- Amistad (1841)
Infobox SCOTUS case
FullName=The United States, Appellants v. The Libellants and Claimants of the schooner Amistad, her tackle, apparel, and furniture, together with her cargo, and the Africans mentioned and described in the several libels and claims, Appellees
Citation=40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 518; 10 L. Ed. 826; 1841 U.S. LEXIS 279
Prior=U.S. District Court for the Connecticut District rules for the "AFRICANS"; "UNITED STATES" appeals to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Connecticut District, lower court affirmed; UNITED STATES appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, certiorari granted
Subsequent=“AFRICANS” returned to Africa not by way of the President, but by way of
abolitionists; U.S. Circuit Court for the Connecticut District dispenses monetary awards mandated by the Supreme Court; U.S. Circuit Court for the Connecticut District hears a petition by Ramon Bermejo, in 1845, for the unclaimed monetary sum retained by the court in 1841; petition granted in the amount of $631
Holding=The “AFRICANS” are free, and are remanded to be released; Lt. Gedney’s claims of salvage are granted, remanded to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Connecticut District for further proceedings in monetary manners.
JoinMajority=Taney, Thompson, McLean, Wayne, Catron, McKinley
Pinckney's Treaty, art. IX; Adams-Onís Treaty
The rebellion broke out when the schooner, traveling along the coast of
Cuba, was taken over by a group of captives who had earlier been kidnapped in Africaand sold into slavery. The Africans were later apprehended on the vessel near Long Island, New Yorkby the United States Navyand taken into custody. The ensuing widely publicized court cases in the United Stateshelped the abolitionistmovement. In 1840, a federal trial court found that the initial transport of the Africans across the Atlantic(which did not involve the "Amistad") had been illegal and that they were not legally slaves but free. The Supreme Court affirmed this finding on March 9, 1841, and the Africans traveled home in 1842. Some of the laws that were written because of the Amistad and before the Amistad are: Slaves were legally recognized as property in Connecticut until 1848; It had been illegal to import slaves into United States since 1808; The United States had a treaty with Spain (Pinckney's Treaty of 1795) that stated if a vessel of either nation was forced to enter the other's ports, that ship would be released immediately; Spain outlawed slavery; Spanish law made it legal to keep slaves if they were born before 1820; Ships and property found helpless at sea were subject to claims (salvage rights) made by those who rescued them.
Rebellion at sea, and capture
June 27, 1839, " La Amistad" ("Friendship"), a Spanish vessel, left from the port of Havana, Cubadestined for Puerto Principe, also in Cuba(which was then a Spanish colony). The masters of "La Amistad" were the captain Ramón Ferrer, José Ruiz, and Pedro Montez, all of Spanish origin. With Ferrer was his personal slave Antonio. Ruiz had with him 49 African slaves, entrusted to him by the Governor-General of Cuba. Montez had with him four additional African slaves, also entrusted to him by the Governor-General of Cuba. [http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=CASE&court=US&vol=40&page=518 40 U.S. 518] at 587-8 ] On July 2, 1839, one of the Africans, Grabeau, who had learned metalworking, managed to free himself and the other captives using an iron file that had been found by a woman on the "Tecora" (the ship which had taken them from Africa to Cuba). They killed the ship's cook, Celestino, and the captain in a struggle that also killed two of the rebelling slaves. Two sailors escaped in a lifeboat. The slaves spared the lives of the two purported slave owners, José Ruizand Pedro Montez, upon the understanding that they would return the ship to Africa. They also spared the captain's personal slave, Antonio.
However, the navigator deceived the Africans and steered the "Amistad" north along the coast of the United States where the ship was sighted repeatedly. They dropped anchor half a mile off Long Island, New York, on
August 26, 1839, at Culloden Point. Some of the Africans went on shore to procure water and provisions from the hamlet of Montauk, New York, and the vessel was subsequently discovered by the United States naval brig USS "Washington". Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, [cite web |url=http://www.africanamericans.com/Amistad.htm |title=The U.S. Navy and the Amistad |accessdate=2007-05-20 |work=AfricanAmericans.com |publisher=Americans.net] commanding the "Washington", observed some of the slaves on shore and, assisted by his officers and crew, took custody of the "Amistad" and the rebel slaves. He subsequently took them to the state of Connecticutand presented a written claim under admiralty lawfor salvage of the vessel, the cargo, and the Africans. Gedney allegedly chose to land in Connecticut because, unlike in New York, slavery was still technically legal there, and he hoped to profit from the slaves.
Gedney then relinquished all captured slaves into the custody of the U.S. District Court for the Connecticut District, at which time proceedings began. [http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=CASE&court=US&vol=40&page=518 40 U.S. 518] at 587-8 ]
*Lieutenant Gedney filed a libel (a
lawsuitin admiralty law) for the captives and cargo on board "La Amistad" as property seized on the high seas.
*Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham filed a libel for salvage, claiming that they discovered "La Amistad" first.
*Ruiz and Montez filed libels requesting that their slaves and cargo be returned to them.
*The Office of the United States Attorney for the Connecticut District, representing the Spanish Government, libelled that the slaves, cargo, and vessel be returned as the property of Spain. [ "Id." at 588-589 ]
*Antonio Vega, vice-consul of Spain, libelled for "the slave Antonio," on the grounds that this man was his property. "Id." at 589 ]
*The slaves denied that they were slaves, property, or that the court could return them to the government of Spain.
*José Antonio Tellincas, with Aspe and Laca, who claimed goods on board "La Amistad". [ "Id." at 589-590 ]
Lower Court proceedings
A case before the Circuit Court in
Hartford, Connecticut, was filed in September 1839, alleging mutinyand murder. The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction, because the alleged acts took place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters.
Various parties then filed property claims to the captives, to the ship and to its cargo before the lower District Court: Ruiz and Montez, Lieutenant Gedney and Captain Henry Green (who had met the Africans while on shore on Long Island and claimed to have helped in their capture). The Spanish government asked that the ship, cargo and slaves be restored to Spain under the
Pinckney treatyof 1795 between Spain and the United States. Article 9 of this treaty holds that "all ships and merchandises of what nature soever, which shall be rescued out of the hands of pirates or robbers on the high seas, …shall be restored, entire, to the true proprietor." The United States filed this claim on behalf of Spain.
The abolitionist movement had formed the "Amistad Committee", headed by
New York City merchant Lewis Tappan, and had collected money to mount a defense of the Africans. Initially, communication with the Africans was difficult, since they spoke neither English nor Spanish. Professor J. Willard Gibbs learned to count to ten in their native Mende language, went to the harbor of New York City, and counted aloud until he located a person able to understand and translate. That person was James Covey, a twenty-year-old sailor of the British man-of-war "Buzzard". Covey was himself a former slave from West Africa.
The abolitionists filed charges of
assault, kidnapping, and false imprisonmentagainst Ruiz and Montez. Their arrest in New York City in October 1839 outraged pro-slavery rights advocates and the Spanish government. They were eventually released on bail and left for Cuba.
January 7, 1840, all the parties (except for Ruiz and Montez, who were represented by the Spanish minister) appeared before the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut and presented their arguments. "Id." at 590 ]
The abolitionists' main argument before the District Court was that a treaty between Britain and Spain of 1817 and a subsequent pronouncement by the Spanish government had outlawed the slave trade across the Atlantic. It was established that the slaves had been captured in
Mendiland(also Mendeland, current Sierra Leone) in Africa, sold to a Portuguese trader in Lomboko(south of Freetown) in April 1839, and taken to Havana illegally on a Portuguese ship. The Africans were therefore not slaves, but victims of illegal kidnapping and free to go. Their papers wrongly identified them as slaves that had been in Cuba since before 1820, a common practice in Cuba condoned by government officials.
Martin Van Buren, who did not have strong opinions on the slavery question but was concerned about relations with Spain and about his re-election prospects in the southern states, sided with the Spanish position; he ordered a U.S. schooner to New Haven Harborto return the Africans to Cuba immediately after a favorable decision, before any appeals could be decided.
The District Court however agreed with the abolitionists, ordering in January 1840 that the "Amistad" and its cargo be given to Lieutenant Gedney and the Africans be returned to their homeland by the U.S. government. (The federal government had outlawed the slave trade between the U.S. and other countries in 1808, and a law from 1818, amended in 1819, provided for the return of all illegally traded slaves.) The captain's slave Antonio was declared the rightful property of the captain's heirs and was ordered restored to Cuba (some sources say he willingly returned to Cuba [The Slave Ship, Sterne, 1953] , while other sources claim that he escaped to
New York[www.ngb.si.edu] , or to Canada, with the help of an abolitionist group). In detail, the District Court ruled as follows:
* It rejected the claim of the U.S. Attorney, argued on behalf of the Spanish minister, for the restoration of the slaves.
* It dismissed the claims of Ruiz and Montez.
* It ordered that the captives be delivered to the custody of the
President of the United Statesfor transportation to Africa, since they were, in fact, legally free.
* It allowed the Spanish vice-consul to claim the slave Antonio.
* It allowed Lt. Gedney to claim one-third of the property on board "La Amistad".
* It allowed Tellincas, Aspe, and Laca to claim one-third of the property.
* It dismissed the claims of Green and Fordham for salvage.
The U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, on order of Van Buren, immediately appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Connecticut District. He challenged every part of the District Court's ruling except the concession of the slave Antonio to the Spanish vice-consul. Tellincas, Aspe, and Laca also appealed the denial of their salvage. Ruiz and Montez, as well as the owners of "La Amistad", did not appeal.
Arguments before the Supreme Court
February 23, 1841Attorney General Henry D. Gilpinbegan the oral argument phase before the Supreme Court. Gilpin first entered into evidence the papers of "La Amistad" which stated that the Africans were Spanish property. The documents being in order, Gilpin argued that the Court had no authority to rule against their validity. Gilpin contended that if the Africans were slaves (as evidenced by the documents), then they must be returned to their rightful owner, in this case, the Spanish government. Gilpin's argument lasted two hours. Clifton Johnson, " [http://www.tulane.edu/~amistad/amessays.htm The Amistad Case and Its Consequences in U.S. History] "] John Quincy Adams, former President of the United Statesand at that time a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, had agreed to argue for the Africans, but when it was time for him to argue, felt ill-prepared. Roger Sherman Baldwin, who had already represented the captives in the lower cases, opened in his place.
Baldwin, a prominent attorney (who was no relation to
Justice Baldwin, the lone dissenter on the Court) contended that the Spanish government was attempting to manipulate the Court to return " fugitives". In actuality, Baldwin argued, the Spanish government sought the return of slaves, who had been freed by the District Court, a fact that the Spanish government was not appealing. Covering all the facts of the case, Baldwin spoke for four hours over the course of the 22nd and the 23rd.
John Quincy Adams rose to speak on
February 24. First, he reminded the court that it was a part of the judicial branch, and not part of the executive. Adams introduced correspondence between the Spanish government and the Secretary of State, criticizing President Martin van Burenfor his assumption of unconstitutionalpowers in the case.
Adams argued that neither
Pinckney's Treatynor the Adams-Onís Treatywas applicable to the case. Article IX of Pinckney's Treaty referred only to property, and did not apply to people. "The Antelope" decision (10 Wheat. 124), which recognized "that possession on board of a vessel was evidence of property", [ "Supra" note 1 at 545 ] Adams said that did not apply either, since the precedent there was established prior to the prohibition of the foreign slave trade in the United States. Adams concluded after eight and one-half hours of speaking on March 1(the Court had taken a recess following the death of Associate JusticeBarbour).
Decision of the Supreme Court
March 9, Associate Justice Joseph Storydelivered the Court's decision. Article IX of Pinckney's Treatywas ruled off topic since the Africans in question were never legal property. They were not criminals, as the U.S. Attorney's Office argued, but, rather, "unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board a certain vessel". [ "Id." at 588 ] The documents submitted by Attorney General Gilpin were not evidence of property, but, rather of fraud on the part of the Spanish government. Lt. Gedney and the USS "Washington" were to be awarded salvage from the vessel for having performed "a highly meritorious and useful service to the proprietors of the ship and cargo". "Id." at 597 ]
When "La Amistad" came into Long Island, however, the Court believed it to be in the possession of the Africans on board, who had no intent to become slaves. Therefore, the
Adams-Onís Treatydid not apply, and the President was not required to return the slaves to Africa.
After the trial
The Mende greeted the news of the Supreme Court's decision with joy. Free at last, the survivors — 35 men and boys and three girls — were brought to
Farmington, Connecticutby abolitionist supporters, a village considered "Grand Central Station" on the Underground Railroad. Charles Ledyard Norton was a child in Farmington at the time and he wrote of the arrival of the Mende in his journal:
The Amistad committee continued to instruct the Africans in English and
Christianityand collected donations to pay for their return. Along with several missionaries, the surviving 36 Africans travelled back to Africa early in 1842, and a mission was erected in Mendiland. The Amistad committee later evolved into the American Missionary Association, an evangelical organization which continued to support the Mendi mission, argued for abolitionism, and eventually established many schools for freed slaves in the U.S.
In the following years, the Spanish government continued to press for compensation, and several lawmakers from southern states introduced resolutions into the
United States Congressto pay. These efforts were supported by presidents James K. Polkand James Buchanan, but they all failed.
After he returned to Africa,
Joseph Cinquérenounced Christianity and ceased to have much contact with the American Missionary Association (AMA), the organization that had facilitated his return to Africa. Rumors spread: He was rich; he was a slave trader; he went to Jamaica. One scholar found that "numerous such oral accounts" of Cinqué being involved in slavery and the African trade "had reached the Mende mission." The same claim was made by Fred L. Brownlee, the AMA historian, but solid documentation is lacking. cite journal | last = Finkelman | first = Paul | authorlink = | coauthors = | year = 2000 | month = | title = On Cinqué and the Historians | journal = Journal of American History | volume = 87 | issue = 3 | pages = 940–946 | doi = 10.2307/2675278 | url = | accessdate = | quote = ]
The United States faced an incident similar to the Amistad case in the
Creole caseof 1841.
A simplified version of the events described here was made into a movie called "Amistad" in 1997. It was directed by
Steven Spielbergand starred Anthony Hopkinsas John Quincy Adams, Morgan Freemanas one of the abolitionists, Djimon Hounsouas Cinqué, and Matthew McConaugheyas Roger Sherman Baldwin, their lawyer. This film also depicts the initial transport of the slaves from Africa to Cuba, showing brutal murders, death by starvation and suffocation, and drowning of slaves.
There is a statue of Cinqué beside the City Hall building in
New Haven, Connecticut. In March 2000, a replica of the "Amistad" was launched from Mystic Seaportin Mystic, Connecticut. Its mission is to educate the public on the history of slavery, discriminationand civil rights. The vessel's current home port is New Haven, Connecticut, where the Amistad Trial occurred. It also travels to port cities for educational opportunities. The official name of the vessel is the "Freedom Schooner Amistad".
The Historical Society of Farmington Connecticut offers walking tours of village homes that once housed the Africans while funds were collected for their return home, as well as the grave stone of Foone, who drowned in the Farmington River. Similarly, the Oberlin Heritage Center (
Oberlin, Ohio) provides tours of the one-room schoolhouse where one of the Amistad captives (Sarah Margru Kinson) studied, beginning in August 1846, at the suggestion of abolitionist Lewis Tappan.
List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 40
* cite journal | last = Jackson | first = Donald Dale | authorlink = | coauthors = | year = 1997 | month = | title = Mutiny on the Amistad | journal = Smithsonian | volume = 28 | issue = 9 | pages = 114–118, 120, 122–124 | issn = 0037-7333 | url = | accessdate = | quote =
*cite book |title=Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy |last=Jones |first=Howard |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1987 |publisher=Oxford University Press |location=New York |isbn=0195038282 |pages=
*cite book |title=The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone |last=Osagie |first=Iyunolu Folayan |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2000 |publisher=University of Georgia Press |location=Athens |isbn=0820322245 |pages=
* [http://www.law.cornell.edu/background/amistad/summary.html Legal background on the "Amistad" case] by Michael Peil (includes [http://www.law.cornell.edu/background/amistad/opinion.html case documents] )
* — Opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court
* [http://www.yale.edu/glc/info/amistad.html Gilder Lehrman Center's "Amistad Page"]
* [http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/amistad/AMISTD.HTM The Amistad Case] from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School]
* [http://www.npg.si.edu/col/amistad/ Portraits and narrative from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery]
* [http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/timeline/courttimeline.html "The Legal Path of the Amistad Case" from The Museum of America and the Sea]
* [http://www.tulane.edu/~amistad/amessays.htm "The Amistad Case and Its Consequences in U.S. History"] by Clifton Johnson
* [http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/timeline/courttimeline.html A chronology of the trials]
* [http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/barber/barber.html A History of the Amistad Captives by John Warner Barber (1798-1885): The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill]
* [http://www.footnote.com/image/5642043/ Original Documents Online: Amistad Court Records Online]
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Look at other dictionaries:
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