On a hot August afternoon in 1839, an American brig came upon some fifty Africans and two Spaniards aboard a battered, barnacle-encrusted schooner off the coast of Long Island. The strange ship-called the Amistad ("Friendship")-was commandeered and brought to New London, Connecticut. It soon became the center of a series of political and legal battles that activated abolitionists, threatened U.S.-Spanish relations, pitted one President against another, and determined the rights of Africans as human beings.
This article presents background information about this exceptional case. A brief biographical sketch of key participants is included to provide material for conducting a mock hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition, other activities are suggested for educators to consider regarding the legal and moral issues related to human rights.
The Amistad case began when a twenty-five-year-old West African rice farmer by the name of Cinque1 from Mende was kidnapped and chained with other Africans into a stifling four-foot-high hold of a slave ship. Aboard the ship, the Africans received poor food and no medical treatment. They had no sanitary facilities and were routinely beaten.
After arriving in Cuba in June 1839, Cinque was transferred to the Amistad for a voyage to the western end of Cuba. Finding a nail, he and Grabeau, another African, picked the locks of their ironneck collars and freed themselves and others of their shackles. Searching the vessel's hold, they found sugar cane knives with two-foot-long blades. Armed with these cane cutters, they crept onto the deck and killed the captain and cook. Two sailors jumped overboard, and Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, the Spanish owners of the Africans, and the captain's slave, Antonio, who was able to communicate with both the Spaniards and the Africans, were taken prisoner.
Cinque ordered Montes to sail eastward to Africa. For weeks, the ship zigzagged eastward toward Africa during the day and northward toward the United States during the night, when Montes and Ruiz took advantage of darkness to steer the ship away from an Africa-bound course. Food and water began to run low and sickness broke out. Eight Africans died.
Setting anchor on August 26, 1839, at Montauk Point at the tip of Long Island, Cinque went ashore with others to barter for supplies. While they were ashore, the USS Washington under Lt. Commander Thomas R. Gedney came upon the Amistad and took control. He had the ship and the Africans brought to Connecticut.
"The case of the Africans who were captured on board the Amistad by the U.S. Brig Washington, and taken into New London harbor," reported one newspaper,
is exciting a very strong sensation throughout the country, and has given rise to many interesting and important legal questions. . . . Public curiosity is on the stretch, to ascertain, if possible, what will be the ultimate fate of these captives. . . .
The Abolitionists have already manifested a deep interest in these captives. They have retained several distinguished lawyers as counsel for them, and last week appointed the Rev. Mr. Leavitt, of New York, to lead a committee to visit them, and report their situation. He reports that he found them in the jail at New Haven, 'as comfortable as is consistent with their situation.' He says, 'great curiosity is felt to see these victims of the slave trade, the first that have been known in Connecticut for many years. Multitudes visit the prison, the keeper charging each one a New York shilling, the avails of which, after a just compensation for his trouble, he purposes to expend for the benefit of the prisoners, or for some other charitable object.'2
Lower Court Decisions
In prison, the Amistad captives were held on a charge of murder. They were also claimed as property by the Spaniards and, along with the rest of the cargo, by the American captors who brought them to Connecticut.
The legal issues were first considered in September 1839 when the Circuit Court met in Hartford. Justice Smith Thompson dismissed the charges of piracy and murder against the Africans on the grounds that the alleged crimes occurred in Spanish territory. However, the issue of what should be done with the Amistad and its cargo, which might include the Africans, was referred to the U.S. District Court.
In January 1840, the U.S. District Court convened in New Haven with Judge Andrew Judson presiding. He ruled that the Africans were not slaves, even under Spanish law, and should be released. He stated that the Africans "were born free and ever since have been and still of right are free and not slaves." However, Lt. Thomas Gedney, the commander of the USS Washington, should receive one-third of the value of the Amistad and its cargo.
Prior to this case, Judson was a leader in closing the academy for "young ladies of color" started by Prudence Crandall in Canterbury, Connecticut. Appointed to the District Court by President Martin Van Buren, many thought Judson would rule that the Africans were slaves. His decision was a shock to the administration, and the government attorneys filed an appeal.
The Van Buren administration felt it had a better chance before the U.S. Supreme Court, where five members, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, were Southerners who had at one time or another owned slaves.
To the administration's surprise and disappointment, the majority on the Supreme Court decided against them. Justice Joseph Story said the main issue was whether the blacks were the property of Ruiz and Montes and returnable under the [Pinckney] treaty of 1795. The blacks were kidnapped and unlawfully transported, he said. The right of self-defense is held by people held illegally. There was an "ultimate right," he said, "of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice."
The real issue, he said, was a conflict of rights between parties. The Amistad captives had the right to equal justice before the courts. They had rights to a fair trial. (Cinque and the other Africans testified in the courts, and were given other legal rights that had previously been granted only to white people.)
But Story's decision affirmed that slaves were property and that the blacks were free solely because neither Spain nor the U.S. government proved the captives were slaves.
The Amistad incident can be re-enacted with students assuming the roles of participants in this important episode in the history of the struggle against slavery. Students can select or be assigned the roles listed below.
Because some of the roles are those of proponents of slavery, teachers should first ensure that the simulation is not one that would upset any students in their class, and should be confident that it is an acceptable activity for the community in which their school is located. The groundwork for the activity should include contacts with students to determine whether they regard the re-enactment as an appropriate exercise, as well as guidance by the teacher to prevent roles from being performed in a misleading or stereotypical manner. The purpose of the re-enactment is to involve students more profoundly in the study of history, and this can be better achieved when students feel comfortable with the activity.
For the Africans
Rev. Joshua Leavitt
Atty. Roger S. Baldwin
John Quincy Adams
Atty. Seth Staples
For the Government
Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes
Lt. Thomas Gedney
Atty. Ralph Ingersoll
Atty. William Hungerford
Martin Van Buren
Other students will be needed to be justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Chief Justice was Roger B. Taney. The writer of the majority opinion was Associate Justice Joseph Story. The attorneys can be given the additional task of serving as group leaders.
Students should understand that the case is not a trial or a debate. They should focus their efforts on making a persuasive presentation that reviews the facts, laws, and decisions made by the lower courts.
Each side should be given a set amount of time to present its case. Justices may question any points that are unclear, omitted, or in contention.
After the presentations, each side may present concluding arguments that may respond to points raised by the opposition.
After a suitable time for discussion, the Justices are to make their decision by voting. Majority and dissenting opinions may be expected and opinions written.
As a result of participating in this case, students will be able to do the following:
Familiarize students with the Amistad incident. Give a brief overview of the revolt, events leading up to the ship's capture, and the trial in Connecticut.
Distribute background materials before students assume roles. Read or reproduce material from the beginning of this article, but be sure not to include information regarding the decision of the Supreme Court. Provide time for students to read and review this information.
At the time of the Amistad incident, slavery had been practiced in the United States for more than two hundred years. It was widespread in the South and a critical part of that region's economy. Although many northern shipowners benefited from the trade, slavery was never widely practiced in the region. During the Revolutionary War era, many northern states passed laws providing for the gradual emancipation of the slaves within their borders. Although slavery was still legal in Connecticut in 1839, there were fewer than twenty slaves, compared to some six thousand free African Americans living in the state. The Constitution banned the importation of slaves after 1808, but there were no federal laws having to do with slavery within the states. Each state made its own laws. By 1839, most people in the north did not want to take a stand on the issue of slavery, fearing that it would destroy the union. For the most part, abolitionists were considered dangerous fanatics. The applicable legislation of the time provided the following background for the Amistad case:
After students clearly understand the facts and the law, explain that the case has gone through the Circuit Court and District Court in Connecticut and has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by the government. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the case.
For the purposes of this hearing, the issues to be determined by the Court are the following:
To keep the discussion focused on these issues, you may wish to write on the board. To clarify the implications of each issue, you may also wish to have students suggest other questions that arise from these.
Roles for the Amistad Case
Cinque was working on a road in Mende in West Africa when captured by four men. Leaving behind his wife and three children, he was taken to a slave center where he was sold and put aboard a vessel bound for Cuba. (The importation of slaves into Cuba was a violation of Spanish law.) In Havana, he was bought by Jose Ruiz and put on board the Amistad where he and others were chained and allowed only one banana, two potatoes, and a half cup of water per day. During the voyage along the coast, the sailors whipped the captives. Cinque asked the cook what was going to happen to them. The cook indicated with his fingers that when they docked, the Spaniards planned to slit their throats, chop their bodies into pieces, and eat them.
Cinque found a nail and picked the lock on the iron collar around his neck and freed himself and then the others. Finding sugar cane knives, they quietly went up the hatchway onto the deck. In the ensuing battle, the captain and cook were killed, two sailors jumped overboard, and the ship was under control of the Africans. One of the Spaniards, Pedro Montes, was badly wounded but was spared to sail the vessel to Africa.
Cinque's greatest desire is to return home to Africa.
Tappan is a descendant of Benjamin Franklin and a wealthy New York merchant. He is an abolitionist who wants to end slavery and establish a nation based on the principles of Christian morality. He knows the abolitionists are a small minority in the United States, and that they face a huge task in changing a system that does not permit equal justice.
There should be no artificial differences in society based on race or color, Tappan believes, and everyone should have the opportunity to achieve all he is capable of achieving. The only way to reach this goal is to establish a government based on the principles of God. Slavery is a sin. Man's natural rights are more important than man-made law.
Tappan thinks the mutiny offers an opportunity to persuade ordinary Americans to oppose slavery. If they can see the evil and immoral nature of slavery, then they will turn against it. He believes that the Constitution and other laws are the most serious obstacles to eliminating slavery. "Moral Suasion" is his chief method for exposing the injustice of the laws and combating the evil of slavery.
Tappan and other abolitionists want to make slavery a moral issue and draw national attention to the case and the evils of slavery.
Reverend Joshua Leavitt
Leavitt is a Yale graduate, lawyer, and editor of the Emancipator, an abolitionist newspaper. Lewis Tappan, Simeon Jocelyn, and he constitute the Amistad Committee to oversee the defense of the Africans. They run advertisements in his newspaper to raise funds.
When the case reaches the Court, Rev. Leavitt and other abolitionists intend to raise questions about other racial issues in the United States:
Roger Sherman Baldwin
Baldwin is a lawyer from New Haven who is known as a defender of justice for the less fortunate. Born in New Haven in 1793 in an illustrious family (his mother is the daughter of Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution), he graduated from Yale and became a lawyer in 1814. He was the defense attorney for the captives when their cases were heard in Connecticut, and, with John Quincy Adams, will be their representative before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Baldwin argues for a writ of habeas corpus (a court order instructing officials to release a prisoner from unlawful imprisonment unless they file formal charges). He will argue that the courts cannot violate the Africans' constitutional rights by keeping them in custody. When Lt. Gedney captured the Africans, he reduced them to slavery. Before that they were free. They are not property or part of the cargo, but human beings. They came to the United States for protection and safety. No one can make them slaves because neither the United States nor Connecticut laws allow it. The Spanish "owners" Ruiz and Montes deserve the death penalty for piracy. The United States cannot comply with Spanish requests to turn over the Africans because that would make Americans slave catchers for a foreign government.
Staples is another attorney for the Africans. He thinks that the real issue is individual liberty, not property rights. He and Baldwin say that the blacks are natives of Africa and were born free, but kidnapped and put on a vessel unlawfully engaged in the slave trade. The Spaniards were aware that the Africans were free but attempted to deny them their liberty anyhow. Ruiz and Montes knowingly purchased the Africans from people who had no right to sell them. The Africans took over the ship because they had a love of liberty and a desire to go home to their families. They were free when the Amistad landed off the coast of Long Island and were wrongfully taken and held in Connecticut. Staples argues that the Africans should go free.
John Quincy Adams
Adams is a former President of the United States, Secretary of State, and Minister to Russia, and now is a member of the House of Representatives. While he is not an abolitionist, he is a strong critic of slavery. In the House he is the major opponent of the "Gag Rule," a resolution to halt debate on petitions to end the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
Although now a seventy-three-year-old man who argued his last case in the Supreme Court more than thirty years earlier, Adams joins with Roger S. Baldwin to present the Amistad case before the Supreme Court. He argues that Lt. Gedney had no right to seize the Amistad because he had no warrant and the Africans had committed no crime. He believes that President Martin Van Buren-a northern President with southern principles-is unconstitutionally interfering in the case and is only interested in helping the Spanish and keeping the support of southerners for his re-election campaign in 1840.
Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes
The two Spaniards-Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes-claim to own the fifty-three Africans aboard the Amistad. They emphasize that there is nothing illegal about their activity. The slaves were purchased at the public slave market in Havana and were being brought to Puerto Principe, some three hundred miles down the coast of Cuba. Three days out of Havana, on the night of July 1, 1839, the slaves armed themselves with sugar cane knives and, led by Joseph Cinque, killed the captain, the cook, and two others, and seized control of the ship.
Ruiz and Montes believe that they were kept alive because they had navigational skills. Although instructed by Cinque to sail toward the rising sun and Africa, they headed toward Africa by day and north by night, hoping to be found by British cruisers patrolling the Caribbean. The Amistad zigzagged for two months in a generally northerly direction toward the United States until it was boarded by Lt. Thomas Gedney just off the coast of Long Island.
Ruiz and Montes say the Amistad is a Spanish slaver, legally authorized to transport Cuban slaves. The slaves mutinied and are guilty of piracy and murder. The American courts should have the ship, its cargo, and the slaves delivered to the Spanish consul in Boston. Ruiz and Montes believe they should receive the cargo, including the slaves.
Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney
Gedney is the Commander of the USS Washington. On August 26, 1839, he spotted a suspicious looking ship along the Long Island coast. He ordered his men to board and take control of the Amistad. With muskets ready, the men reached the weather-beaten ship and were surprised to find no resistance from some fifty thirsty and hungry Africans, including four children under twelve years old, and two Spaniards named Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes. They discovered that the ship is a slaver, and that Ruiz and Montes were overpowered and forced to sail the ship for the slaves.
Lt. Gedney took the Amistad to New London, Connecticut, where, after an investigation by authorities, he hoped to receive a percentage of the ship and its cargo as a reward for recovering them. In Connecticut, that cargo might include the extremely valuable Africans, who had been sold in the Cuban slave market for more than $20,000.
President Martin Van Buren
President Van Buren feels that the question of master and slave belongs to each state. He believes that the abolitionists want to disturb the friendly relations between slave-holding and non-slave-holding states. Several of his advisors, many of whom are slave holders, suggest that the Africans be turned over to the Spanish to stand trial for murder and piracy.
Van Buren's Attorney General, Felix Grundy, argues that there is no doubt that the Africans were slaves and they are in a country that allows slavery. They were transported from one port to another in a licensed vessel. At the time of their departure, they were in their owners' possession. The owners had documents confirming that the blacks belonged to them. No country allows slaves to forcibly free themselves. If they were slaves when they left, they remain slaves and the rightful property of their Spanish owners.
Circumstances seem to favor the President: (1) The abolitionists argue about natural rights, but the law seems to be against them; (2) A long history of racial prejudice in the United States will probably become stronger as the case goes on; (3) Slavery has existed in North America since the seventeenth century and is accepted in the U.S. Constitution; (4) If it were found that the Spanish violated anti-slave treaties, it would give the British an excuse to move into Cuba, something few Americans want to see; and (5) The judge in the case, Andrew T. Judson, talked about being opposed to slavery but is known to be racially prejudiced.
The White House expects the court to rule that Pinckney's Treaty bound the United States to return the ship, cargo, and slaves to Spain as property.
As an attorney for the Spanish, Ingersoll argues that the Africans are slaves and the court should not grant a writ of habeas corpus. There is no evidence that the blacks came from Africa. The only question for the court to decide is whether they are property under Spanish law. The court's responsibility is to decide if Pinckney's Treaty requires that the Africans be returned to their owners. This treaty, Ingersoll says, requires that ships and merchandise taken by pirates be restored to the owner. According to international law, the African slave trade is legal for those nations that have legal slavery. Therefore, Ingersoll argues, a foreign vessel captured in time of peace, such as the Amistad, engaged in the slave trade, should be restored along with its cargo to its owner, Spain. The Africans are part of that cargo and therefore belong to the Spanish citizens Ruiz and Montes.
As attorney for Ruiz and Montes, Hungerford classifies the Africans as property and belonging to his clients. He believes that it is not necessary for the court to ask about the morality of slavery. The only question for the court to decide is whether Ruiz and Montes have the right to buy property in slaves. Slavery is legal in Cuba, which is a Spanish colony. Based on the treaties with Spain, the United States has an obligation to return property, the slaves, to Spain. If both Spain and the United States recognize slavery as legal, which they do, it follows that when a slave escapes from one territory to another, that other is bound to return the slave to its rightful owner.
Question for Debriefing
1.What were the important facts, laws, and issues?
2.What reasoning was used to support the major arguments?
3.Was the court's decision related to the arguments?
4.Did dissenting opinions offer a reasonable alternative?
5.Do you think the mock session was a realistic portrayal?
Questions for Discussion
1.Were the Africans treated fairly?
2.Were the abolitionists helping the Africans or helping their own cause?
3.Why did the abolitionists seem to have such a difficult time convincing others that slavery should be ended?
4.Is it always right to obey the law? What are the differences between legal and moral issues? What actions are appropriate to take when there are unjust laws?
5.Are there different kinds of liberty and justice for different people, based on race, religion, gender, wealth, etc.?
Writing a Response
1.Answer this question that Roger S. Baldwin asked John Quincy Adams: "What should be done with them now that they are free?"
2.Select one of these statements from the newspaper and write the rest of the article.
3.Roger S. Baldwin was retained by Lewis Tappan to defend the captives. He estimated that it was about seventy days of work. (Baldwin eventually received $700 for his services.) After the case, Tappan wrote to Baldwin about his pay: "You will take into consideration the interesting nature of the case-the essential aid it will give you in your profession-that the funds are derived from men, women and children out of their charity fund. . . . In view of all, please let me know what you think would be reasonable. If it appears too much I will take the liberty to tell you so. As we shall publish all our disbursements, we wish to do what will be considered proper."
Write a response for Baldwin to Tappan.
Creating a Project
1.Nathaniel Jocelyn, a New Haven artist and brother of Simeon Jocelyn, an abolitionist who helped the Amistad captives, painted a well-known portrait of Cinque. Draw a poster for the abolitionists to generate sympathy for Cinque and opposition to slavery.
2.John Warner Barber was a popular Connecticut author and engraver who wrote A History of the Amistad Captives (1840). Write and illustrate several scenes showing different times in the lives of the Africans.
3.Prepare an advertisement for a newspaper persuading "Friends of Liberty" to make a donation to help defend the Africans.
Related Topics for Research
1.Find and explain sections of the U.S. Constitution that have to do with slavery. The Constitution does not use the terms "slave" or "slavery," but uses the terms "other persons" or "such persons." Why? What were the arguments pro/con slavery at the Constitutional Convention?
2.How did slaves view slavery, and what did they do about it?
3.How did other African-Americans become free? What was their life like as free African-Americans?
4.Why were many abolitionists and other opponents of slavery against the American Colonization Society?
5.What was the "Gag Rule," and how did John Quincy Adams risk his reputation to champion the rights of black people?
6.As a result of the Amistad case, several groups joined to form the American Missionary Society. How did this come about, and how did the A.M.S. help African American people in the United States?
After the Supreme Court decision, the Africans were taken to Farmington, Connecticut. They were taught reading, writing, and Christianity, which began soon after they were first imprisoned, along with farm and craft work. Tension with some Farmington residents, as well as a desire to return home, convinced the abolitionists to use the money that was raised through public appearances of the Africans to pay for their return voyage.
The Africans and several missionaries who planned to establish a missionary in Africa set sail from New York in November 1841 and arrived in January 1842. Most of the Africans returned to their homes in Mende, although some stayed to work with the missionaries in what is today Sierra Leone.
In 1846, the Amistad Committee merged with other missionary groups to form the American Missionary Association. In 1849, one of the female Amistad captives, Margru (renamed Sarah Kinson), began work as a missionary after studying at Oberlin College in Ohio. Cinque returned to his people and found that his home and much of his family had been destroyed by war. There is some uncertainty regarding the rest of his life, although he eventually worked as an interpreter for the AMA mission at Kaw-Mende. He died about 1879.
The American Missionary Association went on to champion the cause of abolition. After the Civil War, the association helped educate millions of illiterate former slaves and supported public education for African-Americans. It established several African-American institutions of higher learning, many of which still operate today.
Barber, John Warner. A History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner. New Haven: E.L. & J.W. Barber, 1840.Cook, Fred H. "The Slave Ship Rebellion." American Heritage (February 1957).Jones, Howard. Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law and Diplomacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.Norwalk Gazette. 1839-1840.Rundle, James U., ed. "The Amistad Incident: Four Perspectives." The Connecticut Scholar. Middletown, Connecticut: Connecticut Humanities Council, 1992. "Saga of the Amistad, The." New Haven Register (September 17, 1989).Additional ReadingsSlave Trade
New Haven Colony Historical Society
114 Whitney Avenue
New Haven, CT 06510
Free Men: The Amistad Revolt and the American Anti-Slavery Movement: Education Packet. A sixteen-page booklet containing materials designed to be used in the classroom. The six major sections include Mendeland, the revolt, the Mende in America, slavery in 1839, the trials, and the return to Africa. $2 postpaid.
Free Men: The Amistad Revolt and the American Anti-Slavery Movement. (Prepared in cooperation with The Connecticut Historical Society and SNET.) An attractive and informative booklet prepared for the Amistad exhibition that provides background information, illustrations, and maps about Mendeland, slavery, abolition, and other circumstances surrounding the Amistad incident.
Connecticut Humanities Council
41 Lawn Avenue
Middletown, CT 06459
Rundle, James U., ed. The Amistad Incident: Four Perspectives, 1992. Stimulating background reading for teachers and advanced students examining the Amistad incident in terms of its historical significance and implications for today. $3 postpaid.
1The origin of the name is somewhat cloudy. According to the late Dr. Sylvia Boone, Professor of American and African American Studies at Yale University, and Sierra Leone scholar, Cinque's African name was Sengbe Piah (pronounced Sing-bay Pee-ah). It was probably changed to Cinque in Cuba, to create the impression that he was a long-time Cuban slave and therefore pre-dated restrictions against trading in slaves.
2Norwalk Gazette, September 11, 1839, p. 3.
Tedd Levy teaches social studies at the Nathan Hale Middle School in Norwalk, Connecticut.