U.S. v. Cinque: 1839

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U.S. v. Cinque: 1839

Defendants: Joseph Cinque and others
Crimes Charged: Murder and piracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: John Quincy Adams, Roger S. Baldwin, Joshua Leavitt, and Seth Staples
Chief Prosecutor: William S. Holabird
Judges: Andrew T. Judson and Smith Thompson
Place: New Haven, Connecticut
Dates of Trial: November 19, 1839-January 13, 1840
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: When the courts refused to convict slaves from the schooner Amistad after they killed their captors to free themselves, the decision was widely hailed as a victory for the cause of abolition.

By the 1830s, many countries were beginning to take steps to limit the age-old institution of slavery. Although slavery was still legal in the United States, it was illegal to bring new slaves into the country. Further, the abolitionist movement, which sought to do away with slavery altogether, was gaining more and more support. Great Britain was strongly in favor of abolition, and had used its naval power to pressure Spain, whose colonies were dominated by slave owners, to also make it illegal to bring new slaves into any Spanish possessions.

Spanish power in the New World was declining, however, and the government in Madrid lacked the power to enforce its will. The wealthy landowners in Cuba and elsewhere throughout the Spanish New World needed slaves to work their estates, and obeying the import restriction meant waiting for the children of existing slaves to mature. With slave owner demand strong and central authority weak, a flourishing illegal slave trade soon emerged. Slavers went to the west coast of Africa, captured healthy young black men and women, and brought them back to Cuba for sale. The colonial authorities did nothing to stop this trade. In 1839, slavers brought back a cargo of slaves from what is now Sierra Leone. Among the slaves was a young man they named Joseph Cinque.

In June of 1839, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes purchased 49 captured Africans, including Cinque, in Havana for their estates in the Cuban town of Puerto Principe. Ruiz and Montes put the slaves aboard the schooner Amistad, intending to sail from Havana up the Cuban coast to Puerto Principe. The Spanish crew taunted the ignorant slaves, telling them wild stories, such as that their new owners intended to kill and eat them when they arrived. On the night of July 1, Cinque led the blacks in a successful rebellion and seized control of the ship. The blacks killed several members of the crew in the struggle, but let Ruiz and Montes live. Cinque ordered Ruiz and Montes to take the ship to Sierra Leone so the blacks could go home.

The Spaniards sailed east for Africa by day, but secretly reversed course by night. For nearly two months, the Amistad meandered back and forth, but eventually winds and currents drove it north to the coast of the United States. On August 26, the U.S.S. Washington spotted the Amistad off the coast of New York, seized the ship, and brought it into New London, Connecticut.

Cinque Goes on Trial

In New London, Ruiz and Montes described the slave rebellion to the American authorities, and pressed their claim for the return of the Amistad with its cargo of slaves. Despite the slaves' illegal capture, the Spanish government backed Ruiz's and Montes' claim. With the blessing of President Martin Van Buren's administration, District Attorney William S. Holabird charged Cinque and the other blacks with committing murder and piracy aboard the Amistad.

The trial was held in the U.S. District Court for Connecticut. The judge was District Court Judge Andrew T. Judson, assisted by Associate Supreme Court Justice Smith Thompson. The abolitionists hired a team of defense lawyers to represent the blacks, comprised of Roger S. Baldwin, Joshua Leavitt, Seth Staples, and an ex-president of the United States, John Quincy Adams.

The trial began November 19, 1839. The defense lawyers asserted that the blacks had the right to free themselves from the horrible conditions of slavery. In support of their position, they introduced Dr. Richard R. Madden, who had traveled extensively in Cuba and was an expert on slave conditions:

[S]o terrible were these atrocities, so murderous the system of slavery, so transcendent the evils I witnessed, over all I have ever heard or seen of the rigour of slavery elsewhere, that at first I could hardly believe the evidence of my senses.

Further, as the testimony of Madden and various witnesses made clear, returning Cinque and the others to Cuba meant certain death at the hands of the pro-slavery colonial authorities. In addition, since the blacks had originally been captured in Africa 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.

Despite pressure from the Van Buren administration, which wanted to avoid diplomatic tension with Spain, on January 13, 1840, Judge Judson ruled in favor of the blacks. Although the Amistad with its goods would be returned to Ruiz and Montes, subject to salvage costs, Cinque and the others:

were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are free and not slaves.

Further, because they had been illegally enslaved, the blacks were innocent of murder and piracy since they had only acted to free themselves.

The prosecution appealed Judson's decision to the Supreme Court. The abolitionists had anticipated this move, since five Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, were Southerners and had owned slaves. The defense relied on John Quincy Adams to present its case, banking on his prestige as much as on his legal ability. On February 22, 1840, the Supreme Court heard both sides' arguments, and on March 9 issued its opinion. The Court upheld Judson's decision, and so the blacks were finally free. Cinque and the other blacks were returned to Africa.

Technically, the Amistad decision did not condemn slavery, it only held that blacks not legally slaves were also not property. Still, the courts could have just as easily turned the blacks over to Spanish authorities or returned them to Cuba if they wished. The case was seen as a victory for the abolitionist cause, and was a milestone in the movement's quest for the total elimination of slavery.

In the late 1990s, the story of the Amistad returned to the public's attention. Several new books were published recounting the trial of Cinque, and a film directed by Steven Spielberg was released in 1997.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Adams, John Quincy. Argument in the Case of U.S. v. Cinque. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Cable, Mary. Black Odyssey: the Case of the Slave Ship Amistad. New York: Penguin Books, 1977."Cinque." Jet (March 1984): 21.

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.

Owens, William A. Slave Mutiny: the Revolt on the Schooner Amistad. New York: J. Day Co., 1953.

Pate, Alexis D., David Franzoni, and Steven Zaillian. Amistad: A Novel. New York: Signet, 1997.

Pesci, David. Amistad: The Thunder of Freedom. New York: Marlow & Co., 1997.

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