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Amistad Mutiny 1839

Amistad Mutiny 1839


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Amistad Mutiny 1839

The Amistad Mutiny occurred off the northern coast of Cuba in July 1839. The Spanish Schooner La Amistad was seized by African captives not long after it left Cuba around 2nd July. The captives had been taken in Africa by a Portuguese slaving ship and then smuggled into Havana under cover of nightfall as this was a violation of treaty signed in 1817 between Britain and Spain (who owned Cuba), which forbade trading in slaves. The captives, lead by either Sengbe Pieh or Joseph Cinque, quickly over-powered the crew and killed the ship’s Captain and the cook and possibly several other members of the crew. Now in control of the ship they forced the remaining crew to sail back to Africa but the crew actually sailed the ship northwards so that the ship ended up in New York state waters.

On 25th August the now starving crew and mutineers anchored the ship off Long Island in search of provisions. They were spotted by the crew of the USS Washington and after a brief struggle they surrendered and were towed to New London Connecticut. They were then imprisoned to await trial, the case became well known internationally. The ship owners argued that the captives had been slaves when purchased in Cuba so should be tried for piracy and murder, with the Spanish and Cuban Authorities demanding that the Americans return the ship and its human ‘cargo’ (39 adults and 4 children). Anti Slavery campaigners rallied to the mutineers’ defence trying to prove that they had been unlawfully enslaved and it was seen as a test case for the principle of natural rights applying to black people.

When the court case was heard in September 1839 thousands gathered but the case was just referred to the US district court this delayed a ruling until January 1840. The judge Andrew T. Judson ruled that the mutineers had been illegally kidnapped and sold and had legally rebelled to win their freedom and ordered the return of the captives to Africa. The US Government had not expected this verdict and was expecting to return the ship and captives to Spain and even had the USS Grampus waiting in a nearby harbour to do so. The Government now appealed but in May the judgement was upheld and the case was sent to the Supreme Court. Most agree that the Supreme Court was far from balanced with most of the court, including the judge being slave owners, although the defence did have former US president John Quincy Adams argue the case before the court. To the surprise of the Government once again the judgement was upheld and the mutineers were set free in March 1841. By November 1841 the surviving thirty five Africans left the US for Sierra Leone under British Protection.

Joseph Cinqué

Sengbe Pieh (c. 1814 – c. 1879), [1] also known as Joseph Cinqué or Cinquez [ citation needed ] and sometimes referred to mononymously as Cinqué, was a West African man of the Mende people who led a revolt of many Africans on the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. After the ship was taken into custody by the United States Revenue Cutter Service, Cinqué and his fellow Africans were eventually tried for mutiny and killing officers on the ship, in a case known as United States v. The Amistad. This reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where Cinqué and his fellow Africans were found to have rightfully defended themselves from being enslaved through the illegal Atlantic slave trade and were released. Americans helped raise money for the return of 35 of the survivors to Sierra Leone.


Amistad: Slave Ship in American Waters

Despite strong opposition, an illegal slave trade still flourished in certain areas of the world during the first half of the nineteenth century. Africans captured by slave traders were taken to Cuba where they were confined in holding pens in Havana and then sent to work at sugar plantations on the island. Between 1837 and 1839, twenty-five thousand Africans were kidnapped and brought to Cuba. In February 1839, six hundred people from Sierra Leone, or as they called it, Mendeland, were captured and brought to the island nation.

Staged by Joseph Cinque and his fellow captives.

This excerpt from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History explains further:

Most of the Amistad (which means friendship in Spanish) captives were Mende from Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa. Today, the Mende, the most numerous cultural group in Sierra Leone, number over 1.5 million people, with 60 independent chiefdoms. Among the Mende – primarily rice farmers living in small rural villages – all women become social beings by means of initiation into the Sande (or Bondo) society men belonged to the powerful Poro society. This initiation provides the moral base for an ordered adult life, transforming children into adults. Initiation into these and similar societies gives their members social identities and a shared understanding of the wider world occupied by the living, the dead, and the gods.

The Amistad captives held this identity and understanding, both in common. … Most of the Amistad captives were young men and girls, abducted precisely because as healthy young adults they were more likely to survive the cruel Middle Passage from Africa to the Caribbean and to fetch high prices at auction. Since all of these young men and women had been recently initiated into one of these societies, the values, power, and sense of unity the societies imparted were fresh in their minds. … Ironically, the qualities that made the captives suitable cargo and slaves also made them more likely to act in concert and revolt.

Two Spanish planters purchased the Africans for $450 each on June 26, 1839 and gave them false papers and Spanish names. On June 28, the Spanish ship Amistad – a 200-ton cargo schooner built in Baltimore – sailed from Havana, Cuba with forty-nine young men, one boy and three young women. Their destination was Puerto Principe, Cuba, where they would be subjected to a lifetime of slavery on sugar plantations.

Amistad Mutiny

Four days out of port, the forty-nine Africans picked their locks and slaughtered most of the crew. Led by Sengbe Pieh (known in America as Joseph Cinque), took control of the vessel and ordered the three crewmen who had survived to sail toward Africa. Although the ship sailed east during the day, at night, its course was altered to the northwest, toward United States.

Slave Ship in American Waters

Finally, with supplies exhausted and rigging shredded, the Amistad entered the waters of Long Island Sound on August 24, 1839 and sent a shore party to get provisions. By then, ten of the Mende had died – two during the revolt, the rest from thirst or disease.

Amistad Capture

The U.S. Navy crew of the U.S.S. Washington captured the Amistad the following day and towed the vessel into the harbor at New London, Connecticut. At a judicial hearing held on the U.S.S. Washington on August 27, 1839, Federal District Judge Andrew Judson ordered that Cinque and the others must stand trial for murder and piracy at the next session of the Circuit Court, due to open on September 17 at Hartford, Connecticut. The Africans were consigned to the county jail in New Haven to await their trial. A primary issue was whether the Mende would be considered slaves or free.

Well-known New York abolitionist Lewis Tappan formed the Friend of Amistad Africans Committee in September 1839 to aid the young captives. In October 1839, Professor Josiah Gibbs found an interpreter, and the Africans were finally able to tell their story. Connecticut citizens began teaching the captives the English language. Cinque and his fellow Mendeland captives filed charges of assault and false imprisonment against the men who had purchased them in Havana.

The Trials

There were two Amistad trials, one criminal and one civil. On September 19, 1839, criminal charges – murder, mutiny, and piracy – were heard in the District Court by Justice Smith Thompson of the U. S. Supreme Court. The judge ruled that the court had no jurisdiction over the charges the alleged crimes had been committed on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters and were therefore not crimes punishable under U. S. law.

The Amistad civil trial began January 8, 1840, presided over by Judge Andrew Hudson. On January 15, 1840, the Court ordered the Africans be turned over to the President Martin Van Buren to be returned to Africa. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A leader in the Farmington abolitionist movement, Williams had the carriage house on his property rebuilt as dormatories for the Mende, who lived here about eight months.

United States v. The Amistad

Friend of Amistad Africans Committee persuaded Former President John Quincy Adams to argue the case before the Supreme Court. He reluctantly agreed:

The world, the flesh, and all the devils in hell are arrayed against any man who now in this North American Union shall dare to join the standard of Almighty God to put down the African slave trade and what can I, upon the verge of my 74th birthday, with a shaken hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with my faculties dropping from me one by one as the teeth are dropping from my head – what can I do for the cause of God and man, for the progress of human emancipation, for the suppression of the African slave-trade? Yet my conscience presses me on let me but die upon the breach.

On February 22, 1841, the Supreme Court began hearing the Amistad case, and Adams fought passionately for the captives’ freedom. On March 9, 1841 the decision came down. By a single vote, the High Court declared the Africans had been illegally enslaved and declared them free people with permission to return to their homeland.

Associate Justice Joseph Story delivered the Court’s decision, which reads in part:

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.

The institution of slavery had been challenged for the first time before the United States Supreme Court. Although it would take a Civil War and another 24 years to abolish slavery nationally, in this precedent-setting case the central issue was human rights versus property rights.

Mende Africans Welcomed in Farmington

The village of Farmington, Connecticut took in the Mende refugees while they awaited the raising of funds to procure passage aboard a ship back to Sierra Leone, west Africa. Several buildings in Farmington were used to house and teach the Africans. The upper floor of Union Hall, 13 Church Street, was often rented to both abolitionists and anti-abolitionist groups for meetings. Church women met there in 1841 to sew clothing for the Africans of Amistad.

Dedicated in 1992, this three-sided relief sculpture tells the story of Cinque’s journey.
At the previous site of the New Haven Jail, where the Mende were held
until they were freed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sailing for Home

In November 25, 1841, the thirty-five Africans who had survived the ordeal sailed toward Mendeland as free people on the ship Gentleman. Along with them were five missionaries who were sent under the auspices of the newly formed Union Missionary Society, a forerunner of the American Missionary Association. The group reached Sierra Leone in January 1842.

Today, the Mende, the most numerous cultural group in Sierra Leone, number more than one-and-a-half million people, with siixty independent chiefdoms.


The Deception

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

The Amistad being spotted by the USS Washington

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


Supreme Court rules on Amistad slave ship mutiny case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Amistad Mutineers Trial 1839

“[I]n the spring of 1839 a *young African, whose name was Cinque, was seized * to be sold into slavery… At Havana, Cinque and some fifty blacks * were purchased by two Spaniards who chartered the Amistad…. At night, the Africans, seizing weapons from the sleeping sailors, killed [the] Captain and the cook. With Cinque now in command, they tied the two owners …to the bridge and ordered them to steer… toward Africa. ”

A Pictorial History of African Americans, NY 1995, p.ll0

The Africans used the sun to steer by during the day. At night they had to depend upon the Spaniards to navigate.
“Days sailing east, nights sailing north by west – the Amistad left a zigzag wake in the waters of the Atlantic. By day Cinque steadfastly held her pointing to the east. By night, Montes, still hoping to… fall in with some man-o-war or to make some port, set the course as near a westerly direction as he dared…. On a blistering August day the Amistad came in sight of Long Island. ”

Slave Mutiny by William A. Owens, NY 1953, pp.80-1

“The Amistad was convoyed to New London, and the Africans… were charged before the United States Circuit Court… with murder of the Amistad’s captain…. Abolitionists flocked to their defense…. A brilliant battery of lawyers was in charge of the Africans’ defense. ”

A Practical History of African Americans, NY 1995, pp. 110-Il

“Enemies of President Van Buren… took issue with him openly…. Papers published statements that Van Buren had written [Judge] Judson personally while he had the Amistad case under consideration, urging Judson to return the Africans to the Spaniards. ‘Such flagrant interference of the Executive with the Judiciary strikes at the roots of our system of government’, the papers editorialized. ”

Slave Mutiny by William A. Owens, NY 1953, p.242

“John Quincy Adams, now a Congressman …was so moved by the plight of the captives that …having been out of law practice more than thirty years he nevertheless undertook to argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. ‘I implore …Almighty God… to give me utterance that I may prove myself in every respect equal to the task’. “

A Pictorial History of African Americans, NY 1995 p.113

The spectators’ vigil had not been in vain. They were to witness the trial of one President by another…. He took the Administration severely to task for interfering with the liberty of free individuals.

“Cinque and the AMISTAD Africans were destined to be * a national symbol…. they became a symbol of human justice achieved through legal procedure. Their case went from the lowest court to the highest – with a decision that struck a blow for freedom around the world. ”

-Slave Mutiny by William A. Owens, NY 1953, p.107,273

Take a closer look

MARCH 20, 1841, NEWSPAPER ACCOUNT OF SUPREME COURT DECISION FREEING THE AFRICANS NEWSPAPER ACCOUNT OF CIRCUIT COURT DENIAL OF HABEAS CORPUS
September 27, 1839 NEWSPAPER ACCOUNT OF DISTRICT COURT TRIAL


Amistad Mutiny 1839 - History

Early in the morning, Africans on the Cuban schooner Amistad rise up against their captors, killing two crewmembers and seizing control of the ship, which had been transporting them to a life of slavery on a sugar plantation at Puerto Principe, Cuba.

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

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

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

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

President Martin Van Buren appealed the decision, but another federal district court upheld Judson's findings. President Van Buren, in opposition to the abolitionist faction in Congress, appealed the decision again.

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


Amistad Mutiny 1839 - 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.


Mutiny on the Amistad

Early in the morning, enslaved Africans on the Cuban schooner Amistad rise up against their captors, killing two crew members and seizing control of the ship, which had been transporting them to a life of slavery on a sugar plantation at Puerto Principe, Cuba.

In 1807, the U.S. Congress joined with Great Britain in abolishing the African slave trade, although the trading of enslaved people within the United States was not prohibited.

Despite the international ban on the importation of enslaved Africans, Cuba continued to transport captive Africans to its sugar plantations until the 1860s, and Brazil to its coffee plantations until the 1850s.

On June 28, 1839, 53 people recently captured in Africa left Havana, Cuba, aboard the Amistad schooner for a sugar plantation at Puerto Principe, Cuba.

Three days later, Sengbe Pieh, a Membe African known as Cinque, freed himself and the other enslaved people and planned a mutiny.

Early in the morning of July 2, in the midst of a storm, the enslaved people rose up against their captors and, using sugar-cane knives found in the hold, killed the captain of the vessel and a crew member. Two other crew members were either thrown overboard or escaped, and Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, the two Cubans who had purchased the enslaved people, were captured.

Cinque ordered the Cubans to sail the Amistad east back to Africa. During the day, Ruiz and Montes complied, but at night they would turn the vessel in a northerly direction, toward U.S. waters.

After almost nearly two difficult months at sea, during which time more than a dozen Africans perished, what became known as the “black schooner” was first spotted by American vessels.

On August 26, the USS Washington, a U.S. Navy brig, seized the Amistad off the coast of Long Island and escorted it to New London, Connecticut. Ruiz and Montes were freed, and the Africans were imprisoned pending an investigation of the Amistad revolt.

The two Cubans demanded the return of their supposedly Cuban-born slaves, while the Spanish government called for the Africans’ extradition to Cuba to stand trial for piracy and murder. In opposition to both groups, American abolitionists advocated the return of the illegally bought people to Africa.

The story of the Amistad mutiny garnered widespread attention, and U.S. abolitionists succeeded in winning a trial in a U.S. court. Before a federal district court in Connecticut, Cinque, who was taught English by his new American friends, testified on his own behalf. On January 13, 1840, Judge Andrew Judson ruled that the Africans were illegally enslaved, that they would not be returned to Cuba to stand trial for piracy and murder, and that they should be granted free passage back to Africa.

The Spanish authorities and U.S. President Martin Van Buren appealed the decision, but another federal district court upheld Judson’s findings. President Van Buren, in opposition to the abolitionist faction in Congress, appealed the decision again. On February 22, 1841, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing the Amistad case. U.S. Representative John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts, who had served as the sixth president of the United States from 1825 to 1829, joined the Africans’ defense team.

In Congress, Adams had been an eloquent opponent of slavery, and before the nation’s highest court he presented a coherent argument for the release of Cinque and the 34 other survivors of the Amistad. On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled, with only one dissent, that the Africans had been illegally enslaved and had thus exercised a natural right to fight for their freedom.

In November, with the financial assistance of their abolitionist allies, the Amistad Africans departed America aboard the Gentleman on a voyage back to West Africa. Some of the Africans helped establish a Christian mission in Sierra Leone, but most, like Cinque, returned to their homelands in the African interior.

One of the survivors, who was a child when taken aboard the Amistad, eventually returned to the United States. Originally named Margru, she studied at Ohio’s integrated and coeducational Oberlin College in the late 1840s before returning to Sierra Leone as evangelical missionary Sara Margru Kinson.


Slave Mutiny on the Amistad

Around 4:00 a.m. on July 2, 1839, Joseph Cinqué led a slave mutiny on board the Spanish schooner Amistad some 20 miles off northern Cuba. The revolt set off a remarkable series of events and became the basis of a court case that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The civil rights issues involved in the affair made it the most famous case to appear in American courts before the landmark Dred Scott decision of 1857.

The saga began two months earlier when slave trade merchants captured Cinqué, a 26-year-old man from Mende, Sierra Leone, and hundreds of others from different West African tribes. The captives were then taken to the Caribbean, with up to 500 of them chained hand and foot, on board the Portuguese slaver Teçora. After a nightmarish voyage in which approximately a third of the captives died, the journey ended with the clandestine, nighttime entry of the ship into Cuba–in violation of the Anglo-Spanish treaties of 1817 and 1835 that made the African slave trade a capital crime. Slavery itself was legal in Cuba, meaning that once smuggled ashore, the captives became’slaves’ suitable for auction at the Havana barracoons.

In Havana, two Spaniards, José Ruiz and Pedro Montes, bought 53 of the Africans—including Cinqué and four children, three of them girls–and chartered the Amistad. The ship, named after the Spanish word for friendship, was a small black schooner built in Baltimore for the coastal slave trade. It was to transport its human cargo 300 miles to two plantations on another part of Cuba at Puerto Principe.

The spark for the mutiny was provided by Celestino, the Amistad‘s mulatto cook. In a cruel jest, he drew his hand past his throat and pointed to barrels of beef, indicating to Cinqué that, on reaching Puerto Principe, the 53 black captives aboard would be killed and eaten. Stunned by this revelation, Cinqué found a nail to pick the locks on the captives’ chains and made a strike for freedom.

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 aboard 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.

Some 60 days after the mutiny, under a hot afternoon sun in late August 1839, Lieutenant Commander Thomas Gedney of the USS 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.

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.

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.

The court proceedings opened on September 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.

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.

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

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 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.’

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 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 November 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.

This article was written by Howard Jones. 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.

This article was originally published in the January/February 1998 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of American History.


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