“I shall be heard!” – The Case of the La Amistad

Frontispiece from John Warner Barber (1840). A History of the Amistad Captives.

Frontispiece from John Warner Barber (1840). A History of the Amistad Captives.

On July 2, 1839, Sengbe Pieh (later known as Joseph Cinqué) led 53 fellow Africans being transported as captives aboard the Spanish schooner La Amistad‘ from Havana in a revolt against their captors. The captives had been taken in Africa by a Portuguese slaving ship and then smuggled into Havana under cover of nightfall, because this was a violation of an already existing treaty between Britain and Spain, which forbade trading in slaves. Off the northern cost of Cuba, in the main hold below decks, the captives found a rusty file, which they used to set themselves free. They quickly ascended the stairs to deck and armed with machete-like cane knives they quickly over-powered the crew and killed the ship’s captain, the cook and possibly several other members of the crew. After successfully gaining control of the ship the captives demanded to be returned home.

But, the ship’s navigator deceived them about which direction their course was on and sailed the ship north along the North American coast to the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. On August 25 the now starving crew and mutineers anchored the ship off Long Island in search of provisions. The United States Revenue Cutter Service discovered the schooner and after a brief struggle took the ship and its occupants into custody. They took the Africans to New Haven, Connecticut to be tried in court in a case that should become internationally well known. 

The owners of the La Amistad argued that the captives had been slaves when purchased in Cuba so should be tried for piracy and murder, with the Spanish and Cuban Authorities demanding that the Americans return the ship and its human ‘cargo’. Anti Slavery campaigners rallied to the mutineers’ defence trying to prove that they had been unlawfully enslaved, because transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas was already outlawed by international treaty and therefore illegal at that time. Thus, it was seen as a test case for the principle of natural rights applying to black people.

The court case had become a case célèbre among abolutionists in the US. The slaves were charged with mutiny and murder. It was referred to the US district court and in January 1840 the court ruled that the mutineers had been illegally kidnapped and sold and had legally rebelled to win their freedom and ordered the return of the captives to Africa. The US Government had not expected this verdict and in May 1840 the judgement was upheld and the case was sent to the Supreme Court. Most agree that the Supreme Court was far from balanced with most of the court, including the judge being slave owners, although the defence did have former US president John Quincy Adams argue the case before the court. To the surprise of the Government once again ruled in that the Africans had been illegally transported and held as slaves, and ordered them freed in March 1841. By November 1841 the surviving 35 Africans left the US for Sierra Leone under British Protection.

Also in popular culture the case of the La Amistad has become famous with the 1997 film directed by Steven Spielberg, who dramatized the historical incidents.[5]

At yovisto academic video search you might learn more about the history of slavery from Prof. Stuart Anderson (Gresham College), who gives a lecture about ‘Slaves, Ships, and Sickness‘.

References and Further Reading:



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