In the 1830s, Africans were regularly kidnapped by slave traders and sold in an illegal slave trade. One group of Africans rose up in rebellion against their captors only to find themselves in a battle within the U.S. court system. Their story brought the concept of slavery into sharp focus in a country divided by its beliefs about slavery.
In 1839, a Portuguese slave ship brought a shipload of kidnapped Africans from present-day Sierra Leone to sell in Havana, Cuba. After crossing the seas in a cramped and filthy slave ship, a group of fifty-three Mende-speaking Africans, led by a man named Sengbe, who came to be called Cinque (c. 1817–1879), were sold to two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes. At this time slave trading was illegal in the United States, but the ever-growing demand for slaves had created a flourishing trade and colonial authorities did nothing to prevent it.
The Spaniards boarded the Africans on the Amistad, a ship heading toward their estates in northern Cuba. During the voyage, the Africans conversed in sign language with the ship's crew, asking what would happen to them. A seaman jokingly gestured that they would be killed and eaten. Soon after that, the African captives seized control of the ship, killing two crew members.
The mutineers (people who rebel) spared the lives of Ruiz and Montes and ordered them to pilot the ship to Africa. The Spaniards pretended to sail east by day, but secretly reversed course by night. After two months they brought the Amistad to the northern coast of the United States. The Africans were arrested and jailed in Connecticut , and charged with committing murder and piracy. Ruiz and Montes, backed by the Spanish government, pressed a claim for the return of the Amistad, including its cargo of slaves.
A divided public
While the Africans awaited trial, newspapers across the country carried their story. Many regarded them as curiosities, but Connecticut's abolitionists
(people who oppose slavery and work to end it) eagerly took up the captives’ cause. They organized an Amistad relief committee and hired respected attorneys to defend the Africans. Aside from sympathy for the Africans, the abolitionists viewed their case as a way to put the institution of slavery on trial.
Naturally, people from the southern slave states opposed the abolitionists and sided with the lawyers prosecuting (pursuing charges against) the Africans, demanding that they be returned to their “owners.” Southerners wanted the courts to uphold what they believed to be the absolute rights of slaveholders. They feared slave rebellions and did not want the Amistad rebels to go unpunished, for fear their own slaves might follow their example. President Martin Van Buren (1782–1862; served 1847–41) also wanted to see the Africans deported to Cuba. For him, this solution would avoid diplomatic tension with Spain and keep voters in the South on his side at election time.
In the Amistad trial, the defense lawyers asserted that the Africans had the right to free themselves from the horrible conditions of slavery. They argued that returning them to Cuba meant certain death for them. In addition, since the captives had been kidnapped in violation of Spanish law, the abolitionists argued that the blacks were not legally slaves and therefore were not “property” belonging to Ruiz and Montes. In January 1840, Cinque, who had learned a little English, electrified the courtroom with his testimony about conditions on the Amistad, at one point shouting “Give us free! Give us free!”
The judge in the Amistad case ruled in favor of the Africans. He deemed them innocent of murder and piracy, since they had only acted to free themselves. He ordered the ship and its goods to be returned to Ruiz and Montes, but stated that the Africans were to be freed and allowed to return to their homes.
John Quincy Adams for the defense
The prosecution appealed, and the Amistad case went before the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time, five Supreme Court justices were Southerners who had owned slaves. The defense sought out former U.S. president John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29) to present its case, banking on his renown as much as on his legal ability. In his seventies and still an outspoken member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Adams had been following the Amistad case since the beginning. He enchanted the court with hours-long orations about the principles of American freedom and justice. Even as this was going on in court, though, President Van Buren had stationed a ship nearby with standing orders to carry the prisoners to Cuba. Abolitionists watched the ship night and day to ensure that the president did not overstep his powers and whisk the captives away.
In March 1840, the Supreme Court upheld the earlier court's decision. The Africans were free, though reduced in number to thirty-five owing to deaths in prison. It took almost another year for the Amistad relief committee to raise money to hire a ship to carry Cinque and the other Africans back to Sierra Leone. They are the only known Africans sold as slaves in the New World to return to their lands. Upon his return home, Cinque was unable to find his wife. He disappeared shortly after his return and little else is known of his life. In the United States, though, he remains a symbol of resistance to the Atlantic slave trade.
The Amistad decision did not condemn slavery. It simply held that Africans who were not legally slaves could not be considered property. If the Amistad rebels had been slaves by U.S. law, or if the abolitionists had not intervened on their behalf, the decision would have been very different. As it happened, though, the case provided the nation with a rare perspective on the human rights of kidnapped African people. Abolitionists viewed this as a victory, whereas slave owners of the South generally viewed the decision with contempt.