Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Amistad Rebellion

The Amistad Case


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. President Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans. Claims to the Africans by the planters, the government of Spain, and the captain of the brig led the case to trial in the Federal District Court in Connecticut. The court ruled that the case fell within Federal jurisdiction and that the claims to the Africans as property were not legitimate because they were illegally held as slaves. The case went to the Supreme Court in January 1841, and former President John Quincy Adams argued the defendants' case. Adams defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, and 35 of them were returned to their homeland. The others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial.

Libel of Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney

The Washington was the brig that seized the Amistad off the coast of Long Island. Its commander was Lt. Thomas R. Gedney. In his libel, or written statement, to Judge Andrew T. Judson of the district court, he described the encounter with the Amistad. Because he sought salvage of the schooner and its cargo, he was very detailed in his account and itemized all of its cargo, estimating 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. Therefore, Gedney and his crew believed they were entitled to salvage rights. At that time in U.S. history, even individuals acting in their official capacity as officials of the government were entitled to salvage rights.

In addition, Gedney relayed that the Africans could speak only native African tongues and that one of the two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz, spoke English. Gedney included in his libel the account of the mutiny as told by Ruiz.

S. Staples, R. Baldwin, and T. Sedgewick, Proctors for the Amistad Africans

After the Amistad was seized, the schooner, its cargo, and all on board were taken to New London, CT. Had it not been for the actions of abolitionists in the United States, the issues related to the Amistad might have ended quietly in an admiralty court. But they used the incident as a way to expose the evils of slavery and generate significant opposition to the practice. Abolitionists asked Roger S. Baldwin, a lawyer from New Haven, and two New York attorneys, Seth Staples and Theodore Sedgewick, to serve as proctors for, or represent, the Africans. The answer to the libels of Lt. Gedney, et. al. and Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz that the proctors submitted to the district court conveyed the position of the Africans.

John Quincy Adams' request for papers relating to the lower court trials of the Amistad Africans

After the Federal District Court ruled in favor of the Africans, the U.S. District Attorney filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. 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. Preparing for his appearance before the Court, Adams requested papers from the lower courts one month before the proceedings opened. For 8 ½ 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.

Opinion of the Supreme Court in United States v. The Amistad

Senior Justice Joseph Story wrote and read the decision of the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the Africans on board the Amistad were free individuals. Kidnapped and transported illegally, they had never been slaves.
Although Justice Story had written earlier that ". . . it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice," the opinion in this case more narrowly asserted the Africans right to resist "unlawful" slavery.
The Court ordered the immediate release of the Amistad Africans.

Statement of the Supreme Court to Circuit Court

Following its decision, the Supreme Court submitted this statement to the lower court where the case originated. The statement indicated that the decision of the circuit court was in part upheld and in part reversed. The part that was upheld related to the freedom of the Africans. The part that was reversed related to Judge Andrew T. Judson's application of the Congressional Act of March 3, 1819. Judson's decision authorized the President to return the Africans to Africa. Ultimately, the abolitionists arranged for their return in early 1842.

Sengebe Pieh aka Joseph Cinque
Leader of the Revolt
The caption under the graphic reads;
The brave Congolese Chief, who prefers death to slavery, and who now lies in irons at New Haven, Conn awaiting his trial for daring for freedom

Speech to his comrade slaves after murdering Captain &C and getting possession of the vessel and cargo.

"Brothers we have done that which we purposed, our hands are now clean for we have striven to regain our precious heritage we received from out fathers.
We have only to perservere. Where the sun rises there is our home, our brothers, our fathers. Do not seek to defeat my orders, if so I would sacrifice any one who would endanger the rest. Whhen at home we will kill the old man, the young one shall be saved he is kind and gave you bread, we must not kill those who give us water.
Brothers I am resolved that it is better to die than to be a white man's slave and I will not complain if by dying I save you. Let us be careful what we eat that we may not be sick. The deed is done and I need say no more."

This youtube video was inspired by the Amistad Case,

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