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 ship’s deck. Sengbe and fellow captive, Grabeau, armed the Africans with sugar cane knives. The ship’s cook, who had taunted the captives insinuating they would be eaten upon their arrival in Puerto Principe, was killed immediately and the ship’s 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 ship’s 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 Amistad’s 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 ship’s 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 Amistad’s 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 Spain’s 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. Connecticut’s 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 Washington’s 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 admiration.

Among those drawn to the Amistad case, Christian abolitionist Lewis Tappan saw it as an opportunity to strengthen the region’s 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,” La Amistad.

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 Pieh’s 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 Amistad’s 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 in Canada.

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 England’s Queen Victoria. Sengbe, via James Covey, testified to the Africans’ experience and their brutal treatment by their captors. Sengbe’s presence and charisma impressed more than a few of the Americans and his testimony deeply moved many of the trial’s 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 Spain’s 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 America’s first black colleges. These missionary schools also produced several graduates who became important nationalists and leaders in Sierra Leone.

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 Spain’s 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.