing an erratic course up the East Coast of the United States, manned by what appeared to be an all-black crew. The name on their battered bow was Amistad.

The ship dropped anchor off the eastern tip of Long Island to allow men to go ashore for food and water. Before long, a U.S. Navy brig hove into view. Its commander had his sailors disarm the blacks on board the Amistad and seize the others ashore. The sailors discovered two Cuban planters on board, who said the ship had departed Havana in June, bound for Cuba's north coast, carrying 53 blacks they had purchased. The blacks, led by a strong young man in his 20s called Cinque, freed themselves from their chains and attacked with cane knives, killing the captain and cook. They ordered one of the slavers to steer for Africa, but he tricked them by sailing east in the day but north at night. What the slavers did not say was that the Africans had been brought to the Spanish colony of Cuba in direct violation of Spain's slave laws.

The brig's commander took the blacks to Connecticut, where they were held on charges of murder and piracy, and where a drama that mesmerized the country began to take shape. On the one hand, the Spanish government, acting through the administration in Washington, sought to get the blacks returned to Cuba--where they most certainly would be put to death. Abolitionists, on the other hand, saw the case as an opportunity to humanize the issue of slavery. The case eventually would be debated all the way to the Supreme Court, where "Old Man Eloquent," former President John Quincy Adams, would argue on behalf of the Africans.

Now, this fascinating drama will be reenacted on the big screen, with the release this month of Steven Spielberg's epic film Amistad. "While making the film," Spielberg says, "I never felt that I was telling someone else's story. I felt. I was telling everyone's story--a story that people of all nationalities and races should know."

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Stunned by this revelation, Cinqué found a nail to pick the locks on the captives’ chains and made a strike for freedom.

/>This map displays the path of the slave voyages in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade from 1500 to 1900. (Smithsonian Institution)

On their third night at sea, Cinqué and a fellow captive named Grabeau freed their comrades and searched the dark hold for weapons. They found them in boxes: sugar cane knives with machete-like blades, two feet in length, attached to inch-thick steel handles.

Weapons in hand, Cinqué and his cohorts stormed the shadowy, pitching deck and, in a brief and bloody struggle that led to the death of one of their own, killed the cook and captain and severely wounded Ruiz and Montes.

Two sailors who were on board disappeared in the melee and were probably drowned in a desperate attempt to swim the long distance to shore.

Grabeau convinced Cinqué to spare the lives of the two Spaniards, since only they possessed the navigational skills necessary to sail the Amistad to Africa.

Instead of making it home, however, the former captives eventually ended up off the coast of New York.

Cinqué, the acknowledged leader of the mutineers, recalled that the slave ship that he and the others had traveled on during their passage from Africa to Cuba had sailed away from the rising sun therefore to return home, he ordered Montes, who had once been a sea captain, to sail the Amistad into the sun.

The two Spaniards deceived their captors by sailing back and forth in the Caribbean Sea, toward the sun during the day and, by the stars, back toward Havana at night, hoping for rescue by British anti-slave-trade patrol vessels.

When that failed, Ruiz and Montes took the schooner on a long and erratic trek northward up the Atlantic coast.

/>This 1840 print depicts Joseph Cinque in native dress holding a staff mountains and trees in background. (Engraver John Sartain, artist Nathaniel Jocelyn, now in the Library of Congress)

Some 60 days after the mutiny, under a hot afternoon sun in late August 1839, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Gedney of the brig Washington sighted the vessel just off Long Island, where several of the schooner’s inhabitants were on shore bartering for food.

He immediately dispatched an armed party who captured the men ashore and then boarded the vessel.

They found a shocking sight: cargo strewn all over the deck perhaps 50 men nearly starved and destitute, their skeletal bodies naked or barely clothed in rags a black corpse lying in decay on the deck, its face frozen as if in terror another black with a maniacal gaze in his eyes and two wounded Spaniards in the hold who claimed to be the owners of the Africans who, as slaves, had mutinied and murdered the ship’s captain.

Gedney seized the vessel and cargo and reported the shocking episode to authorities in New London, Connecticut.

Only 43 of the Africans were still alive, including the four children. In addition to the one killed during the mutiny, nine had died of disease and exposure or from consuming medicine on board in an effort to quench their thirst.

/>Between 1838 and 1848 the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service coast survey brig Peter G. Washington was transferred to the Navy. While conducting gulf stream studies, it encountered the hurricane of Sept. 8, 1846, killing the commanding officer and 10 others. (Harper's New Monthly Mag. Vol-Vlll. p.512)

The affair might have come to a quiet end at this point had it not been for a group of abolitionists.

Evangelical Christians led by Lewis Tappan, a prominent New York businessman, Joshua Leavitt, a lawyer and journalist who edited the Emancipator in New York, and Simeon Jocelyn, a Congregational minister in New Haven, Connecticut, learned of the Amistad’s arrival and decided to publicize the incident to expose the brutalities of slavery and the slave trade. Through evangelical arguments, appeals to higher law, and “moral suasion,” Tappan and his colleagues hoped to launch a massive assault on slavery.

The Amistad incident, Tappan happily proclaimed, was a “providential occurrence.” In his view, slavery was a deep moral wrong and not subject to compromise. Both those who advocated its practice and those who quietly condoned it by inaction deserved condemnation. Slavery was a sin, he declared, because it obstructed a person’s free will inherent by birth, therefore constituting a rebellion against God.

Slavery was also, Tappan wrote to his brother, “the worm at the root of the tree of Liberty. Unless killed the tree will die.”

Tappan first organized the Amistad Committee to coordinate efforts on behalf of the captives, who had been moved to the New Haven jail.

Tappan preached impromptu sermons to the mutineers, who were impressed by his sincerity though unable to understand his language. He wrote detailed newspaper accounts of their daily activities in jail, always careful to emphasize their humanity and civilized backgrounds for a fascinated public, many of whom had never seen a black person. And he secured the services of Josiah Gibbs, a professor of religion and linguistics at Yale College, who searched the docks of New York for native Africans capable of translating Cinqué’s Mende language.

Gibbs eventually discovered two Africans familiar with Mende–James Covey from Sierra Leone and Charles Pratt from Mende itself. At last the Amistad mutineers could tell their side of the story.

/>Antislavery Pamphlet, 1848. (Division of Political History, National Museum of American History)

Meanwhile, Ruiz and Montes had initiated trial proceedings seeking return of their “property.” They had also secured their government’s support under Pinckney’s Treaty of 1795, which stipulated the return of merchandise lost for reasons beyond human control.

To fend off what many observers feared would be a “judicial massacre,” the abolitionists hired attorney Roger S. Baldwin of Connecticut, who had a reputation as an eloquent defender of the weak and downtrodden.

Baldwin intended to prove that the captives were “kidnapped Africans,” illegally taken from their homeland and imported into Cuba and thus entitled to resist their captors by any means necessary. He argued that the ownership papers carried by Ruiz and Montes were fraudulent and that the blacks were not slaves indigenous to Cuba.

He and his defense team first filed a claim for the Amistad and cargo as the Africans’ property, in preparation for charging the Spaniards with piracy. Then they filed suit for the captives’ freedom on the grounds of humanity and justice: slavery violated natural law, providing its victims with the inherent right of self-defense.

The case then entered the world of politics. It posed such a serious problem for President Martin Van Buren that he decided to intervene. A public dispute over slavery would divide his Democratic party, which rested on a tenuous North-South alliance, and could cost him reelection to the presidency in 1840.

Working through his secretary of state, slaveholder John Forsyth from Georgia, Van Buren sought to quietly solve the problem by complying with Spanish demands.

Van Buren also faced serious diplomatic issues. Failure to return the Africans to their owners would be a violation of Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain. In addition, revealing Spain’s infringement of treaties against the African slave trade could provide the British, who were pioneers in the crusade against slavery, with a pretext for intervening in Cuba, which was a long-time American interest.

The White House position was transparently weak. Officials refused to question the validity of the certificates of ownership, which had assigned Spanish names to each of the captives even though none of them spoke that language. Presidential spokesmen blandly asserted that the captives had been slaves in Cuba, despite the fact that the international slave trade had been outlawed some 20 years earlier and the children were no more than nine years old and spoke an African dialect.

/>Martin Van Buren, 5 Dec 1782 - 24 Jul 1862. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution gift of Mrs. Robert Timpson Conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee)

The court proceedings opened on Sept. 19, 1839, amid a carnival atmosphere in the state capitol building in Hartford, Connecticut.

To some observers, Cinqué was a black folk hero to others he was a barbarian who deserved execution for murder. Poet William Cullen Bryant extolled Cinqué’s virtues, numerous Americans sympathized with the ‘noble savages,’ and pseudo-scientists concluded that the shape of Cinqué’s skull suggested leadership, intelligence, and nobility. The New York Morning Herald, however, derided the “poor Africans,” “who have nothing to do, but eat, drink, and turn somersaults.”

To establish the mutineers as human beings rather than property, Baldwin sought a writ of habeas corpus aimed at freeing them unless the prosecution filed charges of murder. Issuance of the writ would recognize the Africans as persons with natural rights and thus undermine the claim by both the Spanish and American governments that the captives were property. If the prosecution brought charges, the Africans would have the right of self-defense against unlawful captivity if it filed no charges, they would go free. In the meantime, the abolitionists could explore in open court the entire range of human and property rights relating to slavery.

As Leavitt later told the General Antislavery Convention in London, the purpose of the writ was “to test their right to personality.”

Despite Baldwin’s impassioned pleas for justice, the public’s openly expressed sympathy for the captives, and the prosecution’s ill-advised attempt to use the four black children as witnesses against their own countrymen, Associate Justice Smith Thompson of the U.S. Supreme Court denied the writ.

Thompson was a strong-willed judge who opposed slavery, but he even more ardently supported the laws of the land. Under those laws, he declared, slaves were property. He could not simply assert that the Africans were human beings and grant freedom on the basis of natural rights. Only the law could dispense justice, and the law did not authorize their freedom. It was up to the district court to decide whether the mutineers were slaves and, therefore, property.

Prospects before the district court in Connecticut were equally dismal. The presiding judge was Andrew T. Judson, a well-known white supremacist and staunch opponent of abolition. Baldwin attempted to move the case to the free state of New York on the grounds that Gedney had seized the Africans in that state’s waters and not on the high seas. He hoped, if successful, to prove that they were already free upon entering New York and that the Van Buren administration was actually trying to enslave them.

But Baldwin’s effort failed the confrontation with Judson was unavoidable.

/>Slave Shackles, 19th century (Division of Home and Community Life, National Museum of American History)

Judson’s verdict in the case only appeared preordained as a politically ambitious man, he had to find a middle ground.

Whereas many Americans wanted the captives freed, the White House pressured him to send them back to Cuba. Cinqué himself drew great sympathy by recounting his capture in Mende and then graphically illustrating the horrors of the journey from Africa by sitting on the floor with hands and feet pulled together to show how the captives had been packed into the hot and unsanitary hold of the slave vessel.

The Spanish government further confused matters by declaring that the Africans were both property and persons. In addition to calling for their return as property under Pinckney’s Treaty, it demanded their surrender as “slaves who are assassins.”

The real concern of the Spanish government became clear when its minister to the United States, Pedro Alcántara de Argaiz, proclaimed that “The public vengeance of the African Slave Traders in Cuba had not been satisfied.”

If the mutineers went unpunished, he feared, slave rebellions would erupt all over Cuba.

Argaiz’s demands led the Van Buren administration to adopt measures that constituted an obstruction of justice. To facilitate the Africans’ rapid departure to Cuba after an expected guilty verdict, Argaiz convinced the White House to dispatch an American naval vessel to New Haven to transport them out of the country before they could exercise the constitutional right of appeal.

By agreeing to this, the president had authorized executive interference in the judicial process that violated the due-process guarantees contained in the Constitution.

/>"Joseph Cinquez, the brave Congolese Chief, who prefers death to slavery, and who now lies in jail . " (A lithograph by Moses Yale Beach to honor Cinque while he awaited trial in New Haven, Connecticut, it appeared in the New York Sun on Aug. 31, 1839 now in the collections of the Library of Congress)

Judson finally reached what he thought was a politically safe decision.

On Jan. 13, 1840, he ruled that the Africans had been kidnapped, and, offering no sound legal justification, ordered their return to Africa, hoping to appease the president by removing them from the United States. Six long months after the mutiny, it appeared that the captives were going home.

But the ordeal was not over. The White House was stunned by the decision: Judson had ignored the “great [and] important political bearing” of the case, complained the president’s son, John Van Buren.

The Van Buren administration immediately filed an appeal with the circuit court. The court upheld the decision, however, meaning that the case would now go before the U.S. Supreme Court, where five of the justices, including Chief Justice Roger Taney, were southerners who were or had been slave owners.

Meanwhile, the Africans had become a public spectacle. Curious townspeople and visitors watched them exercise daily on the New Haven green, while many others paid the jailer for a peek at the foreigners in their cells. Some of the most poignant newspaper stories came from professors and students from Yale College and the Theological Seminary who instructed the captives in English and Christianity.

But the most compelling attraction was Cinqué. In his mid-twenties, he was taller than most Mende people, married with three children, and, according to the contemporary portrait by New England abolitionist Nathaniel Jocelyn, majestic, lightly bronzed, and strikingly handsome. Then there were the children, including Kale, who learned enough English to become the spokesperson for the group.

The supreme court began hearing arguments on February 22, 1841. Van Buren had already lost the election, partly, and somewhat ironically, because his Amistad policy was so blatantly pro-South that it alienated northern Democrats.

/>"The Trial of the Amistad Captives." (A 1939 oil on canvas painting by Hale Woodruff, now in the collection of Savery Library, Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama / National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The abolitionists wanted someone of national stature to join Baldwin in the defense and finally persuaded former President John Quincy Adams to take the case even though he was 73 years old, nearly deaf, and had been absent from the courtroom for three decades. Now a congressman from Massachusetts, Adams was irascible and hard-nosed, politically independent, and self-righteous to the point of martyrdom.

He was fervently antislavery, though not an abolitionist, and had been advising Baldwin on the case since its inception. His effort became a personal crusade when the young Kale wrote him a witty and touching letter, which appeared in the Emancipator and concluded with the ringing words, “All we want is make us free.”

Baldwin opened the defense before the Supreme Court with another lengthy appeal to natural law, then gave way to Adams, who delivered an emotional eight-hour argument that stretched over two days. In the small, hot, and humid room beneath the Senate chamber, Adams challenged the Court to grant liberty on the basis of natural rights doctrines found in the Declaration of Independence.

Pointing to a copy of the document mounted on a huge pillar, he proclaimed that, “I know of no other law that reaches the case of my clients, but the law of Nature and of Nature’s God on which our fathers placed our own national existence.”

The Africans, he proclaimed, were victims of a monstrous conspiracy led by the executive branch in Washington that denied their rights as human beings.

Adams and Baldwin were eloquent in their pleas for justice based on higher principles. As Justice Joseph Story wrote to his wife, Adams’s argument was “extraordinary … for its power, for its bitter sarcasm, and its dealing with topics far beyond the records and points of discussion.”

/>John Quincy Adams, 11 Jul 1767 - 23 Feb 1848 (Oil on canvas portrait by William Hudson, Jr./ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

On March 9, Story read a decision that could not have surprised those who knew anything about the man.

An eminent scholar and jurist, Story was rigidly conservative and strongly nationalistic, but he was as sensitive to an individual’s rights as he was a strict adherent to the law. Although he found slavery repugnant and contrary to Christian morality, he supported the laws protecting its existence and opposed the abolitionists as threats to ordered society. Property rights, he believed, were the basis of civilization.

Even so, Story handed down a decision that freed the mutineers on the grounds argued by the defense. The ownership papers were fraudulent, making the captives “kidnapped Africans” who had the inherent right of self-defense in accordance with the “eternal principles of justice.”

Furthermore, Story reversed Judson’s decision ordering the captives’ return to Africa because there was no American legislation authorizing such an act. The outcome drew Leavitt’s caustic remark that Van Buren’s executive order attempting to return the Africans to Cuba as slaves should be ‘engraved on his tomb, to rot only with his memory.’

The abolitionists pronounced the decision a milestone in their long and bitter fight against the “peculiar institution.”

To them, and to the interested public, Story’s “eternal principles of justice” were the same as those advocated by Adams. Although Story had focused on self-defense, the victorious abolitionists broadened the meaning of his words to condemn the immorality of slavery.

They reprinted thousands of copies of the defense argument in pamphlet form, hoping to awaken a larger segment of the public to the sordid and inhumane character of slavery and the slave trade. In the highest public forum in the land, the abolitionists had brought national attention to a great social injustice.

For the first and only time in history, African blacks seized by slave dealers and brought to the New World won their freedom in American courts.

/>"The Repatriation of the Freed Captives" (A 1939 oil on canvas painting by Hale Woodruff, now in the collection of Savery Library, Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama / National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The final chapter in the saga was the captives’ return to Africa. The abolitionists first sought damage compensation for them, but even Adams had to agree with Baldwin that, despite months of captivity because bail had been denied, the “regular” judicial process had detained the Africans, and liability for false imprisonment hinged only on whether the officials’ acts were “malicious and without probable cause.”

To achieve equity, Adams suggested that the federal government finance the captives’ return to Africa. But President John Tyler, himself a Virginia slaveholder, refused on the grounds that, as Judge Story had ruled, no law authorized such action.

To charter a vessel for the long trip to Sierra Leone, the abolitionists raised money from private donations, public exhibitions of the Africans, and contributions from the Union Missionary Society, which black Americans had formed in Hartford to found a Christian mission in Africa.

On Nov. 25, 1841, the remaining 35 Amistad captives, accompanied by James Covey and five missionaries, departed from New York for Africa on a small sailing vessel named the Gentleman. The British governor of Sierra Leone welcomed them the following January — almost three years after their initial incarceration by slave traders.

The aftermath of the Amistad affair is hazy.

One of the girls, Margru, returned to the United States and entered Oberlin College, in Ohio, to prepare for mission work among her people. She was educated at the expense of the American Missionary Association (AMA), established in 1846 as an outgrowth of the Amistad Committee and the first of its kind in Africa.

Cinqué returned to his home, where tribal wars had scattered or perhaps killed his family. Some scholars insist that he remained in Africa, working for some time as an interpreter at the AMA mission in Kaw-Mende before his death around 1879.

No conclusive evidence has surfaced to determine whether Cinqué was reunited with his wife and three children, and for that same reason there is no justification for the oft-made assertion that he himself engaged in the slave trade.

The importance of the Amistad case lies in the fact that Cinqué and his fellow captives, in collaboration with white abolitionists, had won their freedom and thereby encouraged others to continue the struggle.

Positive law had come into conflict with natural law, exposing the great need to change the Constitution and American laws in compliance with the moral principles underlying the Declaration of Independence.

In that sense the incident contributed to the fight against slavery by helping to lay the basis for its abolition through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

Hell on the water

Just one slaving expedition to Africa could make a fortune for investors, captain and crew. And the U.S. Navy rarely stopped the illicit traffic.

This article by Dr. Howard Jones originally appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of American History Magazine, a sister publication of Navy Times. Jones is the author of numerous books, including Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy, published by Oxford University Press. For more great articles, be sure to pick up your copy of American History.


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.

Amistad Mutiny - History

Significance in US History : The Amistad Mutiny

The mutiny on Amistad may as well be considered tantamount to the equivalence of stepping stones of abolsihing slavery. As for US History, it serves as a way to preach the moral values and humanity of any individual, no matter their skin color of ethnic background. It was a significant step in the right direction towards mankind in general, not just subject to the United States. At the time of action, slavery in the United States (as well as many other countries) was legal. And it was to people like John Quincy Adams, supporting the Abolitionist movement, who make the situation more prevalent a cause as a result. The Amistad case sparked the revival of interest in the ideology of "all humans are born equal."

In fact, a primary source documentation of the event from the perspective of the Chief Justice goes as follows: &ldquo And he makes the argument in the court case that we have the Declaration of Independence right there on that wall and that says that life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness&hellip It doesn&rsquot say for white people only, or anything like that. He was arguing, trying to argue, that it&rsquos something that&rsquos available for everyone, it&rsquos part of the justice system. &rdquo As shown by a fragment of transcripted documentation, the revival of the Declaration of Independence was brought about and that made many individuals question the fundamental rights of the Amistad disaster before them. Consequently, the revival of the Declaration also served as proof that this significant event influenced the natural course of progression of women's rights which will be further discussed in the next segment.

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The true essence of this event is that it converted the definition of slavery. It went from slaves being meager entities of property to them connecting to all humans on an emotional level and made the concept widespread as a political issue in the United States.

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What was the stage of the US after the Amistad mutiny?

The entire motion set into action by the event of the Amistad chaos was incredible because many submovements were formed. The division between African Americans and Americans was becoming less substantial by the day and that by far was one of the most prevalent effects. After the captured Amsitad were sent back to their home country, America pressed the matter of rights because it was particularly unusual for the court to side with the African Americans in this time period. And as such, black abolitionists wanted to make the most out of this brilliant outcome and likewise, convince American activists to alter their mindset. However, this revival died down a bit because slaves were still being treated the same and no breakthrough was perceived. But at the same time, that necessarily doesn't mean that changes for the better occurred. For instance, Howard Jones, history professor at the University of Virginia, said that this was a prominent step forward for African Americans. The abolitionists gained a sense of hope and inspiration that powered them, according to Jones.

" And the abolitionists immediately printed pamphlets, leaflets, had talks, everything they could to show that these people went free, and their implication was, this is what&rsquos going to happen to slavery itself. That this is a great victory for the black man," preached Howard Jones. Yet, amidst all of the talking done of the verdict, no fundamental changes really occurred. The sad reality was that slave trades were still occurring, and racial segregation was ongoing. Although not much occured in this period as far as the advancement of rights for slaves were concerned, the growing inspiration by the abolitionists through the spread of pamphlets, and leaflets, were slowly but surely gaining recognition. In that sense, Howard Jones was indeed accurate. Perhaps, this was a turning point in favor of racial equality in the United States. Without this jump start, the issue might've not been considered a "violation of human rights" but rather a "common norm". That may've caused the United States to still have slaves present around today, which we now are taught better to understand the cruel nature of the bitter concept of slavery. The Amistad most definitely contributed to slave uprisings in the US.

The pictures above are symbolic of the prevalence of pamphlets, leaflets, and other ways of spreading the information that the abolitionists want the public to see and accept. These were brought about by the Amistad Mutiny and serve as a reminder of the inspired abolitionists that have shaped the future of the US.

The Amistad Revolt: ɺ Tale of Triumph'

ONE HUNDRED and fifty years ago, on board the ship Amistad, 53 kidnapped Africans refused to accept the fate of slaves. Instead they rose up, killed the captain and sailed away. Thinking they were headed back to Africa, they became lost at sea and wound up on Long Island. They were eventually brought to New Haven where they stood trial for murder.

The story, Connecticut scholars said, was not as dramatic as some historical events that have drawn more attention. And it may have been forgotten had it not been for reminders like an oil painting of the leader of the African captives, Cinque. Now the portrait has become part of an 18-panel exhibit commemorating the Amistad story at the New Haven Colony Historical Society.

Called 'ɿree Men: The Amistad Revolt and the American Anti-Slavery Movement,'' the exhibit runs through Jan. 19. On Feb. 4, it will be moved to the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, which is a co-sponsor of a celebration to mark the anniversary, and it will remain there until the middle of June. Robert Egleston, executive director of the New Haven society, said the celebration was the first of its kind in the state and possibly in the country.

The celebration also includes lectures, student art shows, symposiums, music and theatrical performances, many of which were coordinated by the Amistad Committee in New Haven, which was organized this year for the 150th commemoration.

Today at 1:30 P.M., the Farmington Historical Society will conduct a tour of the local burial grounds to the only Amistad landmark in the state, a gavestone marked Foone. During the Amistad trials, the accused Africans stayed for a while in Farmington, and Foone was a captive who had drowned in the Farmington River.

''The Amistad has gotten lost in American history because the results of it were subtle,'' Mr. Egleston said. ''It wasn't like the Dred Scott case.'' Nevertheless, it has often been called the first civil rights case in the United States.

Sylvia Ardyn Boone, a member of the Amistad Committee, said, ''It is one of those stories that has been ignored but which everyone thinks they've discovered on their own.'' Ms. Boone, who has participated in symposiums on the Amistad, is an associate professor of history of art and African and African-American studies at Yale University.

''It's a story for everyone to teach, to study,'' she said. ''It's got so many aspects. It's a tale of triumph.''

The tale began in the spring of 1839 in Western Africa when adults and children from the Mende region were kidnapped and put on the ship Tecora to be traded as slaves in Havana. While slavery was still legal in Cuba and the United States, the Spanish govenrnment had banned slave trading so papers were drawn up by the captors stating the Africans were already legitimate slaves.

In Cuba, two Spaniards bought the 53 Africans who survived the voyage and, along with some Spanish sailors, they boarded a 60-foot clipper ship called the Amistad, to sail to another island. Near the end of the three-day journey, on July 1, 1839, the African captives seized control of the boat and killed the captain and the cook the sailors jumped overboard.

Cinque forced the two Spaniards to set sai for Africa, but the men altered their course at night. The ship wound up on Long Island two months later. When they reached the island, 43 of the Africans were alive starvation and illness caused the deaths of 10 others. Sailors aboard the Washington, an American naval ship, seized the Amistad and arrested the Africans, including the children.

Charged with mutiny and murder, they were held in limbo in Connecticut for more than two years. Legal maneuvers, appeals and assorted claims sent their case back and forth through various judicial levels. There were issues concerning ownership of the vessel and the Africans, whether indeed they had ever been slaves, their extradition to Cuba and how all of this would affect slavery in the United States. At one point, charges were dismissed when it was ruled that the Amistad was a Spanish ship overtaken on Spanish waters and that the United States had no jurisdiction over the case.

During the trials, the Africans lived in a jailhouse, now the site of City Hall, adjacent to the New Haven Green, and in Farmington.

Because the Africans spoke no English, a Yale professor, Josiah Willard Gibbs, learned to count to 10 in the Mende language so that he could find an interpreter. He went to a harbor in New York and began counting aloud. A sailor, James Covey, responded and agreed to go to Connecticut to help his fellow Mende.

''Without him, they couldn't tell their side of their story, because there was a preconceived idea that the Mende were pirates and murderers,'' said Mr. Egleston, who added that Mr. Covey also taught Yale students to speak Mende so that they could help the Africans with English.

Former President John Quincy Adams joined their defense when the case made it to the United States Supreme Court. Since the Africans had never been slaves, they were eventually free to go home. In November 1841, they left for Sierra Leone through funds raised by abolitionists. Bravery and Justice

But, Mr. Egleston said, the story goes beyond one of bravery and legal justice. The incident played a major role in the solidification of the abolition movement, which at the time was seen as an ''unpopular, obnoxious, trouble-making, fragmented group,'' he said. The Africans aboard the Amistad, he said, gave the abolitionists a specific, central cause to rally around, a vehicle in which to illustrate their mission: the injustice of slavery.

''It had a lot to do with legitimizing the whole movement,'' he said. During the first trial in 1839, three clergymen who were abolitionists formed the Amistad Committee, which later became the American Missionary Association and remains in existence today. The association founded 10 universities including Fisk in Nashville and Howard in Washington. It also supports education for black students and operates the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans. Opponents of Slavery

''The Amistad was a nice case study of how religious leaders came to the defense of the captives,'' said Frank Kirkpatrick, professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, who has also participated in lectures as part of the celebration. ''The Amistad case enabled the opponents of slavery to publicize their cause in a way they couldn't do before,'' he said.

One of the 18 boards that make up the New Haven exhibition depicts that publicity. It contains an 1839 story from the New York City newspaper, Herald of Freedom, that says: 'ɼinque is no pirate, no murderer, no felon. Had a white man done it, it would have been glorious. It would have immortalized him.''

Other panels include documents, portraits, prints, photographs, paintings and blown-up color photographs of murals that depict scenes, including many of the mutiny, on the Amistad. In glass cases are slave shackles and a neck chain, a model of the Amistad, a pair of gold earrings made by a Mende, a few helmet masks, a wicker basket and woven cloth.

One goal of the Amistad Committee, Ms. Boone said, is to commission a sculptor to make a statue of Cinque to be placed in front of the City Hall in New Haven.

On one of the boards, which has the oil painting of Cinque, are the words, 'ɺll we want is make us free,'' which was taken from a letter written by a captive, Mr. Egleston said. And, he said, in a sense that same struggle is still going on today, which may partially explain the appeal of the story.

''The freedom the captives were looking for is still not available for many minorities,'' he said.


AMISTAD MUTINY Slave mutinies were a constant threat to captains of ships engaged in the Atlantic slave trade. It has been estimated that nearly two hundred slave-inspired mutinies occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries alone. A classic example of this form of black resistance to enslave­ment is the Amistad mutiny of 1839.

The Amistad was a Spanish coastal schooner which set sail from the Havana slave market to the port of Granaja, Puerto Principe on June 28, 1839. Enroute, the African human cargo, led by Singbe-Pieh (called "Joseph Cinque" by the Spanish), successfully revolted and slew the ship's captain and most of the crew with sugar cane machetes. Although Cinque and his fellow mutineers had ordered the remaining Spanish aboard to steer an eastern course toward Africa, navigational trickery on the part of the Spanish ulti­mately resulted in the Amistad reaching Long Island, near Montauk Point, in American waters. Subsequently seized by an American naval vessel, the Amistad mutineers were arrested and charged with piracy on the high seas.
The Van Buren administration in Washington, hoping to avoid an international confrontation with Spain and domestic aliena­tion of southern slave-holding interests, wanted to return the Amistad mutineers to their Spanish "owners." American aboli­tionists, however, quickly came to the defense of Cinque and his fellow Africans. The abolitionists enlisted the support of former
president John Quincy Adams, who eloquently defended the Amistad mutineers before the United States Supreme Court in 1841. Adams argued that the Africans themselves had been kidnapped illegally according to the various international prohibi­tions against the slave trade and were, therefore, free. The Court, with one dissenting vote, agreed with Adams and declared that the former Spanish slaves were indeed free and entitled to return to their African homeland.

Amistad Mutiny

The Amistad Mutiny involved Spanish slaves who took over a slave ship and sailed it to the U.S. and were sent back to Africa after a dramatic Supreme Court case.

In 1839 fifty-four slaves on the Spanish schooner Amistad mutinied near Cuba, murdered part of the crew, and attempted to cause the remainder to sail to Africa. They landed on Long Island Sound in the jurisdiction of American courts. Piracy charges were quashed, it being held that it was not piracy for persons to rise up against those who illegally held them captive. Salvage claims, initially awarded by legal proceedings in Connecticut, were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841 and the Africans were freed. Former President John Quincy Adams represented the Africans before the Supreme Court. Abolitionists, who made the cause their own, provided their transportation back to Africa, and the organized support on their behalf played a part in the later establishment of the American Missionary Association.

A 1997 Hollywood movie "Amistad" by Steven Spielberg made the episode famous again.

Watch the video: The Amistad Story (June 2022).


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