Home > Uncategorized > February 18 – The Amistad

February 18 – The Amistad

Thanks again to Dan for sharing the story of the German Coast Rebellion yesterday!

In keeping with yesterday’s theme, we shift now from one slave rebellion to another. Today we turn our attention to the fascinating story of a Spanish slave ship, a rebellion at sea, a capture in US waters, and an international court battle involving no fewer than 7 parties. Do you know the name of the ship and/or the outcome of the trial?

So I’m guessing that only people who were African American Studies majors or who watched the 1997 film by the same name would be familiar with the story of The Amistad. In researching slave rebellions, this was easily one of the most amazing events I came across.

In June 1839, the Spanish slave ship La Amistad set sail from Havana, Cuba with 49 slaves in tow. These men, women and children had been kidnapped from Africa and smuggled to Cuba (a Spanish colony at the time) to be sold and put to work. On July 2, while en route to Puerto Principe, one of the Africans named Joseph Cinque managed to free himself and the others from their shackles using an iron file. With Cinque leading the charge, the slaves revolted, killed the captain, the cook and several crew members, and effectively took control of the ship.

Incapable of sailing the ship themselves, they spared the lives of two crew members, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, and using the captain’s personal slave Antonio as a translator, they instructed Ruiz and Montez to turn the boat towards Africa. Instead, the sailors tricked them and took them North, eventually dropping anchor just outside of Long Island, NY.

The Freedom Schooner Amistad is a replica of the original Spanish vessel La Amistad

As the rebel slaves went ashore to gather food and water, the Amistad was spotted by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney of the USRC Washington, who took custody of both ship and slaves. Hoping to lay claim to (and profit from) “property seized on the high seas,” Gedney presented them to US District Court of Connecticut, a state where slavery was still technically legal.

As the proceedings began, 7 distinct parties would file suit in connection with the Amistad and its cargo.

  1. Gedney wanted to be given legal rights to both ship and slaves so he could sell them for profit.
  2. Mssrs. Green and Fordham, who were present in Long Island when the ship docked, and who claimed they assisted in arresting the rebel slaves, wanted the same as Gedney, claiming they ‘saw it first.’
  3. Ruiz and Montez, the surviving crew members, claimed all property was rightfully theirs and wanted it returned.
  4. The Office of the US Attorney for Connecticut, representing Spain, wanted all property returned to Spain.
  5. Antonio Vega, the vice-consul of Spain, claimed the captain’s slave Antonio belonged to him, and wanted him back.
  6. Jose Antonio Tellincas and Mssrs. Aspe and Laca, Spanish subjects living in Cuba, claimed property on board the ship belonged to them, and wanted it returned.
  7. And finally, the Africans on board claimed they were never slaves to begin with, and therefore nobody’s property to be returned. New York City merchant Lewis Tappan and the abolitionist movement formed the “Amistad Committee” to raise money and a legal defense for the Africans. They were represented in court by attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin and translator James Covey.

The initial charges of mutiny and murder were dismissed immediately by the court on the basis that the alleged events had taken place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters, and were therefore out of Connecticut court’s jurisdiction. Then, based on translated testimony by the Africans, Baldwin charged Ruiz and Montez with assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment. The men were arrested and eventually deported to Cuba, leaving the other 6 parties to debate the fate of the ship and its cargo.

Composite image of Cinque, leader of the ‘rebel slaves,’ and Roger Sherman Baldwin, their attorney

Ultimately, the court found that the slaves had been unjustly captured in Mendiland (present-day Sierra Leone), sold to a Portuguese trader, and transported illegally to Havana. As such, these Africans were NOT slaves, but rather the victims of an illegal kidnapping. To the relief and joy of the Africans, they were released and taken to live temporarily in Farmington, Connecticut. There, the Amistad Committee provided them with lessons in English and Christianity for 2 years. In 1842, the 36 surviving Africans finally returned home to Mendiland.

As for the other parties, Spain was denied its claims, as were Green and Fordham. The slave Antonio was returned to the vice-consul, and the remaining property was divided between Gedney, Tellincas, Aspe and Laca.

thanks for reading,


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