Year
1839

Mutiny on the Amistad slave ship

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 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 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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Zeppelin demonstrates airship

In the sky over Germany’s Lake Constance, Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, a retired Prussian army officer, successfully demonstrates the world’s first rigid airship. The 420-foot, cigar-shaped craft was lifted by hydrogen gas and powered by a 16-horsepower engine.Zeppelin had ...read more

Amelia Earhart disappears

On July 2, 1937, the Lockheed aircraft carrying American aviator Amelia Earhart and navigator Frederick Noonan is reported missing near Howland Island in the Pacific. The pair were attempting to fly around the world when they lost their bearings during the most challenging leg of ...read more

Johnson signs Civil Rights Act

On this day in 1964, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signs into law the historic Civil Rights Act in a nationally televised ceremony at the White House.In the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was ...read more

Greece declares war on Central Powers

On this day in 1917, several weeks after King Constantine I abdicates his throne in Athens under pressure from the Allies, Greece declares war on the Central Powers, ending three years of neutrality by entering World War I alongside Britain, France, Russia and Italy.Constantine, ...read more

Helen Wills Moody wins final Wimbledon

On this day in 1938, Helen Wills Moody defeats a hobbled Helen Jacobs 6-4, 6-0 to win her eighth Wimbledon singles title. The victory was the final major championship for Moody, who had been the dominant player in women’s tennis for the better part of two decades.Born Helen Wills ...read more

President Garfield is shot

On this day in 1881, President James A. Garfield, who had been in office just under four months, is shot by an assassin. Garfield lingered for 80 days before dying of complications from the shooting.Garfield’s assassin was an attorney and political office-seeker named Charles ...read more

Men in Black premieres

On this day in 1997, the science fiction-comedy movie Men in Black, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, opens in theaters around the United States. The film grossed more than $250 million in America alone and helped establish the former sitcom star Will Smith as one of ...read more

Pilgrim stampede kills 1,400

A stampede of religious pilgrims in a pedestrian tunnel in Mecca leaves more than 1,400 people dead on this day in 1990. This was the most deadly of a series of incidents over 20 years affecting Muslims making the trip to Mecca. To the followers of Islam, traveling to Mecca in ...read more

President Garfield shot

Only four months into his administration, President James A. Garfield is shot as he walks through a railroad waiting room in Washington, D.C. His assailant, Charles J. Guiteau, was a disgruntled and perhaps insane office seeker who had unsuccessfully sought an appointment to the ...read more

Soviet Union rejects Marshall Plan assistance

Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov walks out of a meeting with representatives of the British and French governments, signaling the Soviet Union’s rejection of the Marshall Plan. Molotov’s action indicated that Cold War frictions between the United States and Russia were ...read more

Fighting continues at the Battle of Gettysburg

On this day in 1863, during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia attacks General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac at both Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top, but fails to move the Yankees from ...read more

Chevrolet builds 1 millionth Corvette

The 1 millionth Corvette, a white LT1 roadster with a red interior and a black roof–the same colors as the original 1953 model–rolls off the assembly line in Bowling Green, Kentucky on this day in 1992. The Corvette, America’s first all-fiberglass-bodied sports car, made its ...read more

Congress votes for independence

On this day in 1776, the Second Continental Congress, assembled in Philadelphia, formally adopts Richard Henry Lee’s resolution for independence from Great Britain. The vote is unanimous, with only New York abstaining.The resolution had originally been presented to Congress on ...read more