The Amistad captives and their long fight for freedom

By MURPHY BROWNE

On November 27, 1841, 35 Africans aboard a ship, the Gentleman, sailed out of New York bound for Sierra Leone. These Africans were part of a group of 600 who had been kidnapped in West Africa, forced onboard a slave ship Tecora (flying a Portuguese flag) in April 1839 and taken to Cuba.

The story of their struggle for freedom was fictionalized and immortalized in the movie Amistad, which was released in 1997. Several books have also been written about the Africans who were on La Amistad when it was intercepted on August 26, 1839 off of Long Island, New York, by the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard vessel, the USS Washington. These books include Black Mutiny: Revolt on the Schooner Amistad, written by William Owens and published in 1953; Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and its Impact on American Abolition, Law and Diplomacy, written by Howard Jones and published in 1988; and Freedom’s Sons: The True Story of the Amistad Mutiny written by Suzanne Jurmain and published in 1998.

When the Africans were kidnapped in 1839, Britain, the USA, France, Portugal and Spain had on paper at least outlawed the transportation of Africans from the African continent into slavery in the various European occupied colonies. The enslavement of Africans by Europeans was still a practice but the importation of Africans had been abolished.

Britain abolished the trade in 1807, the USA in 1808, the Portuguese in 1810, the Austrians, Danes, French, Russians and Prussians in 1814, the Dutch in 1818 and the Spanish in 1820. When the Portuguese owned slave ship Tecora set sail with the Africans in April, 1839 the owner, captain and crew were breaking an international law and “violated all of the treaties then in existence”.

Although all these European nations had abolished the slave trade, Africans were bought and sold in the various European-occupied colonies. The British had outlawed the transportation of Africans from the continent, yet the Africans who were taken on board the Tecora in April 1839 were kidnapped and taken from Sierra Leone, which was a British protectorate.

Like millions of Africans before them, the occupants of the Portuguese slave ship Tecora were forced into the hold of the ship and shackled in place for the roughly 10 weeks of brutal travel along the Middle Passage. After enduring a horrific journey and landing at Havana in the Spanish colony Cuba, the Africans were fraudulently classified as Cuban-born slaves (renamed with Spanish names) and sold at auction to Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who planned to transport them to their plantations on another part of the island aboard the cargo schooner La Amistad.

Three days into the journey aboard La Amistad the understandably angry and desperate Africans seized control of the ship in an effort to return to Africa. The Africans were led by Sengbe Pieh, a 25-year-old member of the Mendi nation (the Spanish had renamed him Joseph Cinque) who had managed to free himself and his companions. The Africans ordered the two Spanish sailors who survived the revolt to sail La Amistad east towards the rising sun and to Africa.

During the night, the Spaniards secretly changed course, attempting to sail back to Cuba or to the southern coast of the United States and after more than two months at sea, La Amistad eventually reached Long Island Sound in August, 1839. In search of food and water, the Africans went ashore on Montauk Point, Long Island, where they were recaptured on August 26, 1839 by the crew of the federal naval brig, the USS Washington.

On August 29, 1839, three days after the Amistad was towed to New London, Connecticut, Judge Judson presided at a hearing on complaints of murder and piracy filed by the two Spaniards, Montes and Ruiz, who had purchased the Africans in Havana. Thirty-nine of the 43 Africans who had survived the weeks at sea were present, including their acknowledged leader, Sengbe Pieh.

The three main witnesses at the hearing were the first mate of the USS Washington and Montes and Ruiz. After listening to the testimony, Judge Judson referred the case for trial in Circuit Court, where in 1839 all federal criminal trials were held and ordered the Africans put into custody at the county jail in New Haven. The incarcerated Africans were subjected to more indignities when reportedly as many as 5,000 people a day visited the jail where the jailer charged “one New York shilling” (about 12 cents) for close looks at the captives.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government urged the United States government to return La Amistad to its Cuban owners, concede that the U.S. courts had no jurisdiction over Spanish subjects and return the beleaguered Africans to Havana. The almost two year legal struggle for the Africans’ freedom had begun.

On September 14, 1939, the Africans were sent by canal boat and stagecoach to Hartford for trial in the Circuit courtroom of Judge Smith Thompson, who also served as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. District Attorney Holabird asked the court to let President Martin Van Buren decide the fate of the Africans since he (Holabird) viewed this as a matter that could affect the relations between two great powers.

Lawyer for the defense, Roger Baldwin, argued that the United States should not become a “slave-catcher for foreign slave-holders”. After three days of argument, Judge Thompson decided that because the alleged mutiny and murders occurred in international waters and did not involve U.S. citizens, the court had no jurisdiction to consider the criminal charges.

He also decided that whether or not the Africans were slaves and if they were slaves who owned them was a decision for the district court; and he further ruled that although the Africans were no longer considered prisoners they should be detained until the district court could make a decision about their status.

The Amistad civil trial began on November 19, 1839 in Hartford and after two days of testimony, the trial was adjourned until January 7, 1840. Meanwhile, President Van Buren, in anticipation of the court ruling in favour of the Spaniards, sent the naval schooner, Grampus, to wait in the New Haven harbour to take the Africans back to Cuba.

Judge Judson announced his decision on January 13, 1840, after a weekend of deliberation. He ruled that the Africans were “born free” and had been kidnapped in violation of international law. He ordered that they be “delivered to President Van Buren for transport back to Africa”.

The government appealed Judson’s decision, but it was affirmed by Circuit Judge Thompson. The government then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, where five of the nine justices were southerners who either owned or had owned slaves. On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court announced its decision based on the fact that Sengbe Pieh and his companions were “kidnapped Africans, who by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom”.

Although the American government was willing to transport the Africans to slavery in Cuba, they refused to provide transportation back to Africa. Private donors provided the finance for the charter of the Gentleman, which sailed out of New York on November 27, 1841, taking the surviving Africans, including Sengbe Pieh, back to their home.

 

tiakoma@aol.com

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