Amistad and Slave Ship Rebellions

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Amistad and Slave Ship Rebellions

Early on the morning of July 2, 1839, fifty-three slaves aboard the Spanish-owned schooner La Amistad mutinied somewhere off the coast of Cuba, killing the ship's captain and cook. Led by a twenty-five-year-old African named Sengbe Pieh (1813–1879), who became known to history as Joseph Cinqué, the slaves ordered the two surviving crew members, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, to steer a course back to Africa. Ruiz and Montes betrayed the Africans, however, sailing east toward the sun during the day but steering a course northward at night in hopes that the ship would be spotted by either British or American authorities. Over the course of the next eight weeks, while the ship slowly made its way along the coast of North America, conditions onboard the Amistad steadily deteriorated as the ship's provisions were quickly depleted. After ten of the slaves died from drinking medicine they found in the ship's hold, Pieh realized that they had to take on new supplies and, on August 25, the Amistad anchored off Long Island, New York, where it was spotted and boarded by the crew of the revenue cutter USS Washington.

Initially taken to New London, Connecticut, their case was quickly referred to the U.S. circuit court in Hampton. The surviving slaves were then transported to jail in New Haven, where they quickly became such a popular attraction that their jailers started charging admission to the many well-wishers and other visitors that they received. When the court met in September to consider charges of mutiny and murder, it ruled that because the alleged acts had occurred on the high seas, it lacked jurisdiction and passed the case on to the District Court in New Haven. When the trial resumed in January 1840, U.S. Federal District Justice Andrew Judson (1784–1853) heard a complicated series of competing claims: The Spanish government, with the backing of Martin Van Buren's (1782–1862) administration, argued that the slaves should be returned to Cuba, citing as evidence documents that proved the slaves had been born into captivity on the island; Ruiz and Montes demanded rights to the Amistad and its cargo, which included the valuable slaves they had been transporting; competing salvage claims were filed by the captain of the Washington, arguing that he had legally seized the ship and was entitled to its assets, and by a Long Island seaman who maintained that he had discovered the Amistad first. With their plight quickly attracting national attention, Pieh and his fellow captives were supported by a group of abolitionists who raised the funds necessary to support their defense, hiring lawyers to argue their case and finding Mende interpreters so that the slaves could tell their side of the story in court. At the heart of the case lay the question of whether or not the captives had been born into slavery in Cuba, as was maintained by the Spanish and American governments, or if they had in fact been illegally kidnapped from their homes in Africa and were thus, according to international treaty, legally freemen. Sensationally, Judson agreed with the defense and ordered that the slaves be sent back to Africa.

By this time, supporters of slavery and abolitionists alike had come to see the case as an important litmus test for future judicial rulings regarding slavery's legal future within the United States. In order to prevent a situation such as that presented by the Amistad arising again, the Senate on April 14 passed a resolution submitted by South Carolina's John Caldwell Calhoun (1782–1850), which declared that a ship engaged on a legal voyage on the high seas during peacetime fell under the sole jurisdiction of that vessel's country. Under instruction from Van Buren, the U.S. district attorney had immediately appealed the ruling, which was sent to New Haven's circuit court; when the case was reheard in late April 1840, the court simply affirmed Judson's ruling pro forma, referring the case to the Supreme Court. In support of the Amistad Africans, former President John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) took to the floor of the House of Representatives in December 1840 to publicly accuse the Van Buren administration of deliberately falsifying documents in the case, charges that were later confirmed by a congressional committee. The hearings before the Supreme Court began on February 22, 1841, with Adams leading the defense's case. Adams's address to the court, which extended over two days, stands today as an impassioned defense of the principle of habeas corpus and is widely credited with persuading the justices to rule, with only one dissent, in favor of the Africans and order their return to Africa. Undoubtedly a victory for the abolitionists, they were disappointed that the ruling nevertheless made no mention of the legality of slavery. Finally, in December 1841, the surviving Africans set sail for their birthplace.

Although the Amistad case is undoubtedly the most famous example of a shipboard rebellion, it was by no means the only such incident in the history of the slave trade—other notable examples include uprisings on the ships Decatur (1826), Lafayette (1829), and Creole (1841). In fact, captured Africans resisted their condition in numerous ways, with full-scale rebellion only being the most disruptive means open to them; individual forms of resistance most commonly took the form of refusal to eat and various types of suicide, which was generally the only escape available to the captives. An attempted uprising at sea inevitably resulted in death"whether it was the ship's crew or the ship's cargo that lost their lives depended on the outcome of the rebellion—and it is no wonder that the fear of an all-out uprising during the Middle Passage led most crews to take stringent precautions against such an eventuality, with slaves generally stripped naked and kept chained below the deck under constant guard for long periods of time. Vessels carried a large array of armaments, ranging from firearms and cutlasses to cannons, and it has been estimated that the primary responsibility of up to one-third of a crew was to maintain order over the ship's prisoners. These safeguards were furthermore extremely expensive, requiring additional supplies to be purchased, increasing the number of salaries that had to be paid, and generally cutting into the overall profitability of the slave trade.

Despite these precautions, the historian Eric Robert Taylor has found records of as many as 493 shipboard insurrections having occurred between 1509 and 1865, with many more likely having gone unrecorded by history. This has led him to argue that revolts of "varying magnitude and degrees of success occurred on slave ships at least once a month on average" (2006, p. 3). Despite the considerable danger, attempted uprisings at sea were indisputably a regular aspect of the transatlantic slave trade, evidence that those caught up in the chains of bondage would do everything in their power to regain their freedom.


Adams, John Quincy. Argument of John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court of the United States: in the Case of the United States, Appellants, Vs. Cinque, and Others, Africans, Captured in the Schooner Amistad, by Lt. Gedney, Delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841: with a Review of the Case of the Antelope, Reported in the 10th, 11th, and 12th Volumes of Wheaton‗s Reports. New York: S.W. Benedick, 1841.

Barber, John Warner. A History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner Amistad, by the Africans Onboard; Their Voyage and Capture near Long Island, New York; with Biographical Sketches of Each of the Surviving Africans; also, an Account of the Trials Had on Their Case, before the District and Circuit Courts of the United States, for the District of Connecticut. Compiled from Authentic Sources. New Haven, CT: E.L. & J.W. Barber, 1840.

Bly, Antonio T. "Crossing the Lake of Fire: Slave Resistance during the Middle Passage, 1720–1842." The Journal of Negro History 83, no. 3 (1998): 178-186.

Giddings, Joshua Reed. Amistad Claim, History of the Case …: Speech of Mr. Giddings of Ohio in the House of Representatives December 21, 1853. Washington, DC, 1853.

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, 1988.

Richardson, David. "Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade." The William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2001): 69-92.

Rodriguez, Junius P, ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die: Shipboard Insurrections in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

                                   Simon J. Appleford

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Amistad and Slave Ship Rebellions

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