In August 1839, a U.S. brig came across the schooner Amistad off the coast of Long Island, New York. Aboard the Spanish ship were a group of Africans who had been captured and sold illegally as enslaved workers in Cuba. The enslaved Africans then revolted at sea and won control of the Amistad from their captors. U.S. authorities seized the ship and imprisoned the Africans, beginning a legal and diplomatic drama that would shake the foundations of the nation’s government and bring the explosive issue of slavery to the forefront of American politics.
Illegally Captured and Sold Into Slavery
The story of the Amistad began in February 1839, when Portuguese slave hunters abducted hundreds of Africans from Mendeland, in present-day Sierra Leone, and transported them to Cuba, then a Spanish colony. Though the United States, Britain, Spain and other European powers had abolished the importation of slaves by that time, the transatlantic slave trade continued illegally, and Havana was an important slave trading hub.
The Spanish plantation owners Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz purchased 53 of the African captives as slaves, including 49 adult males and four children, three of them girls. On June 28, Montes and Ruiz and the 53 Africans set sail from Havana on the Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) for Puerto Principe (now Camagüey), where the two Spaniards owned plantations.
Revolt at Sea
Several days into the journey, one of the Africans—Sengbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinque—managed to unshackle himself and his fellow captives. Armed with knives, they seized control of the Amistad, killing its Spanish captain and the ship’s cook, who had taunted the captives by telling them they would be killed and eaten when they got to the plantation.
In need of navigation, the Africans ordered Montes and Ruiz to turn the ship eastward, back to Africa. But the Spaniards secretly changed course at night, and instead the Amistad sailed through the Caribbean and up the eastern coast of the United States. On August 26, the U.S. brig Washington found the ship while it was anchored off the tip of Long Island to get provisions. The naval officers seized the Amistad and put the Africans back in chains, escorting them to Connecticut, where they would claim salvage rights to the ship and its human cargo.
The Court Battle Begins
Charged with murder and piracy, Cinque and the other Africans of the Amistad were imprisoned in New Haven. Though these criminal charges were quickly dropped, they remained in prison while the courts went about deciding their legal status, as well as the competing property claims by the officers of the Washington, Montes and Ruiz and the Spanish government.
While President Martin Van Buren sought to extradite the Africans to Cuba to pacify Spain, a group of abolitionists in the North, led by Lewis Tappan, Rev. Joshua Leavitt and Rev. Simeon Jocelyn, raised money for their legal defense, arguing that they had been illegally captured and imported as enslaved workers.
The defense team enlisted Josiah Gibbs, a philologist from Yale University, to help determine what language the Africans spoke. After concluding that they were Mende, Gibbs searched New York waterfronts for anyone who recognized the language. He finally found a Mende speaker who could interpret for the Africans, allowing them to tell their own story for the first time.
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In January 1840, a judge in U.S. District Court in Hartford ruled that the Africans were not Spanish enslaved peoples, but had been illegally captured, and should be returned to Africa. After appealing the decision to the Circuit Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision, the U.S. attorney appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case in early 1841.
John Quincy Adams for the Defense
To defend the Africans in front of the Supreme Court, Tappan and his fellow abolitionists enlisted former President John Quincy Adams, who was at the time 73 years old and a member of the House of Representatives. Adams had previously argued (and won) a case before the nation’s highest court; he was also a strong antislavery voice in Congress, having successfully repealed a rule banning debates about slavery from the House floor.
In a lengthy argument beginning on February 24, Adams accused Van Buren of abusing his executive powers, and defended the Africans’ right to fight for their freedom aboard the Amistad. At the heart of the case, Adams argued, was the willingness of the United States to stand up for the ideals upon which it was founded. “The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided," Adams said. "I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men, than this Declaration.”
On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 to uphold the lower courts’ decisions in favor of the Africans of the Amistad. Justice Joseph Story delivered the majority opinion, writing that “There does not seem to us to be any ground for doubt, that these negroes ought to be deemed free.”
But the Court did not require the government to provide funds to return the Africans to their homeland, and awarded salvage rights for the ship to the U.S. Navy officers who apprehended it. After Van Buren’s successor, John Tyler, refused to pay for repatriation, abolitionists again raised funds. In November 1841, Cinque and the other 34 surviving Africans of the Amistad (the others had died at sea or in prison awaiting trial) sailed from New York aboard the ship Gentleman, accompanied by several Christian missionaries, to return to their homeland.
Educator Resources: The Amistad Case. National Archives.
John Quincy Adams and the Amistad Case, 1841. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
The Amistad Story. National Park Service.
Joseph Cinque. Black History Now.
Douglas Linder, The Amistad Trials: An Account. Famous Trials.