In February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence. Fifty-three Africans were purchased by two Spanish planters and put aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad for shipment to a Caribbean plantation. On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. brig Washington. The planters were freed and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, CT, on charges of murder. Although the murder charges were dismissed, the Africans continued to be held in confinement as the focus of the case turned to salvage claims and property rights.
United States Circuit Court for the District of Connecticut
A case before the circuit court in Hartford, Connecticut, was filed in September 1839, charging the Africans with mutiny and murder on La Amistad. The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction, because the alleged acts took place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters.
Warrant for Habeas Corpus
This document ordered Sengbe Pieh (also known as Joseph Cinque, and written as Jinqua on this document), the leader of the mutiny, and the other Africans who were aboard the Amistad to appear in court.
Libel of Thomas R. Gedney
The document shown here is the libel – an accusation brought against someone or something claiming property ought to be seized that Brig Washington commander Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney submitted to US District Court Judge Andrew T. Judson.
Because he sought salvage of the schooner and its cargo, Gedney was very detailed in his account and itemized all of its cargo. He estimated its value at $40,000, and the value of the Africans as slaves at $25,000. In maritime law, compensation is allowed to persons whose assistance saves a ship or its cargo from impending loss. The libelants claimed that with great difficulty and danger to themselves they recaptured the Amistad from the Africans. They claimed that had they not seized the vessel, it would have been a total loss to its "rightful" owners.
Gedney described the encounter with the Amistad. In addition, Gedney relayed that the Africans could speak only native African languages and that one of the two Spanish plantation owners, Jose Ruiz, spoke English. Gedney included Ruiz's account of the mutiny in his libel.
Libel of Jose Ruiz
The US District Court, also meeting in the Connecticut State House in Hartford, convened on September 19, and Judge Judson accepted additional libels filed in response to the salvage Libel of Gedney and his crew.Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes each submitted libels asking for the return of all their property, including the alleged slaves, with no deduction for salvage.
Jose Ruiz stated that the negroes belonging to him to have been forty-nine in number, "named and known at Havana, as follows: Antonio, Simon, Jose Pedro, Martin, Manuel, Andreo, Edwards, Celedonia, Burtolono, Ramia, Augustin, Evaristo, Casamero, Merchoi, Gabriel, Santorion, Escolastico, Rascual, Estanislao, Desidero, Nicholas, Estevan, Tomas, Cosme, Luis, Bartolo, Julian, Federico, Salustiano, Ladislao, Celestino, Epifanio, Eduardo, Benancico, Felepe, Francisco, Hipoleto, Berreto, Isidoro, Vecente, Deconisco, Apolonio, Esequies, Leon, Julio, Hipoleto, and Zenon; of whom several have died." Their present names, Ruiz stated, he had been informed, were, "Cinque, Burnah 1st, Carpree, Dammah, Fourrie 1st, Shumah, Conomah, Choolay, Burnah 2d, Baah, Cabbah, Poomah, Kimbo, Peea, Bang-ye-ah, Saah, Carlee, Parale, Morrah, Yahome, Narquor, Quarto, Sesse, Con. Fourrie 2d, Kennah, Lammane, Fajanah, Faah, Yahboy, [**6] Faquannah, Berrie, Fawnu, Chockammaw, and Gabbow."
Libel of Pedro Montes
On August 29, 1839, three days after the schooner's discovery, US District Court Judge Andrew T. 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) attended, 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. The three principal witnesses at the hearing--the first mate of the Brig Washington, Montes, and Ruiz--each presented his account of events.
Pedro Montez stated that the names of three negroes on board the Amistad, belonging to him, were Francisco, Juan, and Josepha; the Spanish name of the fourth was not mentioned; and the four were not called Teme, Mahgra, Kene, and Carria.
All these were stated to be slaves, and the property of the claimants, purchased by them at Havana; where slavery is tolerated and allowed by law; and they and the merchandise on board the vessel, the claimants alleged, by the laws and usages of nations, and of the United States of America, and according to the treaties between Spain and the United States, ought to be restored to the claimants without diminution, and entire.
Plea to the Jurisdiction of Cinque and Others
In this document, Sengbe Pieh (Joseph Cinque), the leader of the mutiny, and the other Africans who were aboard the Amistad state that "they are severally natives of Africa and were born free, and ever since have been, and still of right are and ought to be free, and not slaves, as in said several libels pretended, or surmised."
The document also describes how they were taken from Africa and that they were treated with "great cruelty and oppression...[and] were incited by the love of liberty natural to all men, and by the desire of returning to their families and kindred, to take possession of said vessel, while navigating the high seas as aforesaid near the Island of Cuba, as they had right to do, with the intent to return therein to their native country, or to seek an asylum in some free State where Slavery did not exist, in order that they might enjoy their liberty under the protection of its government."
"Wherefore the Respondents severally say that neither by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or any Treaty pursuant thereto, nor by the law of nations doth it pertain to this Honorable Court to exercise any jurisdiction over the persons of these respondents or any of them by reason of any of the proceedings aforesaid – and they severally pray to be hence disrupted, and suffered to be and remain as they of right ought to be free & at liberty from this process of this Honorable Court aforesaid under which, or under color of which they are holders as aforesaid."
Answer of the Proctors for the Amistad Africans
The document shown here includes the Proctors' answer to the libel (an accusation brought against someone or something claiming property ought to be seized) that Lt. Thomas R. Gedney, commander of the Brig Washington submitted to the judge.
It conveys the position of the Africans: "...each of them are natives of Africa and were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are and ought to be free and not slaves..." It states that they were not a part of a Spanish domestic slave trade and instead had been forcibly kidnapped from the African coast. And further that, while suffering "great cruelty and oppression" on board the Amistad, they were "incited by the love of liberty natural to all men" to take possession of the ship by force and seek asylum somewhere.
The Final Record Book
After listening to the testimony, Judge Judson issued his order: "To the Marshal of the District of Connecticut--greeting. Whereas upon the complaint and information of the United States by William S. Holabird, District Attorney of the United States for said District, against [the Amistads] for the murder of Ramon Ferrer, on the 20th day of June 1839, on the high seas, within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States, it was ordered and adjudged by the undersigned that they against whom said information and complaint was made, stand committed to appear before the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Connecticut, to be holden at Hartford, in said District on the 17th day of September, 1839, to answer to the said crime of murder, as set forth in said information and complaint.You are therefore commanded to take the said persons, named as above, and charged with said crime, and them safely keep in the jail in New Haven in said District, and then have before the Circuit Court of the United States to be holden at Hartford, in said District, on the 17th day of September A. D. 1839. Hereof fail not, &c. Dated at New London. August 29, 1839.ANDREW T. JUDSON, Judge of the United States for the District of Connecticut."
Judge Judson announced his several-part decision to a filled courtroom. He began with his resolution of the salvage claims. He accepted Gedney’s claim: the Lieutenant rendered a valuable service in seizing the Amistad and preventing the likely loss of its remaining cargo. Judson awarded one-third of the value of the ship and its non-human cargo to Gedney. The ship and its cargo—subject to Gedney’s salvage lien—should be restored to the Spanish government. But, ruled Judson, there could be no salvage right in the Africans. Neither were they the property of Ruiz and Montes. The blacks “were born free and ever since have been and still of right are free and not slaves.” They would not be returned to Cuba to stand trial as accused murderers and pirates. They revolted, Judson concluded, out of a natural “desire of winning their liberty and returning to their families.” Judson continued, “Cinque and Grabeau [another African who testified] shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred.” Judson ordered that the Africans be placed under the control of the Executive and returned to Africa.
John Quincy Adams's Request for Papers Relating to the Lower Court Trials of the Amistad Africans
In the trial before the Supreme Court, the Africans were represented by John Quincy Adams, a former U.S. President and descendant of American revolutionaries. This document is Adams's request for papers from the lower courts one month before the proceedings opened.
In January 1841, for 8 1/2 hours, the 73-year-old Adams passionately and eloquently defended the Africans' right to freedom on both legal and moral grounds, referring to treaties prohibiting the slave trade and to the Declaration of Independence. He defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom.
Opinion of the Supreme Court in United States v. the Amistad
The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, stating that they were free individuals. Kidnapped and transported illegally, they had never been slaves. Senior Justice Joseph Story wrote and read the decision: "...it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice." The opinion asserted the Africans' right to resist "unlawful" slavery.
The Court ordered the immediate release of the Amistad Africans. Thirty five of the survivors were returned to their homeland (the others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial).
Dated December 1840, the “American and Foreign [Ant-Slavery] Reporter Extra” begins with a lengthy account of the Amistad incident by Judge William Jay, one of the society’s founders. It reprints court documents, official correspondence, and records from the Spanish and British governments. In addition there are biographical sketches of the captives, and a facsimile reproduction of a letter from one of the youngest captives, Ka-Le, to Lewis Tappan, the society’s founder. Documents Relating to the Africans Taken in the Amistad is one of several historic publications in the American Trials section of the Yale Law Library Special Collections documents collection. The Law Library’s holdings on the Amistad case can be found on their website.
The image is a painting of the leader of the African captives, Joseph Cinque. The Library of Congress provides access to some of the images and documents surrounding the case of the Amistad.
The Amistad Memorial, by Ed Hamilton, celebrates the triumph of The Amistad. A struggle which teaches us one of the most important lessons of our time: together, we can overcome all odds and strengthen our mutual needs for freedom and quality of life.
The permanent home of The Amistad Memorial is in front of the New Haven City Hall, across from the green at the very site where the Africans were imprisoned in 1839. The work features the figure of Sengbe Pieh (known as Joseph Cinque), in a majestic 14-foot relief sculpture cast in bronze, and distinguished by its unique three-sided form. The photograph is not owned by the National Archives, but acts as a visual aid to depict what the memorial looks like.
Created by Ariana Fiorello-Omotosho, National Archives at Boston Intern
For a visual journey on this case, the 1997 motion picture film, Amistad, relates to many of the documents provided in this exhibit