AMISTAD CASE. In 1839, fifty-three Africans, being illegally transferred on the Spanish schooner La Amistad, took control of the ship near Havana, Cuba, murdered part of the crew, and demanded transport back to Africa. Traveling toward the rising sun by day, as the Africans requested, and north by night, as the Spaniards wanted, the schooner was captured by the U.S.S. Washington off Long Island Sound as it was attempting to replenish supplies. The American vessel demanded one-third salvage claims for the value of the schooner and captives. After the U.S. circuit court in Hartford, Connecticut, refused to rule on the case, the U.S. district court in New London found the Africans not guilty of piracy charges since they were rising up against their illegal captors and upheld the salvage claim against the ship. Pressed by Spain to return the slaves and the ship, John Forsyth, secretary of state under Martin Van Buren, appealed the case to the Supreme Court after the U.S. circuit court in New London upheld the district court's decision.
Awaiting retrial, the thirty-three surviving male Africans were moved to private Connecticut homes and taught about Christianity and the English language while Yale students taught the three girls. Former president John Quincy Adams, citing natural law and the Declaration of Independence, defended the thirty-six Africans. The Supreme Court ruled that they were not pirates or robbers and that they were free Africans under international law, since the slave trade had been abolished in the United States and Spain. The United States was not responsible for their transportation back to Africa, so abolitionist societies such as the American Missionary Society and others gathered private donations to send the thirty-five survivors, their translator from the case, James Covey, and five white missionaries from New York on 27 November 1841 to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to help establish a Christian mission in Africa. The Amistad case was the
first civil rights trial held before the Supreme Court and the first battle and victory of the abolitionists, for whom it symbolized the refusal to accept slavery.
Cable, Mary. Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad. New York: Viking, 1971.
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.
Martin, B. Edmon. All We Want Is Make Us Free: La Amistad and the Reform Abolitionists. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986.
Martin, Christopher. The Amistad Affair. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970.