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Amistad (21226 hits)


Background and Summary

The Amistad was a U.S. Supreme Court case resulting from the rebellion of slaves on board the Spanish schooner ship, La Amistad in 1839.

The rebellion broke out when the schooner, traveling along the coast of Cuba, was taken over by a group of captives who had earlier been kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery. The Africans were later apprehended on the vessel near Long Island, N.Y., by the U.S. Navy and taken into custody. The ensuing widely publicized court cases helped the abolitionist movement, which was a movement to end slavery. In 1840, a federal trial court found that the initial transport of the Africans across the Atlantic ocean  was illegal and that they were not legally slaves but free. The Supreme Court affirmed this finding on March 9, 1841, and the Africans traveled back in 1842.

The Series of Events

On June 27, 1839, La Amistad left from the port of Havana destined for Puerto Principe, both of Cuba, which was then a Spanish colony. The masters of La Amistad were the captain Ramón Ferrer, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, all of Spanish origin. With Ferrer was his personal slave, Antonio. Ruiz had with him 49 African slaves, entrusted to him by the Governor-General of Cuba. Montez had with him four additional African slaves, also entrusted to him by the Governor-General of Cuba.

On July 2, 1839, one of the Africans, Cinqué, managed to free himself and the other captives. They killed the ship's cook, Celestino, and the captain, in a struggle that also killed two of the rebelling slaves. Two sailors escaped in a lifeboat. The slaves spared the lives of the two purported slave owners, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, upon the understanding that they would return the ship to Africa. They also spared the captain's personal slave.

However, the navigator deceived the Africans and steered the Amistad north along the coast of the United States where the ship was repeatedly sighted. They dropped anchor half a mile off Long Island, N.Y., on August 26, 1839, at Culloden Point. Some of the Africans went on shore to procure water and provisions from the hamlet of Montauk, N.Y., and the vessel was subsequently discovered by the United States naval brig USS Washington. Lt. Thomas R. Gedney, who was commanding the Washington, saw some of the slaves on shore and, assisted by his officers and crew, took custody of the Amistad and the rebel slaves. He then took them to the state of Connecticut and presented a written claim under admiralty law to salvage the vessel, the cargo and the Africans. Gedney allegedly chose to land in Connecticut because, unlike in New York, slavery was still technically legal there and he hoped to profit from the slaves.

The Trial and the Ruling

Gedney then relinquished all captured slaves into the custody of the U.S. District Court for the Connecticut district, at which time proceedings began. Lieutenant Gedney filed a libel, the maritime legal term for a lawsuit, for the slaves and cargo on board La Amistad as property seized on the high seas. Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham filed a libel for salvage, claiming that they discovered La Amistad first. Ruiz and Montez filed libels requesting that their slaves and cargo be returned to them. The Office of the United States Attorney for the Connecticut District, representing the Spanish Government, libeled that the slaves, cargo and vessel be returned as the property of Spain. Antonio Vega, vice consul of Spain, libeled for the slave, Antonio, to be returned on the grounds that this slave was his property. The slaves denied that they were slaves, property or that the court could return them to the government of Spain. José Antonio Tellincas, with Aspe and Laca, claimed goods on board La Amistad.

A case alleging mutiny and murder was filed before the Circuit Court in Hartford, Conn., in September of 1839. The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction because the alleged acts took place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters.

Various parties then filed property claims over the slaves, the ship and its cargo before the lower District Court. The Spanish government asked that the ship, cargo and slaves be restored to Spain under the Pinckney Treaty of 1795 that was between Spain and the United States. Article Nine 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 this claim on behalf of Spain.

Perfect Time for Abolition

In the meantime, abolitionists 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 did not speak English or Spanish. At the time, professor and abolitionist, Willard Gibbs, learned to count to ten in the Mende language, went to the harbor of New York City and counted out loud until he located a person able to understand and translate. That person was James Covey, a 20-year-old sailor of the British man-of-war ship, Buzzard. Covey was a former slave from West Africa.

The abolitionists filed charges of assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment against Ruiz and Montez. Their arrest in New York City in October of 1839 outraged pro-slavery advocates and the Spanish government. They were eventually released on bail and left for Cuba. On January 7, 1840, all parties, except for Ruiz and Montez, who were represented by the Spanish minister, appeared before the U.S. District Court of Connecticut and presented their arguments.

The abolitionists' main argument before the 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. It was established that the slaves had been captured in Mendiland (currently Sierra Leone) in Africa, sold to a Portuguese trader in Lomboko in April of 1839, and taken to Havana illegally on a Portuguese ship. The Africans were therefore not slaves, but victims of illegal kidnapping and should be free to go. Their papers wrongly identified them as slaves that had been in Cuba since before 1820, a common practice in Cuba condoned by government officials.

President Martin Van Buren, who did not have strong opinions on the slavery issue but was concerned about relations with Spain and about his re-election sided with the Spanish; he ordered a U.S. schooner to New Haven Harbor to return the Africans to Cuba immediately after a favorable decision, before any appeals could be decided.

The District Court however agreed with the abolitionists, ordering in January of 1840 that the Amistad and its cargo be given to Lt. Gedney and the Africans be returned to their homeland of America by the U.S. government. The government had outlawed the slave trade between the U.S. and other countries back in 1808, and a law that was amended in 1819, provided for the return of all illegally traded slaves. The captain's slave was declared the rightful property of the captain's heirs and was ordered to be restored to Cuba. The slave ended up escaping to Canada.


Spanish Property

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. It dismissed the claims of Ruiz and Montez. It ordered that the slaves be delivered to the custody of the President of the United States for transportation to Africa, since the slaves were, in fact, free. It allowed the Spanish vice-consul to claim the slave Antonio. It allowed Lt. Gedney to claim one-third of the property on board La Amistad. It allowed Tellincas, Aspe, and Laca to claim one-third of the property. It dismissed the claims of Green and Fordham for salvage.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, on order of Van Buren, immediately appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court for Connecticut (today known as the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit). 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 the denial of their salvage. Ruiz and Montez, as well as the owners of La Amistad, did not appeal.

This court upheld the District Court's decision in April of 1840. From there, the U.S. Attorney appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court granted writ of error.

On February 23, 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. The documents being in order, Gilpin argued that the Court had no authority to rule against their validity. Gilpin contended that if the Africans were slaves, as was evidenced by the documents, then they must be returned to their rightful owner, in this case, the Spanish government. Gilpin's argument lasted two hours.

John Quincy Adams was a Congress member and at that time from Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. He had agreed to argue for the Africans, but when it was time for him to argue, he felt ill-prepared. Roger Sherman Baldwin, who had already represented the slaves in the lower cases, Adams took his place.

Baldwin, a prominent attorney contended that the Spanish government was attempting to manipulate the Court to return "fugitives." In actuality, Baldwin argued, the Spanish government sought the return of slaves, who had been freed by the District Court, a fact that the Spanish government was not appealing. Covering all the facts of the case, Baldwin spoke for four hours over the course of the 22nd and the 23rd of February.

Adams rose to speak on February 24. First, he reminded the court that it was a part of the judicial branch, and not part of the executive. Adams introduced correspondence between the Spanish government and the Secretary of State, criticizing President van Buren for his assumption of unconstitutional powers in the case.  “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 unjust. 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.

Adams argued that neither Pinckney's Treaty nor the Adams-Onís Treaty was applicable here. Article IX of Pinckney's Treaty referred only to property, and did not apply to people. The Antelope case, which recognized "that possession on board of a vessel was evidence of property," Adams said did not apply either, since the precedent there was established prior to the prohibition of the foreign slave trade in the United States. Adams concluded after eight and a half hours of speaking on March 1. Gilpin concluded oral arguments with a three-hour rebuttal to Adams on March 2.

On March 9, Associate Justice Joseph Story delivered the Court's decision. Article Nine 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." The documents submitted by 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."

When La Amistad came into Long Island, however, the Court believed it to be in the possession of the Africans on board, who had no intent to become slaves. Therefore, the Adams-Onís Treaty did not apply, and the President was not required to return the slaves to Africa.

The Mende people greeted the news of the Supreme Court's decision with joy. Free at last, the survivors — 35 male and three female — were brought to Farmington, Conn., by abolitionist supporters. It was a village nicknamed the "Grand Central Station" of the Underground Railroad.

Remembering the Amistad

A committee called Amistad committee continued to teach the Africans English and Christianity, and they collected donations to pay for the slaves return to Africa. Along with several missionaries, the surviving 36 Africans travelled back to Africa early in 1842, and a mission was erected in Mendiland. The Amistad Committee later evolved into the American Missionary Association, an evangelical organization which continued to support the Mendi mission, argued for abolitionism and eventually established many schools for freed slaves in the U.S.

In the following years, the Spanish government continued to press for compensation, and several lawmakers from Southern states introduced resolutions into the United States Congress. These efforts were supported by Presidents James K. Polk and James Buchanan, but they all failed.

After he returned to Africa, Cinqué renounced Christianity and ceased to have much contact with the American Missionary Association, the organization that had facilitated his return to Africa. Rumors spread saying he was rich, he was a slave trader or that he went to Jamaica. One scholar found that "numerous such oral accounts" of Cinqué being involved in slavery and the African trade "had reached the Mende mission." The same claim was made by Fred L. Brownlee, the AMA historian, but solid documentation is lacking.

The United States faced an incident similar to the Amistad case in the Creole case of 1841.

A simplified version of the events of La Amistad was made into a movie called Amistad in 1997. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, Morgan Freeman as one of the abolitionists, Djimon Hounsou as Cinqué and Matthew McConaughey as Roger Sherman Baldwin, the lawyer. This film also depicts the initial transport of the slaves from Africa to Cuba, showing brutal murders, death by starvation and suffocation and the drowning of slaves.

There is a statue of Cinqué beside the City Hall building in New Haven, Conn. In March of 2000, a replica of the Amistad ship was launched from Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn. Its mission is to educate the public on the history of slavery, discrimination and civil rights. The vessel is currently home ported in New Haven, Conn., where the Amistad Trial occurred. The official name of the vessel is actually the Freedom Schooner Amistad.

The Historical Society of Farmington Connecticut offers walking tours of village homes that once housed the Africans while funds were collected for their return home, as well as the grave stone of Foone, one of the slaves on the Amistad who drowned in the Farmington River. Similarly, the Oberlin Heritage Center in Ohio provides tours of the one-room schoolhouse where one of the Amistad captives, Sarah Margru Kinson, studied at the suggestion of abolitionist Lewis Tappan.

Freedom Schooner Amistad is operated by Amistad America Inc., a non-profit organization based in New Haven, Conn. The replica is the State Flagship and Tall ship Ambassador of Connecticut. Freedom Schooner Amistad set sail on June 21, 2007, from New Haven on the "Atlantic Freedom Tour," a 14,000-mile transatlantic voyage to Great Britain, Lisbon, West Africa and the Caribbean to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in Britain and the United States. The ship arrived in Bristol, England, on August 30.

Sources: Tri-Coastal Marine; Amistad America Inc.; Amistad Sails Into Bristol For Slave Trade Commemorations. 24 Hour Museum;;; Clifton Johnson, "The Amistad Case and Its Consequences in U.S. History;" Paul Finkelman, "On Cinqué and the Historians," Journal of American History, 87, #3 December, 2000; Howard Jones. Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy, 1987; Iyunolu Folayan Osagie. The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone, 2000; Jones, Howard; Wyatt-brown, Bertram and Mcfeely, William S. "Cinque of the Amistad a Slave Trader? Perpetuating a Myth." Journal of American History 87, (3): 923-939, 2000; Jackson, Donald Dale. "Mutiny on the Amistad." Smithsonian, 28, (9): 114-118, 120, 122-124, 1997.

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Monday, January 14th 2008 at 4:17PM
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