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On This Day: Amistad Captured off Coast of Long Island

Last updated: February 15, 2023

August 26, 2011 06:00 AM

by findingDulcinea Staff

On Aug. 26, 1839, the Cuban slave ship Amistad was apprehended by the U.S. Navy after African slaves aboard the ship had revolted against their captors.

The Amistad Revolt

The Amistad (meaning “Friendship” in Spanish) was a Cuban slave ship that left Havana on June 27, 1839, bound for Puerto Principe, Cuba, carrying 49 African men and four children. The Africans had been abducted from Sierra Leone by slave traders in February 1839, an act that “violated all of the treaties then in existence,” according to the National Archives.

The ship was manned by Capt. Ramon Ferrer, two Spanish crewmen, a creole slave, a mulatto slave, and the slaves’ Spanish owners, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez. Their journey was supposed to take only two or three days, but the ship was slowed by storms.

The crewmen became abusive to the African slaves, and on the fourth day the cook told some of the slaves that they were to be killed and eaten once they reached their destination. Led by Sengbe Pieh, later known as “Cinque,” the slaves resolved to take over the ship.

Cinque set the rebellion in motion by unlocking his own shackles using a loose nail and setting the other slaves free. The men discovered sugarcane knives and then killed the captain and cook.

Cinque took command of the ship and ordered Montez to sail it back to Africa. Montez obeyed the slaves by sailing east during the day, but secretly steered northwest at night. The Amistad ended up in Long Island Sound, where it was seized by the U.S. brig Washington on Aug. 26, 1839.

The Amistad Trial

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The Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, Conn., as Ruiz and Montez filed charges of murder and piracy.

Abolitionists took up the cause of the Africans, and the Amistad case became a rallying point for the movement. A group called the “Amistad Committee,” made up of several prominent abolitionists, put together a legal team, sought out Mende interpreters, and provided for the care of the Africans.

After a circuit court in Hartford ruled that it did not have jurisdiction, a Connecticut district court determined in 1840 that the slaves had been illegally sold into slavery.

President Martin Van Buren ordered an appeal of the decision immediately afterward. The abolitionists persuaded former President John Quincy Adams to lead the defense team as the case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 9, 1841, the court announced that it had ruled in favor of the Africans. Justice Joseph Story wrote the majority opinion: “These negroes never were the lawful slaves of Ruiz or Montez, or of any other Spanish subjects. They are natives of Africa, and were kidnapped there, and were unlawfully transported to Cuba, in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain, and the most solemn edicts and declarations of that government. By those laws, and treaties, and edicts, the African slave trade is utterly abolished; the dealing in that trade is deemed a heinous crime; and the negroes thereby introduced into the dominions of Spain, are declared to be free.”

After two years of internment, the Africans were freed. In November 1841, the 35 survivors boarded a ship with five American missionaries, and returned home to Sierra Leone, where the Americans established a mission.

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law provides court documents, newspaper accounts, letters, brief biographies of the defendants, and the full text of the Supreme Court decision.

Opinion & Analysis: The Legacy of the Amistad

Sources in this Story

  • National Archives: Teaching With Documents: The Amistad Case
  • University of Missouri–Kansas City Law School: The Amistad Case
  • U.S. Department of State: AMISTAD America: Amistad Revolt: An Historical Legacy of Sierra Leone and the United States (PDF)
  • Amistad Research Center: The Amistad Case and its Consequences in U.S. History (PDF)

The Amistad case had long-lasting effects both in the United States and Africa, writes Dr. Arthur Abraham, a Sierra Leone historian. It galvanized the abolitionist movement in the U.S. and further polarized the antislavery North and the slave-holding South of the country. It is credited by some as one of the events leading to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

It would also contribute to the development of African-American culture. The freedom of the Africans inspired missionary work that led to the founding of the American Missionary Association in 1846, which became the largest and most-organized abolitionist society in the U.S. before the war. And in Sierra Leone, American missionary activity would eventually become a nationalist movement to achieve independence.

The Amistad case continues to capture widespread public interest as a symbol in the struggle for freedom, but writer Clifton Johnson argues that “too much should not be made of the court’s decision” in the case, as the verdict was not actually an attack on the institution of slavery.

Writing for the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, Johnson argues, “On the one hand, Justice Story declared that the Africans had exercised the ‘ultimate right to all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice.’ In other words, free men have a natural right to resist enslavement. On the other hand, he stated that the blacks, had they been legally recognized as slaves of Spanish citizens, would have been deemed property within the meaning of the treaty of 1795 and restored to the claimants.”

Biography: Cinque

The 1997 film “Amistad” was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Djimon Hounsou as Cinque. It was nominated for four Oscars.

Sengbe Pieh, or “Joseph Cinque,” was the son of a village chief in the West African village of Mani. He was captured by African tribesmen because of an overdue debt, and taken to a slave factory and sold to a Spanish slave trader. He was then resold, sent to Havana, Cuba, and sold to Pedro Ruiz and put on board the Amistad.

He is widely recognized as the leader of the African slaves during the Amistad revolt and afterward during court proceedings. Cinque eventually returned to Africa, only to find found that his village had been destroyed and his entire family sold into slavery.

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