The Amistad mutiny was a rebellion of African captives that occurred off the northern coast of Cuba in July 1839. The mutineers had been seized in Africa, herded onto a Portuguese slave ship along with hundreds of others, and then transported illegally from the African island of Lombokor to Cuba (then a Spanish colony). Upon reaching Havana, the Africans were smuggled ashore under cover of night, in violation of an 1817 treaty between England and Spain that prohibited the slave trade. Fifty-three captives—forty-nine adult males, three girls, and a boy—were sold to two Spaniards, José Ruiz and Pedro Montes; they were then shipped along the Cuban coast to Puerto Príncipe aboard the Spanish schooner La Amistad.
On July 1–2, 1839, just a few days after the Amistad set sail, the captured Africans rose up in revolt. Led by Sengbe Pieh (or Joseph Cinqué), they freed themselves from their irons and launched an armed assault against their captors, killing the ship's captain and cook. Several
crew members disappeared, and one African was killed in the fray. The mutineers spared Ruiz and Montes, ordering them to sail the ship back to Africa. The Spaniards, however, maintained a meandering northerly course that, by late August, brought the ship to New York state waters.
On August 25, the Africans, desperate from hunger and thirst, anchored the now-bedraggled Amistad off the coast of Long Island in New York to search for provisions. But they had been spotted by the crew of the USS Washington; after a show of resistance, they surrendered to the ship's commanders and were towed to New London, Connecticut. They were shortly afterward taken to New Haven, where they languished in jail while awaiting a hearing on their case. So began an ordeal for the "Mendians" (many of the Africans had come from Mende) that lasted for more than two years.
The Amistad case attracted widespread attention along the Atlantic seaboard, and even on an international scale. Ruiz and Montes insisted that the Africans had already been slaves in Cuba at the time of purchase and were therefore legal property; as such, they could be tried on charges of piracy and murder. Cuban and Spanish authorities demanded the return of the ship and its surviving human "cargo"—thirty-nine adults and the four children. But abolitionists mobilized in defense of the mutineers, hoping to prove that they had been unlawfully enslaved and should therefore be set free. Some antislavery advocates sought to use the case to demonstrate that the principle of natural rights applied to black people.
The Amistad Committee, composed of such prominent abolitionists as Lewis Tappan, Joshua Leavitt, and Simeon Jocelyn, launched a vigorous campaign to raise funds for the defense. They also succeeded in generating substantial public sympathy for the defendants, even among many who did not oppose the institution of slavery itself. Activists located two African-born seamen, James Covey and Charles Pratt, who were able to communicate with the prisoners, including the undisputed leader, Cinqué. The Africans were sketched by artists and displayed on speaking tours; models of them were made and sent along to sites where they could not personally appear. They were also taught English and instructed in Christianity. Throughout the prolonged period of litigation that followed their arrest, the case was hotly debated in the press.
Thousands of onlookers converged on Hartford, Connecticut, when the U.S. Circuit Court convened in September 1839. The court refused to release the captives and remanded the case to the U.S. District Court. It was not until January 1840 that a ruling was issued. Judge Andrew T. Judson determined that the Africans had indeed been illegally kidnapped and sold, and that they had legitimately rebelled to win back their freedom. At the same time, he upheld the institution of slavery by ordering the return to Cuba of Antonio, who actually had been a slave of the slain Amistad captain. Judson also ordered the return of the mutineers to Africa.
The U.S. government, under the administration of President Martin Van Buren, had been expecting a verdict that would uphold its own position: that the Africans should be returned to Spain under Pinckney's Treaty of 1795. A naval vessel, the USS Grampus, was anchored in New London harbor, waiting to spirit the Africans out of the country and back to Cuba before the abolitionist forces could appeal the ruling. But now it was the government that filed an appeal. After Judson's decision was upheld in May 1840, the Amistad case was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A majority of the Court were southerners who had been slave owners at one time, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. The Amistad Committee was able to secure the services of John Quincy Adams, former president of the United States, who argued the case before the Court. In March 1841, the Court delivered its opinion, affirming the original ruling by an eight-to-one margin. The Amistad mutineers were free. Antonio, at risk of being sent back to Cuba, was transported secretly to Canada via the Underground Railroad, while the Amistad Committee set about raising private funds to return the remaining Africans to their homeland.
On November 27, 1841, thirty-five Africans (the others had died while imprisoned in Connecticut), along with the translator James Covey and five white missionaries, left New York for Sierra Leone. Traveling with protection from the British, they reached Africa in mid-January 1842. Little is known of Cinqué after his repatriation—according to some accounts, he died some time around 1879—but he remains one of the leading symbols of resistance to the Atlantic slave trade. Although the Spanish government demanded reparations, their effort was hampered by sectional divisions within the U.S. Congress and was eventually abandoned with the coming of the U.S. Civil War.
Amistad. Directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks Pictures, 1997.
Barber, John Warner. A History of the Amistad Captives. New Haven, Conn.: Barber, 1840. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1969.
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.
McClendon, R. Earl. "The Amistad Claims: Inconsistencies of Policy." Political Science Quarterly 48 (1933): 386-412.
robert l. hall (1996)