La Amistad (Spanish: "Friendship") was a 19th-century two-masted schooner of about 120 tons' displacement. Built in the United States, La Amistad was originally named Friendship but was renamed after being purchased by a Spaniard. La Amistad became a symbol in the movement to abolish slavery, after a group of African captives aboard revolted, and were subsequently recaptured and sold into slavery, resulting in a legal battle over their legal status.


The incident


In 1839, Africans being carried from Havana, Cuba, to Puerto Principe, Cuba, revolted against their captors aboard La Amistad. Their transport from Africa to the Americas was illegal, and they were fraudulently described as having been born in Cuba. After the revolt, the Africans demanded to be returned home, but the ship’s navigator deceived them about their course, and sailed them north along the North American coast to Long Island, New York. The schooner was subsequently taken into custody by the United States Navy; and the Africans, who were deemed salvage from the vessel, were taken to Connecticut to be sold as slaves. There ensued a widely publicized court case about the ship and the legal status of the African captives. This incident figured prominently in abolitionism in the United States. See "Amistad (case)".




La Amistad schooner sailing boat



La Amistad - replica schooner sail boat




Strictly speaking La Amistad was not a slave ship in the sense that she was not designed to transport slaves, nor did she engage in the Middle Passage of Africans to the Americas. La Amistad engaged in shorter, coastal trade. The primary cargo carried by La Amistad was sugar-industry products, and her normal route ran from Havana to her home port, Guanaja. She also took on passengers and, on occasion, slaves for transport. The captives that La Amistad carried during the incident had been illegally transported to Cuba aboard the slave ship Tecora.


True slave ships, such as Tecora, were designed for the purpose of carrying as many slaves as possible. One distinguishing feature was the half-height between decks, which allowed slaves to be chained down in a sitting or lying position, but which were not high enough to stand in, and thus were not suitable for any other cargo. The crew of La Amistad, lacking the slave quarters, placed half the 53 captives in the hold, and the other half on deck. The captives were relatively free to move about, and this freedom of movement aided their revolt and commandeering of the vessel.


Later years


After being moored at the wharf behind the Custom House in New London, Connecticut, for a year and a half, La Amistad was auctioned off by the U.S. Marshall in October 1840. Captain George Howland, of Newport, Rhode Island, purchased the vessel and then had to get an Act of Congress passed so that he could register her. He renamed her Ion and, in late 1841, sailed her to Bermuda and Saint Thomas with a typical New England cargo of onions, apples, live poultry, and cheese.


After sailing her for a few years, he sold the boat in Guadeloupe in 1844. There appears to be no record of what became of the Ion under her French owners in the Caribbean.


La Amistad in culture


On 2 September 1839, a play entitled The Long, Low Black Schooner, purporting to be based on the revolt, opened in New York City and played to full audiences. La Amistad was painted black at the time of the revolt.


A 1997 film of the same name, directed by Steven Spielberg, examines the historical incident.


In March 2000, a replica of La Amistad was launched from Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut. The replica's mission is to educate the public on the history of slavery, discrimination, and civil rights. Her homeport is New Haven, Connecticut, where the Amistad trial occurred. She also travels to port cities for educational opportunities. Her official name is the Freedom Schooner Amistad.


Artist Hale Woodruff completed a mural depicting the events that occurred on board the Amistad. The six-panel sequence is on display at the Savery Library, on the campus of Talladega College, Alabama. A mural of the ship itself is also embedded in the floor of the library, and school tradition dictates that it not be trodden on.





Amistad (Spanish for "friendship") is a 1997 Steven Spielberg film based on a slave mutiny that took place aboard a ship of the same name in 1839, and the legal activity that followed.




La Amistad slave trial USA Matthen McConaughey


La Amistad - courtroom scene - Matthew McConaughey






This movie begins with Joseph Cinqué (whose true name was Sengbe Pieh), an African on the schooner La Amistad, leading a revolt that frees the other Africans and kills most of the crew. They force the ship's captain to steer back to Africa, but the captain tricks them and heads to the United States where the Africans are captured and jailed.


Word gets out immediately to U.S. President Martin Van Buren, Queen Isabella II of Spain, and a group of abolitionists. The group of Africans are charged with mutiny and murder. There are also property claims by the Queen Isabella II of Spain, the captain of the ship, the people who captured the Africans, and others. A young lawyer, Baldwin, is brought on the case by the abolitionists.


Baldwin finds a translator and talks to Cinqué, who has become the leader of the group of Africans. In flashbacks, Cinqué tells about his life. He was captured in Africa and brought to the Caribbean Islands by an infamous Middle Passage slave vessel named the Tecora. Cinqué tells of the various horrors of the Middle Passage, such as when fifty people were drowned to save rations. Cinqué was finally taken to the Caribbean Islands, where he was illegally sold to the owners of La Amistad.


In the district court, Baldwin brings as evidence a book he found on the ship. It conclusively proves that the Africans did indeed come from Africa. The defendants' birthplace was a matter of critical importance because U.S. law at the time outlawed anyone who wasn't the child of a slave from being enslaved (based on the provision in the United States Constitution that permitted Congress to outlaw the African slave trade starting in the year 1809). This meant that those held aboard La Amistad were being traded illegally, and were officially abducted citizens of West Africa. As such, they were legally permitted to use deadly force to secure their release (thus making the killings upon the ship justifiable homicide rather than murder). Thus whether or not the defendants were born in Africa was critical to determining whether their conduct was indeed justificable homicide or murder.


Upon seeing the log book from the ship, the presiding judge appears prepared to rule for Baldwin. But President Van Buren, under pressure from the South, replaces the judge with a younger judge who Van Buren can influence. It is thought that this will result in a ruling against the defendants. However, the new judge surprises the Administration by ruling in favor of the defendants. The judge concludes that they were born in Africa, and thus were permitted to use deadly force to resist those that would enslave them. He orders their return to Africa at Government expense, and further orders the arrest of the would-be slavetraders.


The prosecution then appeals the case to the Supreme Court, where seven of the nine justices are slave owners. Baldwin finally convinces former president John Quincy Adams to help him on the case. After some communication with Cinqué, Baldwin and Adams are ready to present the case (Baldwin making the case to the Supreme Court isn't shown). John Quincy Adams then gives a speech on slavery and the case in general. The Supreme Court then (March 9, 1841) rules in favor of the Amistad Africans, in an opinion by Justice Joseph Story. Story was played in the movie by an actual retired Supreme Court justice, Harry Blackmun.


The end of the movie notes that Cinqué returned to Africa, the slave fortress he went through was destroyed by the Royal Navy, and the American Civil War was fought over many issues, slavery among them.




  • Academy of Motion Pictures, AMPAS (1998) Nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Anthony Hopkins; Best Cinematography, Janusz Kaminski; Best Costume Design, Ruth Carter; and Best Music, Original Dramatic Score, John Williams.



  • Cinque (through his interpreter): I am resolved it is better to die than be a white man's slave.

  • Cinqué: Give free.

  • John Quincy Adams: Do you understand what the Supreme Court is?

  • Joseph Cinqué (through his interpreter): The place where they finally kill us.

[His advice on trying cases]

  • John Quincy Adams: Whoever tells the best story wins.

  • John Quincy Adams: He is a black man, you can see that, but if he were white, we wouldn't be here today.


  • Secretary of State Forsyth: The only thing John Quincy Adams will be remembered for is his middle name.

[After the Supreme Court trial]

  • Joseph Cinqué (through his interpreter):What words did you say to them?

  • John Quincy Adams:Yours.



  • Freedom is not given. It is our right at birth. But there are some moments when it must be taken.



  • The Slave Fortress destroyed at the end of the movie is actually El Morro, an old colonial fort in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

  • Djimon Hounsou learned a certain amount of Mende, the language of Sierra Leone, for his role as Cinque. He only speaks six words of English in the entire film.

  • The writer Barbara Chase-Riboud tried unsuccessfully to sue the producers, in order to prevent the release of this film. She claimed that the screenplay copied portions of her novel Echo of Lions.

  • A song "No Shelter" by Rage Against the Machine references the film:

Spielberg the nightmare works so push it far

Amistad was a whip, the truth was feathered and tarred

Memory erased, burned and scarred

Trade in ya history for a VCR

  • This was the second film in which Anthony Hopkins received an Academy Award nomination for playing a United States President. He was also nominated for playing Richard Nixon in Nixon (1995).

  • This is the first film directed by Spielberg that was released by DreamWorks, of which Spielberg was a co-founder.

  • The majority of this film was filmed in Newport, Rhode Island. The scenes of the United States Capitol building were that of the Rhode Island state house, and some scenes were filmed at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut.

  • The film shows Van Buren making a whistlestop campaign for re-election. This is an anachronism; the nation's railway network was not sufficiently advanced in 1840 to allow such a tactic. It was also considered undignified for candidates to actively seek the presidency. Van Buren and his opponent, William Henry Harrison, allowed subordinates to do the work.



La Amistad movie 197 starring Morgan Freeman



Amistad - Morgan Freeman and Matthew McConaughey






Morgan Freeman

Theodore Joadson

Nigel Hawthorne

Martin Van Buren

Anthony Hopkins

John Quincy Adams

Djimon Hounsou


Matthew McConaughey


David Paymer

Secretary Forsyth

Pete Postlethwaite


Stellan Skarsgård


Razaaq Adoti


Abu Bakaar Fofanah


Anna Paquin

Queen Isabella II

Tomas Milian


Chiwetel Ejiofor

Ens. Covey

Derrick N. Ashong


Geno Silva





AMISTAD is about a 1839 mutiny aboard a slave ship that is traveling towards the Northeast Coast of America. Much of the story involves a court-room drama about the free-man who led the revolt.


What has to be remembered here is that the while slavery was legal, the importation of slaves had been banned for quite some time by 1839. The Africans depicted here are forbidden to be slaves in the first place.

It was hoped that when the Constitution got going in 1789 that slavery might die on its own accord. But unfortunately a guy named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which was a device for picking through the pesky seeds in the cotton fibers. That made cotton THE crop of the south and gave slavery a new lease on life. And as you see in Amistad anything that threatened the life of what the south was pleased to call it's "peculiar institution" was a call to arms.

Amistad gives us the portrait of two United States presidents. The current one in 1839 is Martin Van Buren who's probably best known for being the real founder of the Democratic party political machine. He succeeded Andrew Jackson on March 4, 1837 and promptly was greeted with a bank panic that led to a depression. His chances for re-election in 1840 were not looking good to start with and he was exceptionally vulnerable to southern pressure. Ironically enough his last bid for public office was in 1848 as the third party presidential candidate of the Free Soil anti-slavery party. Nigel Hawthorne captures Van Buren, a man who always played his cards close to the vest.

A very different sort was John Quincy Adams our sixth president from 1825 to 1829. His presidency was probably the least successful time in his whole public career which starts as teenager during the American Revolution. He undertook a series of diplomatic assignments culminating with being Secretary of State under James Monroe from 1817 to 1825. Of course he was the son of our second president John Adams and like his father refused to do even the normal political things that could have gotten him re-elected.

As an ex-President he was serving in the House of Representatives in 1839 one of only two whoever went back to Congress after their presidential term was up. By this time he was a passionate abolitionist and the pleading of the cause of the Amistad slaves was an opportunity and a challenge. Anthony Hopkins captures the man who was now called Old Man Eloquent down to his clipped New England speech.

What happens briefly is that a cargo of Africans on a Spanish slaver revolted mid sea and killed all but two on board. Those two were preserved because the Africans didn't know anything of seamanship. The two remaining steered the ship Amistad to Long Island where the whole story is discovered. The Africans become a legal and political football all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Other performances to note are Morgan Freeman as black free man Theodore Joadson, Stellan Skarsgaard as abolitionist Lewis Tappan, Matthew McConaughey as attorney Roger Baldwin and most of all Djimon Hounsou as Cinque the leader of the African's revolt.

Before his story is told the attorneys have to learn the language and Spielberg graphically portrays their struggle for communication. Hounsou's portrayal of a man in an alien world who's only desire is to go back where he came from will sear your very soul.

Amistad is grand entertainment and a needed history lesson about man's need for and willingness to fight to be his own master.


Awards: Nominated for 4 Oscars. Another 6 wins & 22 nominations




Anthony Hopkins in Amistad 1997 movie



La Amistad - courtroom scene - Anthony Hopkins




Goofs for Amistad (1997)

  • Revealing mistakes: The actors portraying Ruiz and Montes speak with Mexican and Puerto Rican accents respectively; unlikely for Castilians.

  • Factual errors: The Amistad came into port in August, when no snow would be present.

  • Anachronisms: In 1839, Martin Van Buren would not have captured the Democratic nomination.

  • Continuity: The Tecora is shown under sail making good forward speed, despite the fact that her main sail is back winded.

  • Anachronisms: No presidential candidate campaigned in person until very late in the 19th Century.

  • Anachronisms: "Hail to the Chief" was first used for the President in 1841, when First Lady Jane Tyler suggested it would be appropriate for her husband.

  • Anachronisms: In 1839, the Capitol building was topped by a small copper dome. This dome was removed in 1856, and the present dome completed in 1863.

  • Factual errors: President Martin Van Buren did not replace district court Judge Judson with Judge Coglin. He did, however, write a letter to Judson asking him to send the slaves back to Cuba; Van Buren had a boat waiting to take the slaves away immediately, and thus render moot any appeal the abolitionists might make. However, this was still perceived as interference with the court system, and it did play a part -- although perhaps a minor one -- in Van Buren's failure to win re-election in 1840.

  • Factual errors: Ruiz and Montes were not ordered arrested by Judge Coglin as part of his verdict; the abolitionist lawyers had charged them with assaulting their clients. They were found guilty and sentenced to prison while the main case was pending.

  • Anachronisms: Gustave Dore's illustrated Bible was not published until 1866, 26 years after the district court set the Africans free.

  • Factual errors: On the Portuguese ship "Tecora" in Cinque's flashback, everyone speaks Castilian Spanish.

  • Continuity: The Portuguese ship "Tecora" carries the American flag.

  • Miscellaneous: During the scene where the Africans return from shore while loading up on fresh water, we see the American ship cruise by and a rather long stream of water pouring from the side. This would seem to be some sort of discharge from a pump or engine. Those discharges are near the water line and it is not raining and the sea is calm. Even under different conditions present, the water on deck would only flow over the side, not form a long stream.

  • Anachronisms: An African becomes misty over the sight of an African violet in the greenhouse of John Q. Adams. African violets were detailed by a German botanist Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illaire in 1891. They were not imported to the United States until a few years later. Also, the slaves apparently were from West Africa. African violets are only found along the border region of Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa.

  • Continuity: As the Africans row to the island for fresh water, their rowboat is marked "LA AMISTAD" in all capital letters. However, as they're returning, after the Navy ship appears, the rowboat reads "La Amistad" in mixed case.

  • Factual errors: In full dress, Captain Fitzgerald wears the epaulets of a Royal Navy commander, not captain, and the belt of a lieutenant. In undress, he wears the single-breasted "morning coat", which was abolished by the Royal Navy in 1833. He also refers to an "ensign" aboard his vessel, a rank that existed in the British Army but never the Royal Navy where the most junior officer was a midshipman and an ensign was (and remains) a flag (ensign is the most junior officer rank in the US Navy).

  • Anachronisms: Baldwin's glasses have modern anti-reflecting coating which gives a purple coloration to the lenses.

  • Revealing mistakes: There is a scene where the men are shown lying on their bunks and their heads are all moving to the rocking motion of the ship. However, there is a chain hanging nearby that is not moving at all. This is because the ship was in port when this scene was filmed and someone out of view was leading all the actors to move their heads to give the impression that the ship was sailing on the high seas.

  • Continuity: During the scene in which Secretary Forsythe talks with President Van Buren about the dire political consequences of the Amistad Africans being acquitted and suggests dismissing the jury and replacing the judge, there is a bowl of water on the desk at which Van Buren is sitting. During the conversation, the water in the bowl inexplicably changes from clear to dark (presumably its purpose is to clear out the unused ink from quill-pens when Van Buren is done using them, to prevent the hollow part of the quill from getting mucked up with dried ink), then back to clear.

  • Factual errors: The U.S. Flag is improperly displayed on left side of the Speaker's Stand of U.S. House of Representatives Chamber. The U.S. Flag should always be at the right-hand side of the speaker.

  • Factual errors: The compass in the Amistad shows the cardinal points in English instead of Spanish, for instance it shows NW (north-west) instead of NO (nor-oeste).

  • Factual errors: In one scene Queen Isabella II is seen dining. Hanging in the dining room is a portrait of Louis XIV. While Isabella was a descendant of the French king (he was her paternal Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather) it is unlikely a Royal Palace of the Spanish Monarch would have a portrait of the French king prominently displayed especially since the foreign king would have been deceased already over 115 years at the time Isabella II was born. The portrait is actually hanging in the dining room of "Marble House" in Newport, Rhode Island, where [Newport, R.I.] much of the movie and presumably the scene was filmed and the portrait was obviously not removed despite the historical unlikely hood of it being in the intended setting, that being the Palace of a Spanish monarch.



Amistad the movie poster, anti financial slave trade



Amistad - movie poster



The United Kingdom is a dysfunctional Constitutional Monarchy, in a modern age of democracy. This is one reason Britain is so corrupt. Because their commander in chief is unable, or unwilling to move with the times. For example, to comply with the UN's Sustainability Goals (SDGs). One of which is transparency in government, another being justice for all. The UK routinely breaks the law to control a questioning electorate, violating their human rights alongside long-term subjugation. For example, there are no affordable (new build) houses in the UK and no Article 13 - the right to an effective remedy. It was Adolf Hitler who said: to control the electorate, you must first disarm them. The UK is following in Adolf Hitler's footsteps.







The improbable voyage of the schooner Amistad and the court proceedings and diplomatic maneuverings that resulted from that voyage form one of the most significant stories of the nineteenth century. When Steven Spielberg chose the Amistad case as the subject of his 1997 feature film, he finally brought it the attention the case had long deserved, but never received. The Amistad case energized the fledgling abolitionist movement and intensified conflict over slavery, prompted a former President to go before the Supreme Court and condemn the policies of a present Administration, soured diplomatic relations between the United States and Spain for a generation, and created a wave of interest in sending Christian missionaries to Africa.


Two sea captains, Peletiah Fordham and Henry Green, were shooting birds among the dunes at the eastern tip of Long Island on the morning of August 26, 1839, when they were startled to encounter four black men wearing only blankets. Once the blacks were assured through sign language that they were not in slaveholding country, they led Fordham and Green to a point in the dunes where they could see a black schooner, flagless with its sails in tatters, sitting at anchor a mile or so from the beach. Another smaller boat was on the beach, guarded by more black men, many of whom were wearing necklaces and bracelets of gold doubloons. One of the black men, who appeared to be the leader of the group, told Fordham and Green that there were two trunks full of gold aboard the schooner, and that they would be given to whoever outfitted them with provisions and helped them sail back to their African homeland. Green suggested that if they got the trunks he would help them return to Africa.


Green's and Fordham's dreams of riches were interrupted by a brig of the U. S. Coast Guard, the Washington, which intercepted the rowboat as it made its way back to the schooner. The commander of the brig, Lieutenant Thomas Gedney, boarded the schooner and ordered, at gunpoint, all hands below the deck. Two Spaniards emerged from below.  One was old, bearded, and sobbing.  The other was a man in his mid-twenties. Jose Ruiz, the younger man, spoke English and eagerly began to tell the tale of mutiny, blood, deceit, and desperation aboard the Amistad.


The schooner had left Havana on June 28, bound for Puerto Principe, a Cuban coastal town. Aboard the Amistad were five whites, a mulatto cook, a black cabin boy, and fifty-three slaves. Ruiz had bought forty-nine adult male slaves at the Havana market. The older, bearded white, Pedro Montes, had bought four child slaves, including three girls. On the fourth night at sea, the slaves managed to free themselves from their irons. In the ensuing struggle, the Africans killed the captain, Ramon Ferrer, and a mulatto cook. (According to the story later told by the Africans, the mulatto cook had told the slaves that they would be chopped to pieces and salted as meat for the Spaniards when the ship arrived at its destination.) Two crewman abandoned ship in the stern boat. Montes and Ruiz were spared, apparently because their help was thought necessary in steering the ship to Africa. Montes sailed toward Africa, but slowly and only during the day. At night, he reversed course and headed due west, hoping to landfall in the southern United States. After six weeks of zig-zagging at sea, the Amistad arrived in New York.


(What Ruiz did not say was that the slaves were recently brought from Africa and brought to Cuba in direct contravention of an 1817 treaty between Spain and Britain prohibiting the importation of slaves to Spanish colonies. Using falsified passports, corrupt officials, and nighttime landings, slave traders often were successful in eluding the British ships that patrolled waters in an effort to enforce the importation ban.)


As Ruiz told his story, an athletic-looking black man, naked except for a gold necklace, suddenly appeared from below and leaped off the boat. The Washington gave chase, but the man was a strong swimmer, constantly diving as the ship neared. Tiring, the man took off his necklace, letting it--to the dismay of Gedney--fall to the bottom of the sea. Finally, crew members recaptured the black man, later known as Cinque, and put him into chains. The Amistad was towed to New London, Connecticut, where its arrival would dominate the news for weeks to come.


The United States Attorney for Connecticut, William S. Holabird, ordered a judicial hearing on the Washington. It was unclear to Holabird, as it was to many, whether a crime had been committed, who had committed it, or whether U. S. courts even had jurisdiction.  There was also the matter of salvage rights, which were claimed by Gedney and the Washington crew.  The Amistad's cargo of wine, saddles, gold, and silk was worth an estimated $40,000 in 1839 dollars, and the slaves had a market value of at least half that much.


The district judge for Connecticut was Andrew T. Judson, an appointee of then President Martin Van Buren. Judson was not likely to sympathize with the Africans, having six years earlier prosecuted a Connecticut schoolmistress for establishing a school for Negroes that Judson claimed violated a state law against encouraging black migration. (When the jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case, a mob set fire to the schoolmistress's house.)


On August 29, 1839, three days after the schooner's discovery, Judge Judson opened a hearing on complaints of murder and piracy filed by Montes and Ruiz.  Thirty-nine Africans (of the forty-three who had survived the weeks at sea) were present, including Cinque, who appeared wearing a red flannel shirt, white duck pants, and manacles.  He appeared calm and mute, occasionally making a motion with his hand to his throat to suggest a hanging.




Amistad slave trading fort



Amistad - slave trading fort




The three principal witnesses at the hearing were the first mate of the Washington and Montes and Ruiz. The first mate described what happened when the Amistad was first boarded.  Montes and Ruiz described the mutiny and subsequent weeks at sea. Ruiz testified:


"I took an oar and tried to quell the mutiny. I cried 'No! No!.' I then heard one of the crew cry murder. I then heard the captain order the cabin boy to go below and get some bread to throw among the negroes, hoping to pacify them. I did not see the captain killed."


Montes added his description of events on the fourth night at sea:


"Between three and four was awakened by a noise which was caused by blows to the mulatto cook. I went on deck and they attacked me. I seized a stick and a knife with a view to defend myself....At this time [Cinque] wounded me on the head severely with one of the sugar knives, also on the arm. I then ran below and stowed myself between two barrels, wrapped up in a sail. [Cinque] rushed after me and attempted to kill me, but was prevented by the interference of another man....I was then taken on deck and tied to the hand of Ruiz."


After listening to the testimony, Judge Judson referred the case for trial in Circuit Court, where in 1839 all federal criminal trials were held, and ordered the Africans put into custody at the county jail in New Haven. The Amistads became a huge attraction. As many as 5,000 people a day visited the jail.  The jailer charged "one New York shilling" (about twelve cents) for close looks at the captives. The Africans also attracted scientific interest. A phrenologist examined the captives and took "life masks" which were later put on public display. The New Haven jail was relatively loose. Jailers took the children, "robust" and "full of hilarity," on wagon rides. The adults were allowed daily exercise on New Haven's green, where their cavorting, somersaults, and acrobatic leaps surprised residents unaccustomed to such public displays of exuberance.


For most New Englanders the Amistads were a curiosity. For a small, but growing, group of abolitionists, however, they were a cause and an opportunity. Abolitionist leaderLewis Tappan described the capture of the Africans as a "providential occurrence" that might allow "the heart of the nation" to be touched "through the power of sympathy." The "Amistad Committee" was quickly formed and soon the group had enlisted legal help, including that of Roger Baldwin, who would later become the governor of Connecticut.


Spain, meanwhile, pressed the United States to return the schooner to its Cuban owners, concede that the U. S. courts had no jurisdiction over Spanish subjects, and return the Amistads to Havana. The Van Buren Administration was anxious to comply with the Spanish demands, but there was this matter of due process of law. The Administration, through District Attorney Holabird, crafted legal arguments that it hoped would produce the results sought by Spain.


On September 14, 1839, the Amistads were sent by canal boat and stage to Hartford for their trial in the Circuit courtroom of Judge Smith Thompson, who also served (as was then the custom for Circuit Court judges) as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Holabird asked the court to turn all the prisoners over to the President and to let him decide this matter that bore heavily on the relations between great powers. Baldwin, for the defense, argued that "no power on earth has the right to reduce [the Africans] to slavery" and the United States should never stoop so low as to become a "slave-catcher for foreign slave-holders." Judge Thompson preferred to evade the larger debate over abolition and rested his decision on jurisdictional grounds. He decided after three days of argument that because the alleged mutiny and murders occurred in international waters and did not involve U.. S. citizens, the court had no jurisdiction to consider the criminal charges. Were the slaves "property"? That was a matter, Judge Thompson ruled, that had to be decided first in the district court. Thompson ruled that the Africans, although no longer considered prisoners, should be detained until the district court could decide whether they were property and--if they were property--who owned them.


The defense devoted considerable time to the task of trying to locate someone familiar with the language spoken by the Africans. Dr. Josiah Gibbs, a Yale philologist, and a clergymen who trained the deaf and dumb examined the Africans. They concluded that the Amistads were Mende, from a region south of Freetown in what is now Sierra Leone. Gibbs learned to count in Mende, then wandered up and down the waterfronts of New York counting in Mende, looking for signs of recognition among the Africans he encountered. Finally his efforts were successful, and a Mende speaker, James Covey, was brought to New Haven.


The full story of the Africans' adventures began to come out. The Amistad captives had first met at a slave factory in Lomboko after having been kidnapped by African slavers. They along with about 600 other Africans were loaded aboard the Portugeese ship Tecora and taken via the infamous "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic. The slaves were kept naked, flogged for not eating, and chained in a half-lying position. Many died and sea and were tossed overboard. Landing at night in Havana, they were taken to the "barracoon," or slave market where ten days later they were bought by Ruiz and Montes. On the fourth night of the Amistad's voyage, Cinque used a nail to break the chain that fastened all the slaves to the wall, and the mutiny began.


Life in Connecticut for the Amistads began to take on a semblance of normalcy. For two to five hours a day they were instructed in English and theology by students of the Yale Divinity school. Bonds between some of the Africans and their teachers began to develop. Still, it was a trying time for many of the Amistads, experiencing their first harsh weather, exposed to new diseases, and the length of their separation from their homeland growing with no end in sight. Tu-a became the first African to die in New Haven, occasioning a raucous funeral that raised many New Englanders' eyebrows.




La Amistad schooner at sea and rowing boat



Amistad - boarding party




The Amistad civil trial began on November 19, 1839 in Hartford. After two days of testimony, the trial was adjourned until January 7, 1840. In the New Haven harbor was the naval schooner Grampus, sent there by President Van Buren to sail the Amistads back to Cuba should the court rule, as expected, in the government's favor. Van Buren's secret orders provided that the Africans were to be rushed immediately to the ship and placed in irons before an appeal could be filed, and that the Grampus should sail for Havana unless an "appeal shall actually have been interposed."


Baldwin and the Amistads' lawyers produced several witnesses to support their claim that the Africans were illegally imported from Africa and were therefore the property of no one. Dr. Gibbs, as a linguistics expert, testified that the Amistads spoke Mende, not Spanish. Cinque and Grabeau, another of the Africans, recounted (through James Covey, their interpreter) the story of their capture, voyage across the Atlantic, sale in Havana, mutiny, and eventual arrival in Long Island. Spectators reportedly listened to Cinque "with breathless attention." The New Haven Herald reported that he "manifested a high degree of sagacity, of keenness, and decision." Sullivan Haley testified that Ruiz, now back in Cuba, had admitted that the captives were not legal slaves. Francis Bacon, a local resident who had visited the west African coast in the summer of 1839 described how Lomboko was frequented by Cuban traders and how the slave trade was "the universal business of the country." (The slave factory at Lomboko, incidentally, had been raided by the British one month before the trial, an all slaves held there had been liberated.) 


Baldwin also introduced the deposition of Dr. Richard Madden, an abolitionist and the British anti-slavery commissioner in Cuba. He described how Cuban authorities "winked at the slave trade in return for $10 to $15 a slave," used fraudulent documents to deceive inspectors, and would without hesitation kill the Amistad blacks should they be returned to Cuba. (After giving his deposition, Madden returned to London where, in an audience with Queen Victoria, he explained the facts surrounding the Amistad Affair.)


 District Attorney Holabird introduced statements from the Spanish consul urging that the Amistads be returned to Spain and presented testimony and depositions of crew members of the Washington describing their discovery and capture of the Amistad , while Gedney's counsel tried to establish that Cinque was himself a slave trader.


Judge Judson announced his decision on January 13, 1840, after a weekend of deliberation. He ruled that the Amistad captives were "born free" and kidnapped in violation of international law. They had mutinied, he said, out of a "desire of winning their liberty and of returning to their families and kindred." He ordered that the Amistads be "delivered to President Van Buren for transport back to Africa." He ended his opinion with the observation, "Cinque and Grabeau shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred." The Grampus sailed out of New Haven harbor without its black passengers. Van Buren was described as "greatly dissatisfied."


The Administration appealed Judson's decision, but it was affirmed by Circuit Judge Thompson.  The Administration again appealed, this time to the United States Supreme Court, where five of the nine justices were southerners who either owned or had owned slaves.


After an appeal was made to the Supreme Court, Lewis Tappan visited John Quincy Adams at his home in Massachusetts in an effort to persuade "Old Man Eloquent" to argue the Africans case in Washington. Former President Adams, then 74 and a member of Congress, at first resisted, pleading age and infirmity. But Adams believed firmly in the rightness of the cause, and eventually agreed to join Baldwin in arguments before the Court. "By the blessing of God, I will argue the case before the Supreme Court," Adams was quoted as saying. That October, 1840 date he wrote in his diary: "I implore the mercy of God to control my temper, to enlighten my soul, and to give me utterance, that I may prove myself in every respect equal to the task."


The next month Adams stopped by Westville, near New Haven, to visit his clients. He found them all in a thirty-foot-by- twenty-foot room, taken up almost entirely by thirty-six cots. Adams shook hands with Cinque and Grabeau, telling them "God willing, we will make you free."  Later, Adams would receive touching letters from two of the younger Africans, Ka-le and Kin-na.


On Monday, February 22, 1841, arguments began in the Supreme Court's crowded chamber in the U.S. Capitol.(Among those in attendance was Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner and now an attorney, who approached Adams and offered his advice on the case.) Attorney General Henry Gilpin, arguing for the government, told the Court that it should not "go behind" the Amistad's papers and make inquiry as to their accuracy, but should accept them on their face in order to show proper respect for another sovereign nation. Roger Baldwin followed Gipin, making many of the same arguments that been persuasive in the district and circuit courts.


John Quincy Adams began his argument on February 24th.  He did not disappoint. He argued that if the President had the power to send the Africans to Cuba, he would equally as well have the power to seize forty Americans and send them overseas for trial. He argued that Spain was asking the President to "first turn man-robber, turn jailer,... and lastly turn catchpole and convey them to Havana, to appease the vengeance of the African slave-traders of the barracoons." He attacked the President for his ordering a naval vessel to stand ready in New Haven harbor, he attacked a southern intellectual's defense of slavery, and he quoted the Declaration of Independence: "The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided. I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men than this Declaration."




Amistad DVD film cover



Amistad - movie DVD cover





 Adams ended his Supreme Court argument on a personal, reflective note:



"May it please your Honors: On the 7th of February, 1804, now more than thirty-seven years past, my name was entered, and yet stands recorded, on both the rolls, as one of the Attorneys and Counselors of this Court. Five years later, in February and March, 1809, I appeared for the last time before this Court, in defense of the cause of justice, and of important rights, in which many of my fellow-citizens had property to a large amount at stake. Very shortly afterwards, I was called to the discharge of other duties--first in distant lands, and in later years, within our own country, but in different departments of her Government. Little did I imagine that I should ever again be required to claim the right of appearing in the capacity of an office of this Court; yet such has been the dictate of my destiny--and I appear again to plead the cause of justice and now of liberty and life, in behalf of many of my fellow men, before the same Court, which in a former age, I had addressed in support of rights of property. I stand again, I trust for the last time, before the same Court--hic caestus, artemque repono. I stand before the same Court, but not before the same judges--nor aided by the same associates--nor resisted by the same opponents. As I cast my eyes along those seats of honor and of public trust, now occupied y you, they seek in vain for one of those honored and honorable persons whose indulgence listened then to my voice.


Marshall, Cushing, Chase, Washington, Johnson, Livingston, Todd Where are they? . . . Where is the marshal - where are the criers of the Court? Alas! where is one of the very judges of the Court, arbiters of life and death, before whom I commenced this anxious argument, even now prematurely closed? Where are they all? Gone! Gone! All gone! - Gone from the services which, in their day and generation, they faithfully rendered to their country. . . .  In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead, and that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of they Lord.'"



On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court announced its decision.  Justice Story, speaking for the Court, said that the Amistads were "kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom." As justification for the Court's decision, Justice Story relied largely on the narrower arguments of Roger Baldwin, rather than the "interesting remarks" of John Quincy Adams. The Africans were free: they could stay or they could return to Africa. (The decision was, of course, by no means a  repudiation of slavery, and clearly implied that if the Amistads had been brought from Africa prior to the 1820 treaty banning importation of slaves, they would have been considered property of Ruiz and Montes and been returned to Cuba.)




Slave ship La Amistad at sea



Amistad - slave trade schooner mutiny




Reactions to the decision varied. Adams wrote that he was filled with "great joy." The Amistads were described as "ecstatic." Lewis Tappan and other evangelical abolitionists saw an opportunity for the Amistads to become the key to an effort to bring Christianity to black Africa. The Spanish government angered and somewhat mystified by the Court's action, began a long series of unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to obtain indemnification for loss of the Amistad and the her cargo.


Efforts began to raise the money necessary to transport the Amistads back to their Mende homeland.  Some local residents complained when the need for money caused some of the Africans to begin to charge for jumping, talking, and singing. Cinque asked $3 for a song. The Amistad Committee put together a sort of traveling show, holding church "meetings" in which the Africans would describe their homes and their kidnapping, sing native songs, and read from the Bible. Cinque quickly developed a reputation as a powerful orator.


The Amistads, strangers in a strange land, were not without their problems. One of the Amistads, Fon-ne, drowned in a pond, an apparent suicide. Grabeau was the victim of an assault. Others were the victims of racial taunts. Cinque was involved in a brawl with some local rowdies. It was, everyone recognized, time to go. Tappan redoubled efforts to recruit missionaries to accompany the Africans back to Sierra Leone.


In November, 1841, the ship Gentleman was chartered for $1840 to carry the Africans back to Freetown, where the Governor of Sierra Leone said the group would be met and guided on a four day journey to Mendeland. After a moving and tearful round of goodbyes, the thirty-five surviving Africans of the Amistad and four American missionaries boarded the Gentleman, bound for West Africa. (Only one African, Sarah, would ever return to America. She attended Oberlin College.)


After fifty days at sea, the Gentleman put down anchor in Freetown harbor. It didn't take long for the missionaries to realize they had their work cut out for them. After disembarking, some of the Africans began to strip and engage in "heathenish dancing." British missionaries in Freetown told the Americans that their plan to establish a mission in Mendeland was folly.  Soon the missionaries wrote letters complaining of their Amistad students: some fell back to their "licentious habits," some disappeared, some were just trouble. Others, such as Kin-na, were clearly torn by the pull of two different worlds, becoming an ordained minister but practicing polygamy.  The missionaries also contended with rats (Brother Raymond killed 164 in a single day), the 175 annual inches of rain, malaria and yellow fever ("black vomit.") One by one, the missionaries died and were replaced by others. With the new arrivals, the character of the mission might also change. Tolerance might turn to hell-fire and ex-communication.


The last of the Amistad Africans to have contact with the mission was Cinque. In 1879, old and emaciated, he stumbled into the mission to die and was buried among the graves of the American missionaries.


Although every American President from the time of the Amistad decision of the Supreme Court until 1860 urged that Spain be compensated, efforts to appropriate funds for such a purpose were consistently stymied in the House. John Quincy Adams led the opposition to compensation efforts until his death in 1847, calling the proposal "a robbery of the people of the United States." With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Spain's efforts came to an end.





Slave traders Amistad schooner sail boat


La Amistad - painting













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