n February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence. Fifty-three Africans were purchased by two Spanish planters and put aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad for shipment to a Caribbean plantation. On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. brig Washington. The planters were freed and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, CT, on charges of murder. Although the murder charges were dismissed, the Africans continued to be held in confinement as the focus of the case turned to salvage claims and property rights. President Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans. Claims to the Africans by the planters, the government of Spain, and the captain of the brig led the case to trial in the Federal District Court in Connecticut. The court ruled that the case fell within Federal jurisdiction and that the claims to the Africans as property were not legitimate because they were illegally held as slaves. The case went to the Supreme Court in January 1841, and former President John Quincy Adams argued the defendants' case. Adams defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, and 35 of them were returned to their homeland. The others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial. (source: US National Archives)
The story of the Amistad began in January 1839 when hundreds of native Africans were captured from Mendeland near Sierra Leone, and sold into the Spanish slave trade. The captives endured brutality, sickness, or death during a horrific journey to the Spanish colony at Havana, Cuba, on the notorious Portuguese slave ship Tecora. Upon arrival in Cuba, the Africans were fraudulently classified as native Cuban-born slaves and sold at auction to Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez, who planned to transport them to their plantations on another part of the island aboard the cargo schooner La Amistad which, ironically, means “friendship” in Spanish. Desperate, the Africans staged a revolt three days into the journey and seized control of the vessel, killing the captain and the cook; two other members of the crew dove into the sea. The Africans were led by Sengbe Pieh, a 25-year-old Mendi known to the Spanish as Cinque, who managed to unshackle himself and his companions.
Montez and Ruiz were ordered to sail east towards the rising sun, and Africa. During the night, the Spaniards would secretly change course, attempting to sail back to Cuba or to the southern coast of the United States. After more than two months at sea, the beleaguered Amistad finally arrived at Montauk Point, Long Island, New York, where the vessel and its African “cargo” were seized by the Federal survey brig Washington. On August 29, 1839, the Amistad was towed to New London, Connecticut, where the African's legal struggle for freedom was waged in the lengthy battle which ultimately involved the former President of the United States, John Quincy Adams.
The Legal Battle Begins--Charged with murder and piracy and claimed as salvaged property along with the Amistad, Cinque and the others were imprisoned in New Haven, after a judge in New London ordered the case to be heard at the next session of the U.S. Circuit Court, in Hartford. Groups involved with the growing abolitionist movement organized a legal defense, and began to provide for the Africans’ physical well-being and educational instruction. The Amistad Committee, as they came to be known, located a translator who could speak Mende fluently and thus allow the captives to tell their own story. Three days into the circuit court trial, the judge referred the case to the U.S. District Court.
The Political Implications of the Case--The implications of the Amistad case were profound. If the Africans were found guilty under American law, they faced permanent slavery or death. If they were handed over to Spanish authorities without trial, as Spain pressed President Martin Van Buren to do, the constitutional separation of powers was openly compromised. If freed after a trial, key pro-slavery forces would be embittered and likely withdraw their support for Van Buren who sought reelection in 1840. Hoping that the courts would order the Africans returned to Cuba, President Van Buren requested and received a concurring opinion from U.S. Attorney General Felix Grundy and the Cabinet. Secretary of State John Forsyth had a ship ready to sail for Cuba immediately after the trial, to prevent an appeal. The Africans defense centered around the fact that the importation of slaves from Africa was illegal under Spanish law, and international treaties to which Spain was a party. During the District Court trial, Cinque and the others described how they had been kidnapped, mistreated, and sold into slavery. The District Court judge agreed, ruling that the Africans were legally free and should be transported home. (The murder and conspiracy charges were dropped in the circuit court trial, the judge having found that the United States had no jurisdiction in those incidents.) Dismayed, the president ordered an immediate appeal, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Amistad Committee believed that they would need additional legal help to assure a favorable outcome for the Africans and decided to ask former President John Quincy Adams to intervene on their behalf. Adams was considered one of the nation's leading opponents of slavery because of his relentless fight against the gag rule in Congress, which between 1836 and 1844 prevented Congress from considering antislavery petitions. Adams's status as a former President would attract publicity and interest in the case and forestall the Van Buren administration from failing to extend due process of law to the Africans. The interpretation of international law and treaties between the United States and Spain would be important to the outcome of the case, many of which Adams, had helped to formulate while serving as a diplomat and Secretary of State. Finally, even though he had not actively worked as a lawyer for quite a while, Adams had experience arguing before the United States Supreme Court.
In November 1841, Ellis Gray Loring and Lewis Tappan of the Amistad Committee paid a call on Adams at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, (today the Adams National Historical Park "Old House") to ask him to defend the Africans. At first, Adams questioned his ability to rise to this challenge. He was 72 years old, nearly blind, busy with his duties as a member of Congress, and had not argued a case as a lawyer in more than 30 years. He ultimately took the case believing that this would be his last great service to his nation. In February 1840, he argued passionately for the Africans' right to freedom, decrying President Van Buren's illegal attempts to influence the judicial system and circumvent the Constitution. In March 1841, the Supreme Court issued its final verdict: the Amistad Africans were free people and should be allowed to return home. John Quincy Adams wrote a letter to inform his co-counsel Roger Sherman Baldwin of the verdict and reported that, “The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of the Amistad has this moment been delivered by Judge Story. The captives are free...Yours in great haste and great joy...”
At the end of 1841, the 35 survivors of the Amistad and five American missionaries sailed for Sierra Leone. They established a colony and encouraged educational and political reform eventually leading to independence of Sierra Leone from Great Britain. The Amistad case unified and advanced the abolitionist movement in the United States. Civil libertarians increasingly used the judicial system to press their causes, inflaming political passions throughout the country and laying the groundwork for the abolition of slavery and the modern Civil Rights movement in America.
[Above essay excerpted from John Quincy Adams & The Amistad Event, produced by Adams National Historical Park, Quincy, Massachusetts, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior]