The Amistad Trials

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Was it murder on the high seas or a rightful quest for freedom? In 1839 an event took place that could be considered one of the sparks that lit the flame to the Civil War. Capture in Africa led to insurrection, then capture again, and concluded with a crucial Supreme Court decision.

It all started when Cinque (Seen-kay) walked down a path in his home country Sierra Leone, Africa. To the native people, this was Mende country. Little did Cinque know, but ahead four men hid in some bushes and when he was in reach, the men jumped on him with a net. Cinque had been captured by slavers. Immediately Cinque thought it had been a terrible mistake, but then he remembered that he still owed debt to someone. Almost everyone in Africa knew that money loaners from the West Indies sold slow paying debtors as slaves to recover the lost money. Cinque wondered what would happen to his wife and children. Had they been captured as well? He had a terrible feeling that he would never see his family again.

The traders took Cinque to Lomboko, a slave trader’s fort that housed thousands of slaves. After a few months, Cinque boarded a Portuguese ship called the Tecora with five hundred other slaves. The men were locked in a section of the boat below deck away from the women and children. After several months at sea, they reached Havana, Cuba. The captain waited until the dead of night so that they wouldn’t be caught by British patrol ships. Great Britain had pressured Spain into not letting any slaves from Africa come into Spain or any Spanish colonies. The captain and crew made fake passports and identification papers so that the slaves looked like they’d been born in Cuba or enslaved before 1817, which was when the treaty was made.

The slaves were marched across the island so that it looked like they were being transported from a plantation or someplace on the island. Once at the slave market two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, bought fifty-three slaves including Cinque. Ruiz had bought forty-nine adult male slaves and Montes had bought four child slaves including three girls. The Spaniards chartered a ship called the La Amistad. (Ironically, Amistad is Spanish for “friendship”) On June 28, 1839 the ship left for the small Cuban town of Puerto Principe.

On the fourth night at sea, Cinque used a nail to get out of the irons he and the other slaves were chained in. After mastering his trick, he let the other men free and they climbed on deck where they found a bunch of machete blades. The captain came up on deck, but the slaves killed him and the deeply hated mulatto cook. (The cook had told the slaves that they were going to be cut up and served to the Spaniards.) The two other crew members escaped in a small boat. Ruiz and Montes were spared to help the Africans get back to Africa. But they deceived the Africans who had no knowledge of sailing or steering boats. The Spaniards sailed to Africa in the day, but very slowly and by night they reversed course and sailed to the east, hoping to land in the Southern United States. After several weeks, they landed in New York.

The Amistad was captured by the ship The Washington and Lieutenant Thomas Gedney boarded with other members of his crew. They ordered, at gunpoint, all the hands below deck to come up. Ruiz and Montes came up and Ruiz told Gedney what had happened. Lt. Gedney had the ship taken to New London, Connecticut.

There a U.S. district attorney ordered a judicial hearing. They didn’t know if a crime had been committed, who did it, or if the U.S. even had jurisdiction. At the hearing the three principal witnesses were Ruiz, Montes, and the first mate of The Washington. Judge Judson gave the case to Circuit Court where, in 1839, all federal criminals were tried. The Africans were held in the New Haven jail. While the Africans waited for the trial, a small but growing group of abolitionists formed the Amistad Committee to help free the Africans. Also, Spain lodged a complaint to President Martin Van Buren stating that the United States had no jurisdiction and that they wanted the Amistad and all its cargo returned to Cuba. The Van Buren Administration wanted to comply, but couldn’t because of the Constitution.

The Amistad Committee hired Roger Sherman Baldwin as an attorney to help the Africans win the trial. Baldwin made a case claiming that the Africans were illegally taken and enslaved. He stated that the slaves had every right to free themselves by any means possible. The court proceeds opened on September 1839. The judge ended up giving the case to federal district court in Connecticut. Meanwhile, Spain demanded custody of the Africans to put them on trial for piracy and murder in Spanish courts. The Africans were described as property and pirates by law. Van Buren threw the Administration behind Spanish claims. The Administration, expecting the courts to accuse the slaves guilty, had a boat called The Grampus wait in the harbor so that they could whisk the Africans to Spain before the Amistad Committee could appeal.

After several court cases which the Africans had won, but Van Buren had told his prosecutor to appeal, they arrived before the Supreme Court. To prepare, the Amistad Committee asked Representative and former president John Quincy Adams to join their team. Adams was reluctant, but joined them. Henry D. Gilpin spoke two hours for the prosecution, stating that the passports had to be accurate since the U.S. didn’t have any authority to question another country’s papers. He referred to the treaties of 1795 and 1819 which agree to return ships in distress complete with cargo to their homeland. Since the papers were in order, Gilpin said that this included the slaves as cargo.

Roger S. Baldwin spoke for the Africans next. He told Cinque’s story since they’d found an interpreter named James Covey and hammered at Gilpin’s arguments. Baldwin insisted that the United States had every right to question papers. He pointed out treaties needed proof of ownership before the property was returned. He had also challenged Ruiz and Montes to come to court and prove that the Africans had been slaves in Cuba, but they hadn’t brought one shred of evidence. Baldwin argued about the federal government’s power, or rather lack of power. He said that the Africans were free when they came to the U.S. and couldn’t be sent back without violating the Constitution. Baldwin reminded justices that only states could enslave someone, not the federal government and the case was no longer in state court.

Then John Quincy Adams spoke for the Africans. He argued that the Adams-Onis Treaty was never meant to apply to cases like this and that these issues hadn’t been discussed when they drafted the treaty. Adams also stated that the treaty was meant for wartime, a fact that the government had completely ignored. He was enraged by Van Buren’s interference and said that it presented a great danger to courts. He discussed incriminating letters and orders like the Grampus sneaking the captives away before the defense could make an appeal and pointed to documents that had clearly been altered before Congress could examine them. Adams was incensed by the way Van Buren had tried to deny the Africans their freedom and legal rights. He asked the court not to let Van Buren take charge with the African’s return to Africa and stated that if the justices gave into the president’s demands they would be responsible for a great injustice. Also, Adams claimed, each president hereafter would expect the court to do his bidding, which would make no one’s rights safe.

On March 9, 1840, Justice Joseph Story declared the captives free and gave the right to send them back to Africa to the Amistad Committee. When the captives heard the news, they were skeptical at first since they’d been freed before; then locked up due to appeals made by the prosecution. Once the Amistad Committee assured the Africans that they would never be locked up again, they celebrated. The abolitionists publicized the outcome of the trial so that more people would oppose slavery. After the celebrations, the abolitionists made arrangements to take the Africans home. When they arrived, Reverend Wilson and his wife started a school in a village near Cinque’s old one that had been destroyed in a tribal war. Cinque never found his family.

I agree with the Supreme Court and lower courts’ decision to let the Africans free. I agree because the Africans had been illegally enslaved and taken from their homeland. Also, they had every right to free themselves as we did from British tyranny. Even though the Amistad Trials did not solve the slavery issue, it made one important point: “All human beings have a right to fight for their freedom.” (Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story)





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