The Real Story of the Amistad

On June 28, 1839, a ship departed Havana, Cuba en route to Puerto Principe. Along with a crew of 7, including two slaves serving as a cabin boy and ship’s cook, the vessel was also packed with cargo worth approximately $60,000, or about $1.7 million today. This included items ranging from wine, saddles, iron castings, mill rollers, fabrics, soap, leather goods, over 600 pounds of rice and many other foodstuffs, and, most important to our story today, some 53 slaves. Among those 53 were 49 adults recently bought by a 24 year old man named Jose Ruiz, with fellow Cuban plantation owner 58 year old Pedro Montes purchasing four children, three girls and one boy as well. All of these slaves, comprising about 1/3 of the total value of cargo on the ship, were slated to go work on plantations in Puerto Principe. However, unfortunately for Ruiz and Montes, thanks to a taunting remark by the ship’s cook, their newly purchased slaves had other ideas. What followed was a two year bid for freedom by the surviving captives of the Amistad. This all culminated in none other than former U.S. President John Quincy Adams’ impassioned defense of the captives’ before the Supreme Court, while then current U.S. President Martin Van Buren’s side pushed hard for their deportation back to Cuba. Here now is the real story of the Amistad and the harrowing bid for freedom of the men and women held captive aboard it.

To begin with, let’s talk a little about the ship’s cook- a man by the name of Celestino, who was a slave owned by Captain Ramon Ferrer. While you might think Celestino’s own legal status might make him sympathetic to the plight of the captives, he nonetheless had taken to mercilessly taunting them, including doing things like mockingly drinking large amounts of water in front of them. Note here, during the voyage, the captives were given only the bare minimum water needed to survive, leaving them in a perpetually extremely dehydrated state. More critically, Celestino also decided to insinuate to some of the captives, none of whom spoke English or Spanish, that upon arriving at their destination, they would be killed and eaten. He reportedly did so by pointing at them and drawing his knife across his throat, then making a chopping motion. Following this, he demonstrated taking the imaginary bits of flesh he’d just chopped up and pretended to eat them. He then gestured to the captives and to an empty salted beef cask, implying their remains would end up there.

Before we move on here, it’s important to understand that it was common for those newly enslaved from the region these men and women were originally from to believe that the white men arriving on their “floating houses” were cannibals. How this idea got started isn’t really clear, but, for example, at the time West African slave owners used to threaten their slaves that if they didn’t work hard enough they would sell them to white men who would then take them across the sea to be eaten.

Whether Celestino knew about this general perception or not, his intimating this is what would happen to the captives proved a fatal mistake, as every account of the uprising by them would later cite this little performance by Celestino as the catalyst to decide attempting to take the ship was worth the risk.

One of the captives, Kinna, would later state of this, “We very unhappy all dat night – we fraid we be kill… We… consider what we should do.”

They then argued amongst themselves with another named Lubos stating, “no one ever conquered our nation, & even now we are not taken by fair means…. [Should we be] slaughtered for cannibals [or] die fighting for life?”

And so it was that on July 1st, 4 nights after setting sail, one of the eventual leaders of the group, Cinque, managed to use a nail to pick a central padlock to partially get himself free. How specifically they all got fully free after this isn’t totally clear today, with conflicting contemporary accounts, but all stating they somehow broke their remaining chains. Perhaps aiding in this, two of their company were were formerly blacksmiths. However they did it, they were now free of their shackles. Searching around the hold, they found what weapons they could among the cargo, including a cache of sugar cane knives. From here, using a battle tactic common to their home tribes, they waited for the optimal time to strike when their enemy would be in the deepest sleep.

That time came around 4am when only the sailor manning the helm was awake. From here, how they got past the grate to escape the hold is not totally clear, whether it was accidentally left unlocked or if they simply picked or broke the lock as they had done with their chains. Whatever the case, Cinque, Faquorna, Moru, and Kimbo, who all were experienced warriors, emerged from the hold. At this point, their first target was not the captain or even the one individual still awake, as you might expect. Rather, they went immediately for the slave Celestino who was sleeping in the longboat.

Fuli would later recount of this, “The cook was killed first… by Jingua [Cinqué] with a stick, while lying in the boat.” Reportedly, Celestino never knew what hit him, not making a sound while being killed in his sleep. However, the sounds of the attack nonetheless alerted the rest of the crew, and it was on.

Initially the crew did manage to drive their former captives back somewhat. Ruiz would later state at this point, “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.”

If you think that’s a somewhat odd thing to order in the middle of a life or death mutiny, as alluded to, the captives were only given “half eat half drink” portions, putting them in a quite literal almost starved and dehydrated state. For example, their allotment of water was reportedly only half a teacup full of water in the morning and another in the evening and nothing else, despite floating around in the hot Caribbean during summer. That said, some were able to steal water from the ships’ supplies, but not without extreme consequence, with, in one instance, Captain Ferrer brutally beating five of the captives with a cat-o’-nine-tails for water theft, and then rubbing an extremely painful mixture of rum, gun powder, and salt into their wounds. But going back to the mutiny, Captain Ferrer hoped it was simply one driven by extreme hunger, and thus giving the captives food would put an end to it. Unfortunately for him, they were not driven by hunger, but by fear for their very lives, and thus ignored the bread.

In the subsequent mele, Captain Ferrer killed two of his attackers and wounded several others, which enraged the rest causing them to press the attack with vigor. Not long after, two of the crewmen, seeing that they would all soon be overwhelmed, tossed a canoe overboard, and jumped ship, leaving their four surviving crewmates to fend for themselves. The two injured sailors then paddled for 18 miles back to the mainland, with one of them later claiming, to quote him, “the Captain… [Ferrer] was warned, previous to sailing, to keep a look out for the negroes, as they had attempted to rise and take the vessel in which they were brought from Africa.”

Back aboard the Amistad, Montes would later give an account of what happened to him during the uprising, stating, “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 [Burna].”

Ruiz was similarly quelled.

As for Captain Ferrer, after repeated slashes all over his body, he finally collapsed on the deck. At this point, he was beheaded and the former captives celebrated their victory and newfound freedom with their native war dance ritual kootoo.

In the end, of the former crew, two were dead, two jumped overboard, and three, Ruiz, Montes, and the captain’s surviving slave, cabin boy Antonio, were bound and held in the hold.

At this point, while the new masters of the ship did to an extent know how to handle it from a practical standpoint, they did not have the expertise to navigate the open ocean with any degree of accuracy, other than a general cardinal direction in the day time. Thus, they recruited Ruiz and Montes to help get them to Africa. This proved their undoing.

The August 26, 1839 edition of the New London Gazette would describe what happened next, “[Montes] was ordered to change the course again for the coast of Africa, the negroes themselves steering by the sun in the day time, while at night he would alter their course so as to bring them back to their original place of destination.–They remained three days off Long Island, to the Eastward of Providence, after which time they were two months on the ocean, sometimes steering to the Eastward, and whenever an [occasion] would permit the whites would alter the course to the Northward and Westward, always in hopes of falling in with some vessel of war, or being enabled to run into some port, when they would be relieved from their horrid situation.”

As alluded to there, they continued on in this way for some 56 days before finally landing off Montauk Point, Long Island, New York on August 26, 1839.

Here upon landing, four of the former captives encountered two sea captains, Henry Green and Peletiah Fordham, who were shooting birds nearby. While attempting to get help from the two men via intimating they would like to trade some of the Amistad’s goods for supplies to continue their voyage, the precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard, the United States Revenue Cutter Service, showed up and boarded the Amistad. Unfortunately, it was at this point that Lieutenant Thomas Gedney, in charge of this Revenue-Marine vessel, the Washington, discovered Ruiz and Montes. The pair subsequently told the tale of the mutiny and killings from their perspective. The mutineers, unable to speak English or Spanish, had no rebuttal.

Feeling it was a rather clear cut case of a slave revolt resulting in murder and piracy, Lieutenant Gedney with guns trained on them, once again took these individuals’ freedom, and then made the rather curious decision to bring the Amistad and its occupants to New London, Connecticut instead of a much closer port in New York. As to why, well, Gedney and company were going to claim salvage rights, and slavery was illegal in New York, but not in Connecticut. Had they landed in New York, while they still could claim their percentage of the $40,000 or so (about $1.1 million today) of other cargo, they’d have potentially had much more difficulty leveraging the value of the slaves, as mentioned, worth an estimated $20,000 or about $570,000 today.

Of their newfound liberation, Ruiz and Montes would subsequently write a letter sent to the New London, Connecticut newspaper, stating, “…Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montes, in gratitude for their most unhoped for and most providential rescue from the hands of a ruthless gang of African buccaneers, and an awful death, would take this means of expressing, in some slight degree, their thankfulness and obligations to Lieutenant Commander T.R. Gedney, and the officers and crew of the U.S. surveying brig Washington, for their decision in seizing the Amistad, and their unremitting kindness and hospitality in providing for their comfort on board their vessel, as well as the means they have taken for the protection of their property. We also must express our indebtedness to that nation whose flag they so worthily bear, with an assurance that this act will be duly appreciated by our most gracious sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen of Spain.”

Of course, whether the Amistad really had been taken by a “ruthless gang of African buccaneers” was still a matter for the courts to decide, and the fact that Montes and Ruiz just explicitly, and very publicly, called them all “Africans”, instead of “Ladinos” as their legal documents stated, was a potentially interesting admission from them for reasons we’ll get into shortly. Also to still be decided was if the U.S. had jurisdiction to prosecute the case, even if the pair’s story was accurate.

On that note, U.S. Attorney for the district of Connecticut William Holabird, who would soon after serve as the Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut, like Lt. Gedney before him, felt it was a pretty open and shut case of mutiny and murder. However, given the alleged crimes occurred on a Spanish vessel in international waters and nobody aboard was from the United States, he felt the courts should bow to President Martin Van Buren’s wishes and deliver the captives and the Amistad back to Spanish control, to let them sort the matter out. Holabird would also write to Secretary of state John Forsyth that “I should regret extremely if the rascally blacks should fall into the hands of the abolitionists, with whom Hartford is filled.”

To take the first steps to resolve all this, on August 29, Connecticut Judge Andrew T. Judson opened a hearing aboard the U.S.S. Washington to address the accusations by Montes and Ruiz that the Africans had committed acts of piracy and murder. The point of this first hearing, however, was not to determine their innocence or guilt, but rather simply to see if there was enough legal basis to hold a criminal trial about it at all.

In the end, Judge Judson ruled there was enough evidence to hold a trial, with the prisoners then taken to the county jail in New Haven to await their court date before the Circuit Court in Hartford. This created something of a circus at the jail, with reportedly as many as a few thousand people per day coming to see them, and their jailer making quite a profit, charging about 12 cents (about $3 today) per visitor wanting an up close look.

Illustrating the appalling conditions aboard the slave ships, an interesting thing to note here is that despite being in jail, the prisoners were arguably treated, if not well per se, much better, than they were aboard the Amistad. And their survival rates, while still not perfect, also markedly improved, as we’ll get into later.

As to their treatment, abolitionist Lewis Tappan, who would help champion their cause, wrote on September 9, 1839, “The prisoners are in comfortable rooms.–They are well clothed in dark striped cotton trowsers, called by some of the manufacturers ‘hard times’, and in striped cotton shirts. The girls are in calico frocks, and have made the little shawls that were given them into turbans. The prisoners eyed the clothes some time, and laughed a good deal among themselves before they put them on. Their food is brought to them in separate tin pans, and they eat it in an orderly manner. In general, they are in good health. One of their number, however, died on Tuesday last, and two or three more are on the sick list and considered dangerous. They probably suffer for want of exercise in the open air. The four children are apparently from 10 to 12 years of age… They are robust, [and] are full of hilarity… The sheriff of the county took them to ride in a wagon on Friday. At first their eyes were filled with tears, and they seemed to be afraid, but soon they enjoyed themselves very well, and appeared to be greatly delighted. The children speak only their native dialects. Neither Cinquez nor any of his comrades have been manacled since they have been here. Their demeanor is altogether quiet, kind, and orderly.”

Speaking of Tappan, the prisoners weren’t just attracting random gawkers to their jail, but also, as Holabird had feared, abolitionists to their cause. Tappan stated he and his fellow abolitionists hoped these individuals’ story would touch, to quote, “the heart of the nation through the power of sympathy… [and] hasten the overthrow of slavery.”

And so it was that Tappan and co on September 4th setup the Friend of Amistad Africans Committee to raise funds for the prisoners and find the best legal help they could, ultimately settling on one Roger Baldwin who, by the way, would later become governor of Connecticut.

Shortly after this committee was established, Spanish minister Chevalier de Argaiz would formally demand the prisoners be returned to Cuba for trial, citing treaties with Spain which required the returning of Spanish ships and property seized by U.S. government ships to Spain. In particular, the 1795 Treaty of Friendship, Limits, and Navigation which, among other things, in article 9 states, “All Ships and merchandise of what nature soever which shall be rescued out of the hands of any Pirates or Robbers on the high seas shall be brought into some Port of either State and shall be delivered to the custody of the Officers of that Port in order to be taken care of and restored entire to the true proprietor as soon as due and sufficient proof shall be made concerning the property there of.”

As for proof that the individuals involved in the mutiny were, in fact, legal property, Ruiz and Montes had documents signed by none other than the Governor General of Cuba asserting this fact. And as to the criminal matter, the Spanish minister further stated, “I do not, in fact, understand how a foreign court of justice can be considered competent to take cognizance of an offense committed on board of a Spanish vessel, by Spanish subjects, and against Spanish subjects, in the waters of a Spanish territory; for it was committed on the coasts of this island, and under the flag of this nation.”

As mentioned, U.S. President Martin Van Buren was in complete agreement over this, perhaps less out of obligation to Spain and more to help him not alienate some of his slave state supporters. Thus, he instructed Holabird to do his best to make this happen.

Now, as to the upcoming trial, a rather glaring problem continued to be that neither Baldwin, nor anyone else that could be found, could actually speak to the defendants in a language either side understood. To attempt to get around the issue, Baldwin sought out Yale professor of linguistics Dr. Josiah Gibbs. Unfortunately, even for such a distinguished linguist, learning the defendant’s language, or any of the defendants learning English, in time for the trial was out of the question. But Gibbs did have a bright idea on how to possibly get around the problem. After being brought to the prisoners, he quickly learned to count in to 10 in their language. From here, he simply went down to the docks of New York counting in this language loudly until he finally found two people who recognized what he was saying. One Charles Pratt and, more significantly to the trial to come, a young man by the name of James Covey. As a young boy growing up in a village in Sierra Leone, Covey had been captured by a neighboring tribe and made a slave of the chief’s wife of that tribe. A few years later, he was sold and put on the Spanish ship Segundo Socorro. Lucky for him, however, while en route, the slave ship was discovered by a British cruiser and the captives freed and Covey given into the care of one Rev. John William Weeks. Five years later, at the age of around 14 years old, he joined the British Royal Navy, ultimately serving aboard the British man-of-war, the Buzzard, which just so happened to be in New York harbor when Dr. Gibbs was searching for a translator. After Gibbs discussed the matter with Covey, he agreed to come speak to the prisoners, and on September the 9th, the prisoners’ side of the story finally came out.

They stated that, much like Covey, they were from various Mende tribes from Sierra Leone. After being captured by other Africans, they were taken to the infamous slave factory Lomboko where they and several hundred others were sold to a Portuguese slave trader and then transported aboard a Portuguese ship called the Tecora across the Atlantic to Havana under rather brutal conditions. James Covey would translate the captives’ description of their transport, ultimately published in the New York Journal of Commerce, “On board the vessel there was a large number of men, but the women and children were by far the most numerous. They were fastened together by couples by the wrists and legs and kept in that situation day and night. By day it was no better. The space between the decks was so small – according to their account not exceeding four feet – that they were obliged, if they attempted to stand, to keep a crouching posture. The decks, fore and aft, were crowded to overflowing. They suffered terribly. They had rice enough to eat but they had very little to drink. If they left any of the rice that was given to them uneaten, either from sickness or any other cause, they were whipped. It was a common thing for them to be forced to eat so much as to vomit….” All total, around 150 people, or about 1/3 of the prisoners, died along the way, their bodies unceremoniously tossed overboard.

Upon arrival in Havana, the captives were sent to the slave market and, ten days later, purchased by Ruiz and Montes and brought to the Amistad. As previously described, on the fourth night aboard, the prisoners managed to free themselves and took the ship, which brings us back up to date.

What is critical to understand about all of this is that if these individuals were telling the truth, upon arrival in Cuba, the captives should have been immediately freed, as about two decades earlier a treaty had been signed by Spain and Britain outlawing such importation of slaves into Spanish held territories. Thus, if true, it was Ruiz and Montes who were the oppressors, and even potentially murderers given some of the defendants had died after only a few days under their brutal care.

A little over a week after Covey was found to translate for the prisoners, on September 19, 1839, with Judge Smith Thompson presiding, the Amistad case was heard. On the prosecution side, as alluded to, Holabird argued that because this was a matter that had international implications, the court should allow the President to determine the correct course, with said president advocating the prisoners simply be turned over to Spain for prosecution there as Spain had formally demanded.

For the defense, Baldwin argued that if the U.S. took such a course, they would be reduced to “slave-catcher for foreign slave-holders” and that “no power on earth has the right to reduce [the defendants] to slavery.”

After three days of arguments, Judge Thompson ruled that because the alleged crimes were committed in international waters aboard a Spanish ship, and further that no U.S. citizens were involved, the court did not have jurisdiction to consider any criminal charges with regard to the mutiny. There was still, however, the matter of whether the prisoners were actually property or not. If so, by the aforementioned treaty between Spain and the United States, the U.S. would be obliged to return them to Spanish control regardless of any crimes committed or not. On this point, while Judge Thompson did rule that the Africans were no longer technically prisoners of the U.S., he nonetheless ordered that they should still be detained while the issue of their status as property was resolved, while also expressing strong doubt that they were actually legally slaves.

In the ensuing couple months between Judge Thompson’s ruling and the next trial, under Judge Judson this time, the prisoners spent much of their time being taught English and Christian theology by the abolitionists.

In the meantime, President Van Buren, via Secretary of State Forsyth, sent the naval schooner Grampus to take the Amistad and prisoners back to Havana if the court ruled in the government’s favor, and to do so immediately before any appeal could be filed.

This plan was upended, however, when Baldwin produced the aforementioned Dr. Gibbs who pointed out to the court that none of the Africans, not even the children, spoke Spanish, and rather Mende and other languages from around the region of Sierra Leone- a rather curious fact if they had indeed been born and raised or living in Cuba for at least the last 19 years as the prosecution and Amistad legal documents claimed.

Further, Covey, translating for the defendants, described how he’d discussed with the defendants various landmarks and rivers and the like in the Sierra Leone that he had also been to, and it matched with the defendants’ accounts of these places. On top of that, Cinque and another of the prisoners named Grabeau recounted for the court the story of their very recent capture and transport across the Atlantic.

On top of this, another witness was produced, one Sullivan Haley serving aboard the Washington, claimed that Ruiz had told him the slaves were indeed imported recently from Africa.

With Britain at this point pressuring the U.S. to let the captives go, Baldwin also brought in British antislavery commissioner in Cuba, Dr. Richard Madden, to testify. Dr. Madden stated, “I have examined [the defendants] and observed their language, appearance, and manners; and I have no doubt of their having been very recently, brought from Africa.”

He goes on, “One of the largest dealers and importers of the island of Cuba, in African slaves, is the notorious house of Martiner & Co., of Havana; and for years past, as at present, they have been deeply engaged in this traffic; and the Bozal Africans, imported by these and all other slave traders, when brought to the Havana, are immediately taken to the barracoons, or slave marts… and from these barracoons, they are taken and removed to the different parts of the island when sold; and having examined the endorsements on the back of the transspasso, or permits for the removal of the said negroes of the Amistad, the signature to that endorsement appears to be that of Martiner & Co.; and the document purports to be a permit of pass for the removal of the said negroes…. Any negroes landed in the island since 1820, and carried into slavery, have been illegally introduced; and the transfer of them under false names, such as calling Bozal, Ladinos, is, necessarily, a fraud. Unfortunately, there is no interference on the part of the local authorities; they connive at it, and collude with the slave traders; the governor, alone, at the Havana, receiving a bounty or impost on each negro thus illegally introduced, of ten dollars a head.”

He further stated, “I have a full knowledge of the… slave trade in Cuba; and I know that no law exists, or has existed since the year 1820, that sanctions the introduction of negroes into the island of Cuba, from Africa for the purpose of making slaves, or being held in slavery; and, that all such Bozal negroes, as those recently imported are called, are legally free; and no law, common or statute, exists there, by which they can be held in slavery….”

On the flipside, continuing to bang the same drum as before, Holabird, along with presenting the testimonies of the U.S. Revenue-Marines concerning the events surrounding the capture of the Amistad, continued to cite Spanish and U.S. Treaties, as well as pointing out this all occurred on a Spanish vessel and thus the matter should be resolved either way by the Spanish courts. And as to the question of the status of property, he pointed out the legal documents aboard the Amistad signed by the Governor General of Cuba clearly showed the defendants were lying and they were, in fact, longtime residents of Cuba and legal slaves there. And that the U.S. courts had no right to declare the Spanish government had been party to illegally making slaves out of captured Africans.

And as a brief aside, neither Montes nor Ruiz chose to testify here, despite, in Ruiz’s case, standing to lose about a half a million in modern dollars if the court ruled in favor of his supposed slaves. As to why not, it’s generally thought the men did not want to open themselves up for prosecution for perjury by stating under oath that their supposed slaves were not recent imports from Africa. Further, there was a chance they could be tried for other crimes as well if it turned out their captives had actually been free individuals under their brutal care. Thus, they had not bothered to stick around after being charged with such crimes and briefly imprisoned in October of 1939 in New York. At separate points after this, both posted bail and returned to Cuba, with it not fully clear what happened to them after, other than that they, like all of us some day will do, eventually became microbial excrement.

So what did Judge Judson think of all this? On January 13, he ruled that regardless of what the Spanish government said, the Africans aboard the Amistad had been kidnapped and were, thus, justified in their mutiny, out of a, to quote, “desire of winning their liberty and of returning to their families and kindred.” While the court did acknowledge only a Spanish court could rule on the question of murder and piracy under Spanish law, because the Africans were not legally slaves nor were they Spanish citizens, there was no legal obligation to return them to Spanish control to resolve such a matter. Instead, he ordered they be delivered to the President, not for him to put them back in Spanish hands, as had been the President’s plan with the Grampus in harbor, but, with Judge Judson citing the 1819 Slave Trade Act, in order to be transported back to their homes in Sierra Leone immediately at the U.S. Government’s expense.

As a brief aside here, Judge Judson also ruled that the cabin boy, Antonio, was a legal slave and thus belonged to Captain Ferrer’s heirs and should be returned to Cuba as Spain had requested. There are conflicting accounts of what happened to him after, with one side stating he was indeed returned to Cuba, and the other that abolitionists helped him escape to Canada before he could be deported.

Whatever the case there, not taking the matter sitting down, President Van Buren ordered the decision appealed, which was subsequently done. However, it was then upheld by the aforementioned Circuit Judge Smith Thompson. From here, once again Van Buren and the Spanish’s side appealed the decision, with the case now to be heard once and for all before the U.S. Supreme Court.

While Baldwin had arguably done a phenomenal job defending the prisoners up to this point, arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court is no small thing, even for an experienced attorney. Thus, the Amistad Committee wanted someone with prior experience arguing before that venerated body to help Baldwin out. Towards this end, they sought out “Old Man Eloquent” himself, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams who, by the way had once been appointed to and turned down a Supreme Court seat- one of only seven people in all of U.S. history to turn down such a position once their nomination was confirmed. In order to recruit Adams to the cause, on October 27, 1840, Lewis Tappan and company visited Adams personally at Adams’ home in Quincy, Massachusetts.

And as a brief aside, if you’re now wondering, the town, Quincy, was not named after the former President. But, rather, when it was incorporated in 1792, it was named after John Quincy Adams’ great grandfather on his mother’s side, Colonel John Quincy, a prominent individual in Braintree, which Quincy, Massachusetts sprang from. And, yes, once again, contrary to popular belief, this should be pronounced “Quinzee” rather than “Quintsee”.

In any event, Adams initially turned down Tappan’s request. This was not because he didn’t wholly support the rightness of the cause- indeed Adams spent a large percentage of his post presidential career working towards the abolition of slavery in Congress right up to his sudden death on February 23, 1848 when he collapsed on the floor of that very institution after standing to argue a point by another member of Congress.

On this issue of slavery, Adams would also write in his journal, “What can I, upon the verge of my seventy-fourth birth-day, with a shaking hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with all my faculties, dropping from me, one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head . . . what can I do for the cause of God and Man? For the progress of human emancipation? . . . Yet my conscience presses me on- let me but die upon the breach…”

Adams had also on November 19. 1839, almost a year before Tappan’s request, written a letter published in the New York Journal of Commerce, advocating for the defendants’ cause, stating,

“The Africans of the Amistad were cast upon our coast in a condition perhaps as calamitous as could befall human beings, not by their own will – not with any intention hostile or predatory on their part, not even by the act of God as in the case of shipwreck, but by their own ignorance of navigation and the deception of one of their oppressors whom they had overpowered, and whose life they had spared to enable them by his knowledge of navigation to reach their native land.

They were victims of the African slave trade, recently imported into the island of Cuba, in gross violation of the laws of the Island and of Spain; and by acts which our own laws have made piracy – punishable with death. They had indicated their natural right to liberty, by conspiracy, insurrection, homicide and capture and they were accused by the two Cuban Spaniards embarked with them in the ship, of murder and piracy – and they were claimed by the same two Cuban Spaniards, accessories after the fact to the slave-trade piracy, by which they had been brought from Africa to Cuba, as their property, because they had bought them from slave-trade pirates.

They knew nothing of the Constitution, laws or language of the country upon which they were thus thrown, and accused as pirates and murderers, claimed as slaves of the very men who were their captives, they were deprived even of the faculty of speech in their own defense. This condition was sorely calamitous; it claimed from the humanity of a civilized nation compassion; – it claimed from brotherly love of a Christian land sympathy; – it claimed from a Republic professing reverence for the rights of man justice – and what have we done?

A naval officer of the United States seizes them, their ship and cargo, with themselves; tramples on the territorial jurisdiction of the state of New York, by seizing, disarming and sending on board their ship, without warrant of arrest, several of them whom he found on shore; releases their captives; admits the claim of the two captives to fifty masters as their slaves; and claims salvage for restoring them to servitude. They are then brought before a court of the United States, at once upon the charge of piracy and murder, upon a claim to them as slaves, and upon a claim against their pretended masters for salvage, by kidnapping them again into slavery. The Circuit Judge decides that the United States do not exercise the right of all other civilized nations to try piracies committed in foreign vessels; that he thereupon cannot try them for piracy or murder, but that the District Court may try whether they are slaves or not…

Is this compassion? Is it sympathy? Is it justice? But here the case now stands.”

So, given all this, why did Adams not want to take this case he felt so passionately about?

He wrote in his journal on October 27, 1840, “I endeavoured to excuse myself upon the plea of my age and inefficiency—of the oppressive burden of my duties as a member of the House of Representatives, and my inexperience after a lapse of more than thirty years, in the forms, and technicals of argument, before judicial tribunals, and said I would cheerfully do, what I had heretofore offered that is give any assistance of Counsel and Advice to Mr Baldwin, and any other person charged with the argument before the Court…”

Not taking no for an answer, however, Adams would go on, “But they urged me so much and represented the case of those unfortunate men as so critical, it being a case of life and death, that I yielded, and told them that, if by the blessing of God my health and strength should permit, I would argue the case before the Supreme Court; and I implore the mercy of Almighty God, to controul my temper, to enlighten my Soul and to give me utterance that I may prove myself in every respect equal to the task—”

Upon hearing of their new defender, one of the Africans, Ka-Le would write to Adams making sure he understood their position, stating, “I want to write a letter to you because you love Mendi people and you talk to the Great Court. Want to tell you one thing. Jose Ruiz say we born in havanna, he tell lie . . . we all born in Mendi–we no understand Spanish language . . . we want you to ask the court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison. Some people say Mendi people crazy dolts because we no talk American language. Americans no talk Mendi. American people crazy dolts? They tell bad things about Mendi people and we no understand. . . . Dear friend Mr. Adams you have children and friends you love them you feel very sorry if Mendi people come and take all to Africa.”

From here, Adams would visit his new clients to hear more of their side personally, as well as spend the next several months working with Baldwin on their defense.

During this time, it’s interesting to note that Adams, before the U.S. House of Representatives, formally accused President Martin Van Buren’s administration of intentionally falsifying documents in the Amistad case via intentionally mistranslating Spanish documents to mislead the courts. A committee was then assigned to investigate the matter, with it ultimately appearing that this indeed had occurred. However, the House chose not to censure the administration or otherwise do anything about it.

In any event, finally, on February 22, 1841, almost two years after the Amistad captives successfully freed themselves aboard that ship and with over a dozen of them dying in the interim, Baldwin and Adams stood together before the Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Schooner Amistad.

As for the government’s side, Attorney General Henry Gilpin’s mostly just, as had been so unsuccessful before, presented the Amistad’s legal papers clearing showing that the Africans were legal slaves under Spanish law, with none other than the Spanish government putting their stamp on the validity of the documents. From there, his main point was that the court had no authority to deny the veracity of the Amistad’s papers concerning the human property aboard. If the Spanish government asserted that the Africans were legal slaves, then what right did a U.S. court have to claim otherwise?

The U.S. side also made the rather bizarre argument that because the Africans had been in command of a slave ship and landed it in the United States, they had violated slave trade laws by importing slaves to the United States… We’ll fast-forward to the end on this particular point right now and say the Supreme Court rejected this argument noting the Africans could not, to quote, “possibly intend to import themselves into the United States as slaves, or for sale as slaves.”

Moving over to the defense, as for Baldwin’s argument, he countered, “It is a remarkable circumstance, that though more than a year has elapsed since the decree of the District Court denying the title of Ruiz and Montez, and pronouncing the Africans free, not a particle of evidence has since been produced in support of their claims. And yet, strange as it may seem, during all this time, not only the sympathies of the Spanish minister, but the powerful aid of our own government have been enlisted in their behalf!”

He further went on that given Spain had previously signed agreements to prohibit such importing of slaves from Africa, “It may be admitted that, even after such an annunciation, our cruisers could not lawfully seize a Spanish slaver, cleared out as such by the Governor of Cuba: but if the Africans on board of her could affect their own deliverance, and reach our shores, has not the government of Spain authorized us to treat them with hospitality as freemen? Could the Spanish minister, without offence, ask the government of the United States to seize these victims of fraud and felony, and treat them as property, because a colonial governor had thought proper to violate the ordinance of his king, in granting a permit to a slaver?”

Besides these arguments, the main thrust of his defense was simply the same that had worked in the lower courts- summing up: “Cinque, the master-spirit who guided them, had a single object in view. That object was — not piracy or robbery — but the deliverance of himself and his companions in suffering, from unlawful bondage. They owed no allegiance to Spain. They were on board of the Amistad by constraint. Their object was to free themselves from the fetters that bound them, in order that they might return to their kindred and their home. In so doing they were guilty of no crime for which they could be held responsible as pirates.”

For Adams part, on February 24th and finishing on March 1st, he gave a total of an almost 9 hour and 135 page speech. Like Baldwin, he cited both legal justification for freeing his clients, including once again reiterating that their importation to Cuba was in direct violation of the treaty between Britain and Spain which prohibited importing slaves to the Spanish colonies, as well as put forth moral reasoning, drawing from the very founding documents of the United States itself. Justice Story would later state of Adams’ argument, it was “extraordinary for its power, for its bitter sarcasm, and for its dealing with topics far beyond the record and points of discussion.”

As for his own account, Adams would write in his journal of his initial February 24th speech, “The Court room was full, but not crowded, and there were not many Ladies. I had been deeply distressed and agitated till the moment when I rose, and then my Spirit did not sink within me— With grateful heart for aid from above, though in humiliation for the weakness incident to the limits of my powers, I spoke…”

During his speech, he stated, “I appear here on the behalf of thirty-six individuals, the life and liberty of every one of whom depend on the decision of this Court…. Three or four of them are female children, incapable, in the judgment of our laws, of the crime of murder or piracy, or, perhaps, of any other crime. Yet, from the day when the vessel was taken possession of by one of our naval officers, they have all been held as close prisoners, now for the period of eighteen long months…. Was ever such a scene of Lilliputian trickery enacted by the rulers of a great, magnanimous, and Christian nation? Contrast it with that act of self-emancipation, by which… Cinqué and Grabeau liberated themselves and their fellow suffering countrymen from Spanish slave traders, and which the Secretary of State…denominates lawless violence….

Cinqué and Graveau are uncooth and barbarous names. Call them Harmodius and Aristogiton, and go back for moral principle three thousand years to the fierce and glorious democracy of Athens. They too resorted to lawless violence, and slew the tyrant to redeem the freedom of their country….

…When they were brought from Lomboko, in the Tecora, against the laws of Spain, against the laws of the United States, and against the law of nations, so far as the United States, and Spain, and Great Britain are concerned, who were the robbers and pirates? And when the same voyage, in fact, was continued in the Amistad, and the Africans were in a perishing condition in the hands of Ruiz, dropping dead from day to day under his treatment, were they the pirates and robbers? This honorable Court will observe from the record that there were fifty-four Africans who left Havana. Ruiz says in his libel that nine had died before they reached our shores. The marshal’s return shows that they were dying day after day from the effects of their sufferings. One died before the Court sat at New London. Three more died before the return was made to the Court at Hartford–only seventeen days–and three more between that and November. Sixteen fell victims before November, and from that time not one has died. Think only of the relief and benefit of being restored to the absolute wants of human nature. Although placed in a condition which, if applied to forty citizens of the United States, we should call cruel, shut up eighteen months in a prison, and enjoying only the tenderness which our laws provide for the worst of criminals, so great is the improvement of their condition from what it was in the hands of Ruiz, that they have perfectly recovered their health, and not one has died; when, before that time, they were perishing from hour to hour…”

He then turned his ire onto the United States Revenue Cutter Service’s conduct in this, stating upon their discovery of the Amistad,

“In this situation Lieut. Gedney, without any charge or authority from his government, without warrant of law, by force of fire arms, seizes and disarms them, then being in the peace of that Commonwealth and of the United States, drives them on board the vessel, seizes the vessel and transfers it against the will of its possessors to another State. I ask in the name of justice, by what law was this done?…

One of the Judges who presided in some of the preceding trials, is said to have called this an anomalous case. It is indeed anomalous, and I know of no law, but one which I am not at liberty to argue before this Court, no law, statute or constitution, no code, no treaty, applicable to the proceedings of the Executive or the Judiciary, except that law…” He then pointed to the copy of the Declaration of Independence, hanging against one of the pillars.

“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 on behalf of these unfortunate men than this Declaration.”

He concluded, once again appealing to the justices’ morals, by discussing his previous appearances before that very court for other cases in the distant past, noting how the Justices then so many years before had now gone on to meet their maker. Stating, “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.’”

In the end, on March 9, 1841, the court, via Justice Joseph Story announced their ruling in a 7-1 decision. That the individuals who’d mutinied aboard the Amistad were, in fact, “kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom.” And that, “although public documents of the government, accompanying property found on board of the private ships of a foreign nation, certainly are to be deemed prima facie evidence of the facts which they purport to state, yet they are always open to be impugned for fraud; and whether that fraud be in the original obtaining of these documents, or in the subsequent fraudulent and illegal use of them, when once it is satisfactorily established, it overthrows all their sanctity, and destroys them as proof.”

They went on, “that, supposing these African negroes not to be slaves, but kidnapped, and free negroes, the treaty with Spain cannot be obligatory upon them; and the United States are bound to respect their rights as much as those of Spanish subjects. The conflict of rights between the parties under such circumstances, becomes positive and inevitable, and must be decided upon the eternal principles of justice and international law. … Upon the merits of the case, then, there does not seem to us to be any ground for doubt, that these negroes ought to be deemed free; and that the Spanish treaty interposes no obstacle to the just assertion of their rights.”

However, the court also ruled that, contrary to what had previously been ruled, the 1819 Slave Trade treaty did not apply here and thus the U.S. was under no obligation to help return these individuals to Sierra Leone.

As for what happened after, funds were raised for their care, and even to pay for John Quincy Adams’ services in helping to defend them, though Adams refused this payment.

Along with sending him a gift of a Bible, which today is part of the collection at the Stone Library in Quincy, Massachusetts, the former captives would write a group letter to Adams thanking him on May 5, 1841. They wrote, “We thank you very much because you make us free… They give you money for Mendi people & you say you will not take it… We pray for all the good people who make us free. Wicked people want to make us slaves but the great God who has made all things raise up friends for Mendi people he give us Mr. Adams that he may make me free & all Mendi people free.”

From here, all the way to his death in 1847, Adams also successfully led the opposition to efforts by four different U.S. Presidents to compensate Spain for their losses in the Amistad case. In fact, after Adams’ death, four additional Presidents advocated for this as well, with Spain only giving up in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln became the 16th U.S. President.

As for the now freed Africans, from here they went to Farmington, Connecticut where they were further educated, as well as were occasionally sent around New England at various locations to describe their kidnapping and ordeal to aid in the abolition cause. It was noted that Cinque particularly soon became a skilled speaker at these events.

Finally, in November of 1841, enough money, almost $2000 or about $60,000 today, was raised to charter a ship, the Gentleman, to take those who wanted to back home, as well as to establish a mission in the region.

Departing on December 4th, the 35 of the remaining 53 former captives, along with Covey and four American missionaries, headed east to the Sierra Leone. 50 days later, they arrived at Freetown harbor. Cinque would write back to Tappan shortly after, “Cinque love Mr. Tappan very much, and all Mendi people love Mr. Tappan very much. I no forget Mr. Tappan forever and ever, and I no forget God, because God help Mr. Tappan and Mendi people. . . .I thank all American people for they send Mendi people home. . . Your friend, Cinque.”

Another of the former captives, Kin-Na, would also write Tappan, “We have reached Sierra Leone and one little while after we go Mendi and we get land very safely…. We have been on great water. Not any danger fell upon us…. I never forget you…. if I never see you in this world, we will meet in heaven.”

That said, it is noted that, much to the chagrin of the missionaries, many of the former captives would eventually abandon Christianity and return to the practices of their own people, rather than help them establish the mission as was initially hoped. Further, it was not all a happy return for some of them. Cinque, for example, would return home to find his village had been destroyed by a neighboring tribe, and to make matters worse, his wife and his children had been sold into slavery, with no idea as to where they ended up in the world.

Many years later, Cinque was the last of the former captives to contact the mission. Near death in 1879, he returned and spent his remaining time on Earth there, ultimately buried in a small graveyard on the mission grounds.

Expand for References

(1841) United States v. The Amistad

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