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The Amistad, ironically a ship that means “friendship,” was the setting of one of the most historical slave revolts led by black Africans in 1839. This revolt gained considerable attention from the American population, the media and well as other international interests. It was the black insurrection on board the Amistad that ignited the underlying issues of politics, slavery, sectionalism, religion, trade rights, and anti-British sentiment that already plagued the nation at the time of the Amistad incident. The controversy drew the entire world into the conflict over human and property rights, an issue that divided our nation and would eventually catapult it into war over the relationship of race and slavery to liberty.
Treaties and Laws in the 1800’s sought to further slavery regulation by making it legal, but prohibiting the further importation of slaves. Great Britain banned slavery in its own colonies, and pursued the suppression of trade. The United States passed the Slave Importation Act of 1807, which declared further importation of slaves into the United States illegal. Yet these Laws proved to be unenforceable due to Presidential denial of power to halt trades in the United States, as well as the rising cotton production in the South and the demand for Cuban sugar and Brazilian coffee, both expanding the market for slave labor. Thus the 1817 treaty with Great Britain that also outlawed foreign slave trade especially hurt the Spanish colony of Cuba. In spite of the ban, slave-traders continued to smuggle in slaves for several decades and tried to pass them off as legal.
Slaves were constantly kidnapped from their homeland and taken most on route to Cuba, where slave labor was in most frequent demand. In 1839, the two men, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes chartered the Amistad to transport the 49 slaves to plantations in Cuba. One of the slaves on board the ship, Joseph Cinque, was given the impression that he and the other prisoners were being taken somewhere to be turned into dried meat and eaten. Deciding he had nothing to lose by trying to get free, Cinque led others on board in a rebellion against the ship, killing the ship’s captain and the cook. Two other crewmembers either died during the revolt or jumped off the ship to try to reach shore. Only one slave died during the uprising.
The slaves on board, with Cinque in charge, ordered Ruiz and Montes to sail to Africa. In hope of being rescued, the two men instead pursued a different course, that which would lead them down Atlantic Ocean, where they would eventually reach the United States, along the coast of Long Island. As Cinque and some others left the ship, members of the U.S.S. Washington came on board. The Africans were charged with murder and mutiny, and they were transported to New Haven, Conn. to await trial. The rebellion on board the ship immediately caught the attention of abolitionists Lewis Tappan, Joshua Leavitt, Simeon Jocelyn. Together they rallied for public support and established themselves as the Amistad Committee , a precursor to the American Missionary Association. They conducted a nationwide appeal for funds to provide for the legal defense. They saw the Amistad blacks as noble savages, who though untutored in education or religion, realized the value of freedom. While genuinely and sincerely committed to fighting for the blacks’ release, abolitionists perceived as well the value of the Africans as dramatic symbols in the battle against slavery. Right away the abolitionists searched for a translator who could break the language barrier and allow the captives to tell their side of the story in court. They found a linguistics professor from Yale University knew the Mende language. The abolitionists sought to also save the blacks by sending theology students to visit them in jail to teach them English and Christianity.
The abolitionist dedication to the cause increased with the firm opposition to the Africans by the Van Buren administration and leading Southern spokesmen. The Van Buren Administration could not afford to alienate his Southern supporters in his upcoming 1840 election and thus did have reason to heed Southern views on the Amistad question. A public dispute over slavery would divide his Democratic Party. Moreover, both the Secretary of State and Attorney General were not only Southerners but slaveholders as well. The administration in fact, had but recently proven its sensitivity on the fugitive slave issue. Van Buren disregarded both American law and the Constitution in an attempt to quiet the issue by complying with Spanish demands. By having a ship ready to deliver the Africans back to Spanish authorities, Van Buren interfered in the judicial process and violated the blacks’ rights as human beings.
“Spain shared both the Van Buren fear of slave revolt and his fear of abolitionist gain through events like the Amistad rebellion. The Spanish government had made demands upon the United States concerning the Amistad. Angel Calderon de La Barca, a Spanish minister, cited four articles of the Pinckney’s Treaty, which had been reaffirmend by the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. They claimed that the US had no right to try the captives, and that they should be immediately returned to Cuba so they can stand trial for murder and piracy, the Africans were being described in a contradiction of property and pirates. Ruiz and Montes claimed that the Africans had been slaves in Cuba prior to the time of purchase and were therefore Ruiz and Montes' legal property.
Along with support from the Abolitionists, Great Britain, given its recent disagreements with the American government over the right of search, did not show sympathy to American or Spanish concerns, especially in the Amistad incident. The Glasgow Emancipation Society and other groups passed resolutions in support of the Amistad Africans. A year before the Amistad Africans landed in the United States, U.S. Minister to Great Britain demanded that the British “refrain from forcing liberty upon such American slaves,” as might enter British ports, prohibited slaves from landing in her colonies, and guard such slaves that landed until they would be claimed. Spain, in Van Buren’s view, took a more reasonable view than Britain toward slavery and the slave trade. This is why Van Buren felt it was more important to maintain good relations with Spain.
A question had arisen concerning the jurisdiction over the case in the United States District Court of Connecticut. If the Amistad had been taken by the U.S.S. Washington in the territorial waters of New York, jurisdiction lay with the District Court for that state. If the schooner had been taken on the high seas, jurisdiction lay with the District Court where she had been brought into port. In a special hearing, before a judge, it was determined that when the Washington took charge of L’Amistad the ship had been anchored about a mile from shore. Therefore, under admiralty law, she was on the high seas, and the case properly being litigated in the District Court of Connecticut.
The case opened in the United States District Court at Hartford on November 19th. The Abolitionists filed a suit for the captives’ freedom on grounds of humanity and justice: that slavery violated natural law and so provided its victims with the right to break their bonds in self-defense. By evangelical arguments, they appealed to a higher law and by moral suasion they hoped to erase the color line that constituted the current racial foundation of slavery. The Spaniards filed a suit for their property by citing Pinckney’s Treaty of 1795, which stipulated the return of merchandise lost for reasons beyond control. This enabled them to gain much government support, especially from the United States executive branch. During the next weeks, the Spanish pushed their claims and even threatened nullification of the treaties between the two nations. Even the British government got involved by pressuring Spain to prosecute Montes and Ruiz for purchasing the Africans in violation of their laws and treaties. But it was believed by Spain, Van Buren, and even the public that the District Court would find itself incompetent to decide the case and order the Mendians returned to Cuba. In a turn of events however, the United States District Court's decision in January 1840 ruled that the Africans had mutinied only to gain back their due freedom after being illegally kidnapped and sold. The ruling stated: the Africans were neither slaves nor Spanish subjects. They were, therefore, free by the ‘law of Spain itself. The judge's order that the captives be returned to Africa surprised President Martin Van Buren, who expected them returned to the Spanish government under the terms of a 1795 treaty and had a vessel waiting to transport them immediately after the trial.
The public as well as Spain, did not receive the judge’s rulings well, in fact many considered it a poor reading of law. Although the judge showed immense impartiality (being that he had previously demonstrated no love of blacks before) his application of the laws of 1818 to these Africans would not satisfy those of strict constructionists. Yet the captives still maintained the spot light under the public eye. The abolitionists had made sure that the blacks became the subject of many human-interest stories, particularly the “discovery” that they were human, with a civilized background. This had helped abolitionists nationally address the underlying prejudices people felt concerning the preconception that Africans were savages, when indeed, the public began to see their human side.
The case eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court, with the help of former president John Quincy Adams representing the captives. Although not an abolitionist who demanded immediate emancipation without compensation, he implored God to grant him the strength ‘to defeat and expose the abominable conspiracy, Executive and Judicial, of this Government, against the lives of those wretched men.’ Adams was powerful and persuasive in his case for the captives. Adams talked about the Executive Department and it had shown no concern for justice in the case but only sympathy for Spanish claimants. He reviewed the correspondence between Spanish diplomats and the secretary of state and criticized Van Buren for attempting to assume unconstitutional powers in the case in order to placate the Spanish, including an effort to have the Africans hastened aboard a ship to Cuba, thereby denying them the basic right of appeal had the decision of the District Court been against them. Adams also observed that the case was not covered by Pinckney’s Treaty or the Adams-Onis Treaty. He said that article nine of the Treaty of 1795 did not include human beings, since it spoke only of merchandise that must be restored.
In March 1841, Associate Justice Joseph (himself a supporter of property rights) handed down a decision that freed the mutineers, upholding the lower court's decision by a vote of 8 to 1. He declared that if the Court suspected fraud, it could go beyond prima facie evidence in examining documents. After an inspection of ownership papers, he ruled that they were fraudulent, making the captives ‘kidnapped Africans,’ never legal property of Montes and Ruiz, and not slaves, and so entitled to use any means in striking for freedom on the basis of the inherent right of self-defense-or so called the ‘eternal principles of justice’. Thus, they were entitled to their liberty like any other freeborn human beings and were to be discharged at once, free to go wherever they wished. Finally, he made no reference to Adam’s charges against the President.
The Amistad decision was an insurrection for the abolitionist movement, bringing new ground and direction of antislavery movements across the nation by bringing into focus several explosive issues relating to race and slavery. Abolitionists found this ruling a milestone in their movement, in attempting to awaken the public to the sordid character of slavery and the slave trade. They made Americans more aware of its cruelties. They had tried to establish the human quality of the captives. They had kept the issue before the American people for almost two years, when in the past it was something the nation refused to directly rule on and would try to disregard the issue when it came up. They had condemned social injustice by calling for racial equality in the most respected and highest forum of the land, the Supreme Court.
The Amistad case illustrates the extent of divisiveness felt over slavery issue. A number of northern newspapers felt the case’s drama would provoke wide debate on the institution of slavery. The case indicated the divisions already apparent within the United States. It showed the ideas of differences between north and south regions firmly established and the tensions between them to be increasing rather than decreasing, eventually leading to war over this prevalent issue of slavery. Another influence in the surrounding the Amistad period was the aftermath of the Second Great Awakenings and the rising of the evangelicals. Many scholars have pointed out some of the more radical consequences of this evangelical position with respect to moral reform. Their opposition to slavery was based primarily on the belief that it was inherently selfish and that selfishness was a card. Another negative association about slavery, viewed by evangelicals, was its association with great wealth.
In the following November, the Africans, a translator, and some missionaries (both black and white) left for Africa aboard the ship the Gentleman. The arrival of those Amistad Africans who had successfully rebelled against slavery two years earlier, had ignited a sectional debate of significance within the United States. The immediate support of the blacks by leading abolitionists, when contrasted to the immediate denial by the federal government of the Africans right to be free, indicated how firmly different forces in the nation were committed to the slavery issue. General public response to the case revealed the importance of party allegiance, the divisiveness of slavery, the limited place of the black man, and the extreme aversion to the abolitionists and Great Britain shared by Americans at the close of the Van Buren administration. These prevalent and resistant differences would remain firmly settled in the United States, and would gradually tear the nation apart until there comes a call of war to finally settle sectional differences.