Slave Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After seizing control of a Spanish ship that was illegally transporting them as slaves, a group of Africans found refuge in New England, only to be prosecuted by the federal government as mutineers. With the support of abolitionists and John Quincy Adams, they were eventually vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court, by which time their case had become a national cause célèbre.

Summary of Event

Under the terms of an 1817 treaty between Great Britain and Spain, Spain;and slave trade[Slave trade] Slave trade;and Spain[Spain] all African slave trading was to end by 1820. However, enforcement of the treaty was not adequate to deter many fortune seekers, and a highly lucrative covert slave trade continued to operate, most notably between Africa and Cuba. Amistad slave revolt Slave rebellions;Amistad Spain;and United States[United States] Cinqué, Joseph Cuba;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Spain;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Slave trade;and Spain[Spain] [kw]Amistad Slave Revolt (July 2, 1839) [kw]Slave Revolt, Amistad (July 2, 1839) [kw]Revolt, Amistad Slave (July 2, 1839) Amistad slave revolt Slave rebellions;Amistad Spain;and United States[United States] Cinqué, Joseph Cuba;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Spain;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Slave trade;and Spain[Spain] [g]United States;July 2, 1839: Amistad Slave Revolt[2110] [g]Central America and the Caribbean;July 2, 1839: Amistad Slave Revolt[2110] [g]Cuba;July 2, 1839: Amistad Slave Revolt[2110] [g]Spain;July 2, 1839: Amistad Slave Revolt[2110] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 2, 1839: Amistad Slave Revolt[2110] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 2, 1839: Amistad Slave Revolt[2110] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 2, 1839: Amistad Slave Revolt[2110] Baldwin, Roger Sherman Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Quincy [p]Adams, John Quincy;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Ruiz, José Tappan, Lewis Tappan, Lewis [p]Tappan, Lewis;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] VanBuren, Martin Van Buren, Martin [p]Van Buren, Martin;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Story, Joseph

In April, 1839, a Portuguese slave ship left West Africa West Africa;and slave trade[Slave trade] bound for Havana filled with more than five hundred illegally purchased Africans, mostly members of the Mendi society. After Middle Passage voyages that lasted two months and killed approximately one-third of the captive Africans, the ship anchored offshore of Havana and the surviving human cargo was brought to land after dark. Cuban colonial officials receiving kickbacks provided paperwork declaring these Africans to be ladinos the term for slaves who had resided in Cuba before 1820. Slaves with designation could be legally sold. Within a few days, a trader named José Ruiz Ruiz, José purchased forty-nine of the African men, and Pedro Montes bought three girls and one boy.

The illegally sold captives were then loaded onto the Spanish schooner Amistad, which set sail for Puerto Príncipe, Cuba, a few days’ sailing away. Unable to communicate with the ships Spanish-speaking owners and crew, the captives became convinced that they were to be eaten. On July 2, the third night out, one of the Africans, Joseph Cinqué, picked the lock on his iron collar and broke into the ship’s cargo hold, where he and others found cane knives. The Africans then took control of the ship, killing the captain and the cook. Two other crew members disappeared; they may have jumped overboard. Ruiz Ruiz, José , Montes, and Antonio, the captain’s slave cabin boy, were spared.

The Africans demanded to be taken to Sierra Leone Sierra Leone West Africa;Sierra Leone , the West African West Africa;and slave trade[Slave trade] colony that Great Britain had created expressly for the purpose of repatriating recaptured West African slaves. Over the next two months, Ruiz and Montes pretended to comply with the Africans’ demand. During the day, they sailed southeast, occasionally landing to scavenge for food and water, but at night they headed north and northeast, in the hope of finding help. Knowing nothing about oceanic navigation, the Africans did not realize they were being duped.

Meanwhile, the schooner slowly tacked up the eastern seaboard of the United States. It was often sighted, and its increasingly decrepit condition and the presence of many black on its decks aroused suspicion. During one of its stops to obtain food off the coast of Long Island, the Amistad came to the attention of the U.S. naval brig Washington, whose captain, Thomas Gedney, ordered the schooner boarded. The thirty-nine surviving slaves, by then almost starved and unable to resist, were taken into custody.

The Africans were rescued from their physical ordeal, only to begin a nightmarish legal ordeal. After being taken ashore in the United States, Ruiz Ruiz, José and Montes filed suits to have their slave property returned to them. Captain Gedney claimed salvage rights to the Amistad and its cargo, including the slaves. The Spanish government demanded the fugitives be handed over to it, and U.S. abolitionists clamored for the Africans to be set free.

The case was a complicated one. Although the United States and Great Britain had outlawed the African slave trade, slavery was legal in Cuba, and Ruiz and Montes had paperwork documenting their ownership of their ship’s African passengers. Moreover, the federal government had to consider its treaty obligations with the government of Spain, which owned Cuba, to determine whether it should recognize Spanish property rights to the Africans. Precedents from an 1825 incident with the Spanish slave ship Antelope also had to be analyzed. Most important, perhaps, the Amistad affair carried grave implications for the slavery issue in the United States and President Martin Van Buren Van Buren, Martin Van Buren, Martin [p]Van Buren, Martin;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] hoped to avoid that issue in the reelection contest that he would face the following year, as he knew that his success depended on maintaining his coalition of northern and southern supporters.

Newspapers across the land kept an interested public informed of the status of the Amistad case. For the most part, northerners were sympathetic toward the Africans, while southerners believed they should be returned to the Spanish government to be tried for piracy Piracy;and slave trade[Slave trade] and murder. The affair probably would have been handled quietly and quickly had not the abolitionists recognized in it the potential to raise the public’s awareness of the moral and legal issues at stake in the slavery question. They saw in this case an opportunity to argue the principle of natural law, which they felt entitled every person, regardless of color, to liberty. The case also provided them a chance to test the degree to which people of color were protected by the law.

Abolitionists and other opponents of slavery quickly formed the Amistad Committee, made up of Simeon Jocelyn Jocelyn, Simeon , Joshua Leavitt Leavitt, Joshua , and Lewis Tappan Tappan, Lewis Tappan, Lewis [p]Tappan, Lewis;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] , to raise money for legal counsel and to appeal to President Van Buren Van Buren, Martin Van Buren, Martin [p]Van Buren, Martin;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] to allow the case to be decided by the U.S. court system, rather than turning the prisoners over to the Spanish government. The committee acquired the legal services of Roger Sherman Baldwin Baldwin, Roger Sherman , Seth Staples, and Theodore Sedgwick. They also sought native Africans who could communicate with the Amistad captives, as depositions had been given only by the Spaniards and the ship’s cabin boy. Eventually they engaged the services of James Covey Covey, James , a West African serving aboard a British naval vessel who could speak the Mendi language. Covey was allowed to leave his naval duties indefinitely in order to serve as interpreter for the Africans.

The legal proceedings began in mid-September, 1839, in the U.S. Circuit Court convened in Hartford, Connecticut. Connecticut;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Amid a complex maze of issues dealing with salvage rights, international law, jurisdiction disputes, and legal definitions of property and personhood, the case worked its way over the next eighteen months from circuit court to district court, back to the circuit court and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court. The abolitionists made sure that the case stayed before the public and even filed assault-and-battery and illegal-imprisonment suits against Montes and Ruiz Ruiz, José on behalf of several of the Africans to generate further attention. Although ambivalent in its responses to the legal and moral questions, the public stayed interested. People even paid admission to see the Africans, who were eventually allowed to receive visitors, enjoy outdoor exercise, and take English lessons and religious instruction.

The case also excited international interest, and the cause of the abolitionists was substantially aided when Dr. Richard Robert Madden Madden, Richard Robert , a British official living in Havana, traveled more than one thousand miles to give a moving and informed deposition concerning the state of the slave trade Slave trade;and Cuba[Cuba] in Cuba. Cuba;slave trade He spelled out the means and extent of illegal activities and clarified the status of ladinos. He also stated that the children on board the Amistad were without doubt too young to be pre-1820 Cuban residents, and that he strongly believed that all the Amistad captives were in fact bozales newly imported Africans, not ladinos.

In January, 1840, Judge Andrew T. Judson Judson, Andrew T. of the U.S. District Court of Connecticut ruled that the Africans could not be counted as property in the calculation of salvage value and that they could not legally be held as slaves because their initial purchase had been illegal. The government then appealed the case, but a few months later, Judge Smith Thompson Thompson, Smith of the U.S. Circuit Court concurred in Judson’s decision.

The government again appealed, and the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;and Amistad case[Amistad case] in early 1841. Former U.S. president John Quincy Adams Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Quincy [p]Adams, John Quincy;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] argued passionately on behalf of the defendants. On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled in the Africans’ favor. In an opinion written by Associate Justice Joseph Story Story, Joseph , the Court ruled that Africans brought to Cuba illegally were not property, that as illegally held free men they had a right to mutiny, and that they should therefore be released. The Africans, who by now could speak English, spent the next months continuing their religious instruction and going to exhibitions arranged by abolitionists to raise money for their return voyage to Africa. In November, 1841, they sailed to Sierra Leone Sierra Leone , accompanied by a small group of New England missionaries.

Significance

The Amistad decision was a great victory for abolitionists and raised the public’s awareness of the slavery issue. The case fed secessionist sentiments in the southern states but helped opponents of slavery focus on legal attacks against the institution.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    The “Amistad” Case: The Most Celebrated Slave Mutiny of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1968. Contains correspondence between the U.S. and Spanish governments concerning the Amistad case, as well as the text of John Quincy Adams’s argument before the Supreme Court.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barber, John Warner. A History of the “Amistad” Captives. New York: Arno Press, 1969. This reprint of an 1840 account of the Amistad case contains biographical sketches of the surviving Africans and an account of the trials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cable, Mary. Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slaveship “Amistad.” New York: Viking Press, 1972. Short history of the Supreme Court’s involvement in the Amistad case. The book covers the background and incarceration of the kidnapped Africans, the arguments made before the Supreme Court, and what happened to the Africans afterward.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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. Provides a thorough and scholarly discussion of the Amistad incident in its contemporary political context. Includes brief analyses of the legal arguments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Christopher. The “Amistad” Affair. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970. Full-length history of the case, including an introduction to the African slave trade and an epilogue that traces the case’s resurfacings long after 1841.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nagel, Paul C. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life. New York: Random House, 1997. Biography of the former president who represented the Amistad captives before the Supreme Court. Draws upon Adams’s massive diary to re-create his private life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Owens, William A. Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner “Amistad.” Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1968. Dramatized but well-researched rendering of the incident, using dialogue taken mostly from primary sources, though often paraphrased. Includes information on the fate of the Africans after the trial that is not found in many studies.

Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves

Turner Launches Slave Insurrection

American Anti-Slavery Society Is Founded

U.S. Election of 1840

Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile

Slave Traders Begin Ravaging Easter Island

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

John Quincy Adams; William Cullen Bryant; Joseph Story; Martin Van Buren. Amistad slave revolt Slave rebellions;Amistad Spain;and United States[United States] Cinqué, Joseph Cuba;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Spain;and Amistad slave revolt[Amistad slave revolt] Slave trade;and Spain[Spain]

Categories: History Content