On July 2, 1839, off the coast of Cuba, fifty-three West Africans took control
of the slave ship Amistad. Their actions and the US legal trials they
spurred had profound and far-reaching historical consequences. The Amistad case
galvanized the nascent abolitionist movement in the American North, intensified
US tensions over slavery, prompted a former US president to censure an active
administration, upset diplomatic ties between Spain and the US, initiated Christian
missionary activity in West Africa, and focused international attention on the
issue of universal civil rights.
While traveling between the Cuban ports of Havana and Puerto Principe, Mende-speaking
captives overpowered the crew of the Amistad. The crew included five Spaniards,
a mulatto cook, and a black cabin boy. On the third night of the voyage, the
leader of the uprising, Sengbe Pieh, who would become known to Americans as
Joseph Cinque, freed himself and others from their irons with a nail he found
on the ships deck. Sengbe and fellow captive, Grabeau, armed the Africans
with sugar cane knives. The ships cook, who had taunted the captives insinuating
they would be eaten upon their arrival in Puerto Principe, was killed immediately
and the ships captain slain shortly thereafter. Ten of the Mende were
killed during the uprising. Two crewmen fled via the stern boat. The cabin boy,
a teenager named Antonio, was spared. Two injured Spaniards, Pedro Montes and
Jose Ruiz surrendered. Ruiz and Montes were kept as hostages to help the Africans
navigate the ship back to their homeland. During the day, Montes sailed east
toward Africa; at night he subtly reversed the ships course, hoping to
make landfall in North America. After two months of a northerly zigzag course
and pushed along by weather and current, the Amistad made land fall on the coast
of Long Island, New York.
On the morning of August 26, 1839, several of the Amistads Africans came
upon Montauk Point, Long Island seeking to trade for food and water. They encountered
Henry Green, an American sea captain, and his companions hunting birds. Despite
a language barrier, the Africans enlisted the Americans help, offering
them the ships gold in exchange for provisions for a transatlantic return
to West Africa. As the Africans and the Americans attempted to board the Amistad,
the US Coast Guard brig Washington, intercepted them, boarded the Amistad at
gunpoint, and towed the vessel to New Haven, Connecticut. Sengbe attempted to
swim to shore but was recaptured.
The events surrounding the Amistad incited a variety of legal actions. The
commander of the Washington, Lieutenant Thomas Gedney, attempted to claim the
salvage rights of the Amistads valuable cargo of gold, silk, wine, and
saddles; his claim included the Mende captives as well. The Amistad Spaniards,
Montes and Ruiz, filed criminal charges of piracy and murder against the Africans
and claimed them as property. The Spanish ambassador insisted that the US had
no jurisdiction over Spanish subjects and demanded that the Amistad, its cargo,
and its passengers be returned to Havana for trial.
US president Martin Van Buren was anxious to comply with Spains demands.
Both foreign and domestic issues were stake. The administration wished to appease
the Spanish crown as well as avoid the possibility of exposing illegal slave
trading in Cuba, thus inviting English intervention in a region of great interest
to the US. With the 1840 presidential election on the horizon, Van Buren was
especially eager to maintain support from pro-slavery Southern democrats and
protect his tenuous North-South alliance by avoiding a public controversy over
slavery. Connecticuts US district attorney, William Holabird, ordered
a judicial hearing to determine if the US had jurisdiction over the Cuban ship
and, if so, if any crimes had been committed. After hearing the testimony of
Montes, Ruiz, and the Washingtons first mate, district judge Andrew Judson
referred the case for trial and ordered the Africans into the custody of the
New Haven county jail.
The presence of the forty-three Africans who had survived the ordeal of the
Amistad garnered the attention of New Englanders and other Americans. Thousands
of visitors flocked to the county jail. Newspapers throughout the nation paid
great attention to the case. Theaters in the northeast staged plays about the
Amistad uprising and museums displayed wax figures depicting the West Africans.
After the Amistad trials concluded, the Africans themselves gave presentations
attracting American audiences. During and after their detainment, the Mende
received religious instruction in English. Many learned to communicate in English,
and Sengbe, in particular, became a renowned figure of public fascination and
Among those drawn to the Amistad case, Christian abolitionist Lewis Tappan
saw it as an opportunity to strengthen the regions fledgling antislavery
movement. Tappan organized the Amistad Committee to raise funds for the detained
Africans and enlisted the attorney Roger Baldwin on their behalf. The Amistad
Committee gathered Puritan abolitionists like Joshua Leavitt and Simeon Jocelyn
who saw the arrival of the Amistad as a divine occurrence and an occasion to
raise public awareness of anti-slavery as a moral issue. Ultimately, their organization
would pioneer missionary abolitionism.
In September 1839 the Africans were transferred to Hartford for a circuit court trial under Judge Smith Thompson, member of the US Supreme Court. Holabird argued for the prisoners to be turned over to President Van Buren as a matter of foreign diplomacy. Baldwin argued that because the slave trade had been illegal since 1808, the Africans could not be considered the legal property of anyone. Judge Thompson concluded that since the alleged crimes had occurred in international waters and did not involve US citizens, the circuit court had no jurisdiction. Thompson ruled that while the Africans could no longer be considered prisoners, they should be detained until the district court determined whether or not they were property and, if so, of whom.
In the months leading up to the district court trial, the defense prepared
its case based on the testimony of the Africans. Yale philologist, Josiah Gibbs,
determined that the Africans were Mende-speakers from a region of southern Sierra
Leone. In an effort to locate a fluent translator, Gibbs walked New York and
New Haven waterfronts counting aloud in Mende. Gibbs recitations ultimately
caught the ear of a twenty-two year old Afro-British naval seaman named James
Covey. Covey had been kidnapped from Sierra Leone as a child and intercepted
by the British en route to Cuba. After returning to Sierra Leone, Covey joined
the British navy and served on the warship Buzzard. Charles Pratt, also a Mende-speaker
from a region south of Sierra Leone, and a cook on the Buzzard, accompanied
Covey to speak with the detainees.
As translator, James Covey revealed the experiences of the Mende captives.
In January 1839, they had been kidnapped in Sierra Leone by African slavers
and taken to a slave factory on the coast. They made the two-month Atlantic
crossing on the Portuguese ship Tecora carrying approximately 500 West African
captives to Cuba. While many died on the crossing, those who survived were marched
through the Cuban jungle to slave warehouses. Ten days later they were taken
to the Misericordia slave barracks in Havana where Ruiz and Montes, sugar plantation
owners, purchased forty-nine adult men, one boy, and three girls. The captives
were taken aboard an American-built vessel bearing the Spanish word for friendship,
Because an 1817 treaty between England and Spain prohibited the transport of
slaves from Africa to Spanish dominions, including Cuba, the captives on the
Amistad were accompanied by false documents. The forged papers claimed that
the Africans had been born into slavery in Spanish territory before the treaty
took effect in 1820. Montes changed Sengbe Piehs name to Jose Cinque in
order to suggest his Spanish origins. However, the fact that four of the captives
were children under nine years of age belied the possibility that their birth
preceded the twenty-year old treaty. The fact that none of the captives spoke
Spanish was also a counter-indicator. However, despite the efforts of British
patrollers to deter the trade, it was not uncommon for Spanish slavers to operate
successfully with forged documents.
In October 1839, Tappan encouraged some of the Amistad Africans to bring charges
against Montes and Ruiz for false imprisonment and assault and battery. After
the Spaniards were arrested in New York City, they paid their bail and absconded
to Cuba. Montes and Ruiz claimed Antonio, the Amistads cabin boy, as their
property. Because Antonio had been born in Spain, he was considered a slave
under Spanish law; thus the court ordered his return to Cuba. However, before
the trials concluded, American abolitionists would help Antonio escape to freedom
During the civil trial for the Amistad case in November, the defense presented
evidence for the Africans legal standing as free persons. Baldwin argued
that the Africans had not been born into legal slavery in Cuba, but kidnapped
illegally from Sierra Leone. Gibbs testified that the defendants did not speak
Spanish but Mende. The British anti-slavery commissioner to Cuba, Richard Madden,
testified to the persistence of an illegal slave trade in Cuba based on fraudulent
documents. Ultimately Madden would relay the case directly to Englands
Queen Victoria. Sengbe, via James Covey, testified to the Africans experience
and their brutal treatment by their captors. Sengbes presence and charisma
impressed more than a few of the Americans and his testimony deeply moved many
of the trials observers. The attorney representing Gedney attempted to
argue that Cinque was a slave trader. Several of the Mende testified as did
the Afro-Spaniard Antonio. Holabird presented testimony from the crew of the
Washington and offered statements from the Spanish consul urging the return
of the Amistad captives and cargo to Spanish jurisdiction.
On January 13, 1840, Judge Judson ruled that the Africans had been born free
and captured in violation of international law prohibiting the slave trade and
the Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1817. The decision deeply disappointed President
Van Buren who, in anticipation of a decision favoring Spanish jurisdiction,
had docked the naval ship Grampus in New Haven so that the Africans might be
returned immediately to Cuba. Van Buren had issued secret orders that the Africans
were to be returned to Cuba before an appeal could be filed. However, it was
the Van Buren administration that filed an appeal. After the decision was affirmed
by Judge Thompson, the administration appealed to the US Supreme Court.
On February 22, 1841, eighteen months after the Amistad Africans had arrived
in Connecticut, their case was brought before the US Supreme Court. Five of
the nine justices on the court were either current or former slaveholders. Tappan
enlisted former president and then congressman John Quincy Adams to defend the
Mende. Adams appealed to the principles of natural rights underlying the Declaration
of Independence and argued that the Africans had the inherent right of freedom.
He also argued that by Spains own laws, the detainees were free persons.
He reprimanded president Van Buren for dispatching the Grampus and for withholding
and forging vital documents relevant to the Africans defense. Adams
powerful seven-hour argument earned him the nickname, Old Man Eloquent.
On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court, dominated by Southern sympathizes, issued
a landmark ruling based on the universal right of all people to resist extreme
oppression. The verdict declared that the Amistad Africans were free persons.
The court decisions did not quell the political conflict raised by the Amistad
case. Proslavery senator John Calhoun authored resolutions calling for the return
of the Africans to Spain. President John Tyler, who had succeeded Van Buren
by the time the Supreme Court rendered the decision, refused to provide a ship
for the Africans return. The Amistad Committee and the Mende raised money
to charter a ship.
In November 1841, the thirty-four Africans who had survived the Amistad and
its trials sailed to Sierra Leone aboard the Gentleman. They were accompanied
by five American missionaries including two African Americans, Mr. and Mrs.
Henry Wilson, and three white Americans, Reverend and Mrs. William Raymond,
and Reverend James Steele. The Amistad Committee, which became the American
Missionary Association in 1846, inaugurated American missionary activity in
Africa when they established the Mendi Mission in Sierra Leone. One of the former
Amistad captives, Margru, returned to the US to study at Oberlin College to
prepare for her missionary work in Sierra Leone. The establishment of mission
schools in Sierra Leone had far-reaching effects. Two of their graduates, Barnabas
Root and Thomas Tucker, came to the US in the 1860s and helped to found several
of North Americas first black colleges. These missionary schools also
produced several graduates who became important nationalists and leaders in
Spain continued to press the US for compensation for the Amistad, and controversy
surrounding the issue persisted for years in Congress and diplomatic circles.
Subsequent American presidents continued to support Spains claim. However,
the House of Representatives, led by John Quincy Adams until his death in 1847,
repeatedly denied compensation to Spain. With the election of president Abraham
Lincoln in 1860 and the defeat of slave-holding interests on the US political
stage, efforts to compensate Spain ended.
The actions of the Africans on the Amistad and the legal battles they inspired dealt a crucial ideological blow to slavery in the United States. The issues surrounding the case and the agency and assertions of the Amistad Africans forced participants and observers to grapple with the ethical, legal, and political dimensions of nineteenth-century slavery. The Amistad trials helped to solidify and advance a fledgling anti-slavery movement in the American North and placed the conflict between property rights and human rights on an international stage. The case ultimately spawned the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and inaugurated a reformist abolitionist movement that attempted to alter national policy. These efforts, directly traceable to the uprising on the Amistad, intensified debates over slavery and thus presaged the tensions that ignited the American Civil War and the end of American slavery.