T HE NEWS STORIES THAT BEGAN IN LATE AUGUST 1839 bore a whiff of both mystery and menace. A “long, low, black schooner” was sailing an erratic course up the East Coast of the United States, manned by what appeared to be an all-black crew, destination unknown. The ship looked ravaged—the sails were tattered, barnacles cluttered the sides—but the crew seemed skittish about accepting help of any kind. The men, who spoke no English, also brandished cutlasses when other vessels offered to take them in tow. The name on their battered bow was Amistad.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

That vessel is about to become a household name, with the opening this month, December 1997, of Amistad, director Steven Spielberg’s epic film saga of this dramatic moment in American history. “While making this film,” Spielberg says, “I never felt that I was telling someone else’s story. I felt very much that I was telling everyone’s story—a story that all people of all nationalities and races should know.”

T he ship dropped anchor off Culloden Point near the eastern end of Long Island on August 25, 1839, to let a boatload of men go ashore in search of food and water. Encountering two ship captains, they managed to ask, with the help of some creative pantomime, what country they were in and whether the people there had slaves. They made it known that they were from Africa and needed someone to help them sail home.

Negotiations broke off until the next morning, when a U.S. Navy survey brig, the Washington, hove into view. The brig’s commander, Lt. Thomas Gedney, suspecting piracy or smuggling, sent a party aboard the Amistad who disarmed the blacks and also seized the men ashore. The sailors discovered three others on the ship—two Cuban planters, Pedro Montes and José Ruiz, and a teenage cabin boy. From them, particularly Ruiz, who spoke English, came the first details of what would become a drama that mesmerized the country.

The Amistad, Ruiz said, had departed Havana on June 28, bound for.Cuba’s north coast. The 53 blacks on board were slaves, 49 men belonging to Ruiz and four children owned by Montes. The Cubans had purchased them at the Havana slave market and were taking them back to their homes, along with a cargo including fruit, wine, saddles, cotton and silk.

On the fourth night out the slaves somehow freed themselves from their irons and attacked with cane knives they found in the hold, killing the captain and the mulatto cook and injuring Montes. Two seamen escaped in a boat . Led by a strong-looking man in his 20s whom the Spanish called Cinque, the slaves took command of the ship and ordered the wounded Montes, a former mariner, to steer for Africa. Montes tricked them by sailing east toward Africa in daylight but heading north at night.

What Ruiz did not say was that the recently imported Africans had been brought to Cuba, a Spanish colony, in direct violation of a Spanish law against the slave trade. In Cuba, as in the United States, slavery was legal but importing slaves was not. With nighttime landings and falsified documents approved by corrupt officials, Spanish slavers eluded the British ships that tried to enforce the ban. (Spain and Britain had signed a treaty banning the slave trade in 1817. America had done so in 1808.)

By the time the Ainistad ended its zigzag voyage, off Long Island, only 43 of the original 53 blacks remained alive; the others had either starved, perished in the mutiny or died because thirst drove them to drink medicine found in the cargo hold. Cinque was the unquestioned leader. When sailors boarded the ship, he had leapt overboard and tried to escape. After he was recaptured he tried to rally the others with an impassioned speech . “He is said to be a match for any two men,” an early news account said, “evincing uncommon decision and coolness, with a most composure characteristic of true courage.

Lieutenant Gedney took the ship and the 43 Africans into custody. He brought them to New London, Connecticut, where, at a preliminary hearing, federal judge Andrew Judson ordered the men held on charges of murder and piracy and the children detained as witnesses. The Africans, unable to speak or understand their accusers’ language, sat mute and uncomprehending.

The judge ordered the prisoners confined at the county jail in New Haven, where they occupied several rooms above a tavern across the street from the green. Cinque, regarded as more dangerous than the others, was placed in irons in a separate cell. As jails go, the New Haven lockup was relatively relaxed; the jailer took the children on a wagon ride and allowed the men a daily outing on the green, where their somersaults and acrobatic leaps startled staid New Englanders. Several of the Africans still suffèred from dis-ease, and three died in September from what was probably dysentery.

To most of the people who flocked to the jail to gawk at them (for a fee of 12 1/5 cents) the Aniistad captives were a bit of exotica suddenly dropped in their midst, but one group instantly saw them as a cause. Abolitionists were a weak and fragmented band of true believers in the America of 1839, a persecuted minority on the political fringe. But in these Africans, abolitionist leaders saw a way to humanize the issue of slavery and broaden the campaign against it. Lewis Tappan, a young merchant and abolitionist leader from New York, wrote a friend that the Amistad capture was a “providential occurrence.” He had long thought “that the heart of the nation would not be effectually touched except through the power of sympathy.”

Within just a few days of the Africans capture, the “Amistad Committee” was organized, letters seeking donations were in the mail, and several very prominent lawyers, led by Roger Baldwin, a future governor of Connecticut, had signed on to defend them. Joshua Leavitt, editor of the anti-slavery newspaper called Einancipator , visited them and reported that they were treated well and that all appeared to be “of quiet minds and a mild and cheerful temper.” Other supporters launched a search for someone who spoke their language (most of the Africans came from what is now Sierra Leone and spoke Mende).

The Spanish government, in the meantime, weighed in on the other side. On September 6 the Spanish minister to the United States wrote Secretary of State John Forsyth requesting the immediate return of the ship and prisoners to Cuba, where the Africans could be tried for murder and, if convicted, would be hanged or maybe burned. The minister pointed out that the Amistad mutiny took place on a Cuban vessel traveling between Cuban ports and was thus beyond the jurisdiction of American courts. He cited a 1795 treaty between the United States and Spain in which both countries agreed to return property that by “urgent necessity” turned up on the other’s shore. Forsyth waited ten days before replying, and then said only that he was awaiting a decision from President Martin Van Buren.

With a trial scheduled to begin in mid-September in Hartford, the real combatants in the case were now coming into focus. On one side was the Spanish government, acting through the administration in Washington; on the other was the slowly growing movement for the abolition of slavery in America.

Van Buren, a Democrat from New York, was primarily concerned with his own prospects for reelection in 1840, which required the support of many pro-slavery Southerners. Confronting what he saw as a no-win situation, Van Buren wanted the case to go away, an opinion shared by United States Attorney William Holabird of Connecticut . “I suppose it will be my duty to bring them to trial,” he wrote ruefully to Forsyth, “unless they are in some other way disposed of.” The very easiest way to “dispose of” them was to return them to Cuba.

The public was becoming captivated by the men from Africa . By one estimate as many as 5,000 people a day were filing through the jail to stare at them. Lewis Tappan was visiting when Cinque, “his bearing like another Othello,” was now permitted to meet with the others. “They shouted for joy on seeing him,” Tappan reported, but Cinque did  not seem to share in the jubilation. During a conversation with Tappan and an African he brought along to interpret, the black leader drew his hand across his throat and    asked whether the Americans would kill him and the other prisoners. The possibility was on their minds . Some were frightened when they watched a martial ceremony from their cell windows, fearing that

they were about to be executed.



 A play titled The Black Schooner, or the Pirate Slaver Aniistad was presented as early as September 2, only a week after their capture. The quickie drama netted $1,650 in its opening week at the Bowery Theater in New York. The owner of a wax museum made life masks of the Africans. A color portrait of a handsome Cinque, carrying a staff and standing in a landscape the New England artist imagined to be African, was reproduced in engravings and sold on the streets. Another artist painted a s35-foot-long panoramic mural, now lost, titled The Massacre on board the schooner Amistad, depicting 26 of the principal characters” engaged in murder and mayhem. But if many were sympathetic to the Africans, there were plenty of others among the American press and public with only contempt for them. Cinque, one journalist declared, was as miserably ignorant and brutalized a creature as the rest,” while another writer expressed the common view that the only proper relation of blacks and whites was as slaves and masters.

The court system of 1839 called for the defendants to appear first before a United States Supreme Court justice sitting as a circuit court judge, who would rule on the charges of murder and piracy. The district court would deal separately with salvage and property claims, including the question of whether the Africans were property. As the trial approached, excitement ran so high that crowds lined the canal to get a look at the boat carrying the captives to Hartford.

Baldwin and two other sympathetic lawyers, Seth Staples and Theodore Sedgwick, Jr., represented the Africans—enough legal firepower, one reporter observed, to delay anything till the end of the earth.” Their first move was to ask Judge Smith Thompson for a writ of habeas corpus freeing the children, who were not accused of any crime. This was a test of whether the circuit court was willing to treat them as persons and not property. The three girls were so frightened that they burst into tears on entering the courthouse.

Prosecutor Holabird asked the judge to turn au the prisoners over to the administration and let the President decide whether to send them to Cuba or Africa. Baldwin wanted to know how the United States government came to speak for Spain. He then raised the larger questions of color and slavery. It was only because of their color, he said, that anyone presumed they were slaves. They had in fact come here for asylum, and “I say there is no power on earth that has a right again to reduce them to Slavery.” The United States was not a “slave-catcher for foreign slave- holders.”

But Judge Thompson was having none of the abolition debate. To him the question was not freedom but jurisdiction. After three days of arguments he ruled that United States courts had no jurisdiction in the murder and piracy charges because the alleged crimes had occurred on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters. This meant that the Africans were no longer charged with a crime. But were they just “property”? This, the judge said, the district court would decide. Since the property issue still remained unresolved, he denied the habeas corpus request. Judge Judson of the district court now took over; the next step, scheduled for November, was the trial on the property issue.

The abolitionists still needed a good Mende speaker. In early October, Prof Josiah Gibbs of Yale University, an expert on Hebrew and other languages, made a break-through. Gibbs first learned to count in Mende by putting pennies in different quantities before the prisoners, discovering that eta meant one, feb two and so forth. He then went to the New York waterfront, stopped every black seaman he saw and counted to ten in Mende. He finally found James Covey, an ex-slave and seaman on a British warship who spoke Mende. Gibbs took him to New Haven where they met the captives at breakfast. When they heard him speak their own language, an observer said, “breakfast was forgotten and all seemed overwhelmed with joy, all talking as fast as possible.”

Now, at last, they could tell their stories. They said that they had been taken from their home villages in West Africa for different reasons—some kidnapped, some captured in wars or sold to pay debts, in some cases by other Africans. They were marched in chains to the slave port of Lomboko and crammed on a Portuguese slaver where they were fed sparingly and forced to sleep chained together in a hideous four-foot-high hold. Landing at night in Havana, they were taken to the “barracoon,” or slave market, where Ruiz and Montes bought them. On the Arnistad the mulatto cook told Cinque, apparently as a cruel joke, that their owners planned to eat them. This, one African said, “made our hearts burn.” Cinque found a nail on deck and used it to break the chain that fastened all of them to the wall. They then freed themselves, found the cane knives, and struck for their freedom.

The man who would become their most important defender was at this point still just an interested spectator. “That which now absorbs a great part of my time and all my good feelings,” former President John Quincy Adams wrote in his journal that October, “is the case of. . . African negroes taken at sea .” The brilliant and fiercely independent Adams, a leading foe of slavery who was detested in the South yet was skeptical of the abolitionists as fanatics, was at the time a 72-year-old congressman in the twilight of a magnificent career in which he had been a senator, diplomat and Secretary of State as well as President. “Old Man Eloquent,” as he was called, researched the law on the Arnistad case but confessed that he still had more questions than opinions, though his sympathy was engaged. In a letter published almost two months later, he wrote that the Africans had been cast upon our coast in a condition perhaps as calamitous as could befall human beings.” After chronicling what had happened to them since, he asked, “Is this compassion? Is it sympathy? Is it justice?”

In November, Judge Judson postponed the district court trial to January. In the meantime, a new and critical witness for the Africans appeared. Dr. Richard Madden, an abolitionist who had served as the British anti-slavery commissioner in Cuba, had volunteered to tell the American court how Cuban slavery worked. Testifying in the judge’s chambers, the Irish-born Madden explained that the Cubans circumvented the ban on the slave trade by fraudulent documents for which ofhcials collected $10.00 per slave. Cubans classified slaves in two categories: ladiflos, who had been in the country long enough to learn Spanish, and hozalcs, who were newly arrived from Africa. The Arnistad blacks had been deliberately misclassified as ladinos to deceive British inspectors who might check their papers. Madden told the judge that 25,000 Africans had illegally entered Cuba in the past three years. An impassioned advocate who had described Cuban slavery as the most terrible form of that evil in the world, Madden had one more point to make: the return of the Amistad blacks to Cuba would mean certain death.

The throng that squeezed into every seat in Judson’s New Haven courtroom on January 7, 1840, showed that the public’s fascination with the Amistad drama remained intense. The Africans arrived in coats arid mufflers provided by their defense committee. Students from Yale’s law school and theological seminary sat in the audience. It was evident that the government’s task—proving the defendants were property—would be difficult. Witnesses testified that Ruiz—now back in Cuba—had admitted that the captives were newly arrived from Africa, thus in effect acknowledging that they were not legal slaves.

The man the crowd was waiting for appeared on the second day. Cinque gave his evidence with Covey interpreting, while the spectators listened with what one described as “breathless attention.” He told of his capture in Africa and the voyage in the slave ship, demonstrating by sitting on the floor the painfully awkward position the Africans had to maintain, trussed in manacles, their hands and feet bound together . The audience’s reaction was instantaneous silence and quite solemnity,” a newspaper said . Cinque went on to describe their arrival in Havana, the slave market and the way Ruiz felt their bodies before buying them.

As he testified, the U.S. Navy schooner Grampus sailed for New Haven Harbor, secretly dispatched by the White House with instructions to load the Africans aboard and depart for Cuba immediately following the anticipated verdict against them. The commander’s orders were to retrieve the defendants as soon as the court ruled, without waiting for an appeal by the defense, a clear violation of judicial process and their rights. Van Buren’s anxiety about his reelection—he eventually lost to William Henry Harrison—was apparently growing desperate. Reports surfaced later that the abolitionists also had a ship waiting in the harbor to rescue the Africans if the decision went against them.

But by the time Roger Baldwin made his closing argument it seemed clear that the abolitionists had prevailed and that neither side needed an escape ship. Judge Judson had signaled his attitude early by declaring that “it was idle to deny” the captives were from Africa—and thus legally free . In his decision following a week-long trial, he said that they were “born free and ever since have been and still of right are free and not slaves.” They had been seized in violation of “their own rights and of the laws of Spain.”

The overflow crowd outside the courthouse got the news as the contestants emerged . The judge ordered them to be delivered to President Van Buren for transport hack to Africa. The judge even managed a sort of benediction: Cinque and Grapcau [another prisoner who testified] shall not sigh for Africa in vain,” he proclaimed. United States Attorney Holabird flied an immediate appeal as the Grampus quietly left the harbor.

With the case now headed for the Supreme Court and not due to be argued there until early 1841, the deliberations entered a new arena. In Congress, John Quincy Adams pressed successfully for a resolution compelling the government to publish its correspondence with Spain on the Amistad affair, including the order to the Grampus. When abolitionists approachcd Adams to argue the case in the high court they tried to enlist Daniel Webster first—he reluctantly consented after fIrst pleading “age and inefficiency” For this cause, “for the progress of human emancipation,” he was still ready for a fight. “My conscience presses me on,” he wrote.

Adams and Baldwin visited the Africans in November at a house their friends had found for them in Westville, near New Haven . Still in custody, the men slept in a row of bunk beds in a single 30-foot-long room. They were studying English and Christianity under the tutelage of Yale students, but the acerbic Adams found their Bible-reading demonstration “very indifferent.” The youngest of the male Africans, an 11-year-old boy named Kale, had nevertheless learned to read and write well enough to compose a remarkable letter to Adams . “Dear Friend Mr. Adams,” he began, “I want to write a letter to you because you love Mende people and you talk to the grand court. . . . We want to ask the court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison? .....Mcnde people have got souls . We think we know God punish us if we tell lie. We speak truth. All we want is make us free.”

In December Adams began preparing his Supreme Court argument, which he viewed as an attack on “the abominable conspiracy of this government against the lives of those wretched men.” His main anxiety, he wrote in his journal, was that he would losc his self-possession in “overheated zeal.” Arguments began in the Court’s crowded chamber in the Capitol on February 22, 1841, led off by Attorney General Henry Gilpin, followed by Baldwin.

Adams’ turn came on the 24th. “I had been deeply distressed and agitated till the moment when I rose,” he wrote, and then my spirit did not sink within me.” Ralph Waldo Finerson once praised “the wonders [Adams] could achieve with that cracked and disobedient organ”—his voice—and Adams employed it now to deliver an address full of fire and controlled indignation orchestrated in a very symphonic cadences . He focused on the administration’s self-appointed role as Spain’s agent. We had offered not justice to “these poor, unfortunate, helpless, tongueless and defenseless Africans” but sympathy to their oppressors, “sympathy with the white, antipathy to the black.” The Spanish, he continued, demanded that the President “first turn man-robber . . . next turn jailer . . . and lastly turn catchpoll and convey [the captives] to Havana to appease public vengeance—the vengeance.., of African slave-traders despoiled of their prey and thirsting for blood.” It was wrong of Gedney to seize them, wrong of the court to jail them, and unconscionable to return them to Cuba with government connivance.

When Adams returned the next day, he learned that the case was recessed for a week. When he resumed on March 1 he zeroed in on Van Buren’s order to the Gram pus. “Was ever such a scene of Lilliputian trickery enacted by the rulers of a great, magnanimous, and Christian nation?” he demanded scornfully. He then closed with a valedictory, mentioning that he had first argued in the Supreme Court in 1804 and stood there now “I trust for the last time. He invoked the names of the great judges—now “Gone! Gone! Al l gone!”—before whom he had appeared.

Eight days later the Court delivered its verdict. With one dissent the justices found for the Amistad prisoners. Justice Joseph Story (played in the film by retired Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, delivering a cameo appearance) read the decision. The court declared that the blacks had never been lawful slaves and that they were kid-napped and illegally transported to Cuba. Their mutiny was an act of self-defense. The Court reversed Judge Judson in only one particular: the “Amistads” were not remanded to the President to be

returned to Africa, they were on their own—free men.

The decision, made on narrow legal grounds, set no important precedent and did nothing to change the status of slaves in America; the notorious Dred Scott ruling, which affirmed that slaves were property, came a whole 16 years later. The real importance of the Amistad case was rather its effect in lifting the consciousness of the American people and the enhanced respectability it gave to the abolitionist cause. As Lewis Tappan had predicted it would, the case had touched American hearts. The Africans took the news of their victory with what one onlooker had described as a “christian-like and dignified gladness.” In command of their own destiny for the first time in two years, all chose to return to Africa.

Their abolitionist patrons increased their religious instruction to six hours a day with the idea that they would become missionaries. The specially built barn they moved into in Farmington, Connecticut, even had a class-room for the purpose. Adams and Tappan tried to get President John Tyler to furnish a ship for their voyage home, but Tyler ignored them. They decided to raise money for a chartered ship through a fund-raising tour. By November they had enough for passage on the bark Gentleman.

Thirty-five of the original 53 were going home (another four had succumbed to disease; one had drowned in Farmington under circumstances some believed suggested suicide). With them were four Americans assigned to establish a mission in Mende-land. More than a hundred people rose before dawn to bid them a tearful farewell in Farmington. A few nights later there was a final meeting in New York. Cinque made his last appearance before an American audience. The Africans presented a Bible to John Quincy Adams in absentia. On November 27, 1841, they sailed out of New York for Sierra Leone.

Of the Amistad Africans only one ever returned to America, a young girl who came back to attend college at Oberlin, in Ohio. The others dispersed, some working at the mission set up by what came to be called the American Missionary Association and others returning to their home villages. Cinque spent some time at the mission and may have supported himself as a merchant. Most of his family, he discovered, had disappeared, perhaps killed in tribal warfare or taken themselves as slaves. On the day he left America, Cinque had promised well-wishers that he would take care of the missionaries in Africa . “Mende people do well,” he said, “but not all. Some bad people, same as here.”

                                                   Frequent contributor Donald Dale Jackson

                                                   delved into a number of dusty archives during

                                                   his writing of this article.



December 1997. Vol. 28. Number 9. (Pgs. 114-124)

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