Feb. 22, 1841: Amistad case opens in Supreme Court

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In July 1839, while en route between two Cuban ports, a group of 53 Africans aboard La Amistad, a Spanish slave ship, broke from their chains in revolt. Having killed the ship’s captain and two crewmen, they demanded the remaining crew return them to their homeland, Sierra Leone. During the day, the crew steered east and south, as directed. But at night, they redirected the ship into the North Atlantic, hoping for rescue. After two months at sea with several stops for water and provisions, the Amistad anchored off Montauk Point, and several Africans were encountered wandering on the shore by officers of the Washington, a U.S. surveying brig.

Once assured they had not landed in slaveholding territory, the Africans allowed themselves to be taken into custody, and the Amistad was taken to New London in Connecticut, where the fate of the rebellious Africans became nested in a tangle of U.S. treaty obligations, abolitionist politics and admiralty law. The Africans, known popularly as the Amistads, were claimed as cargo by Cuban slave traders, as salvage by the crew of the Washington and as property by the Spanish government, which demanded their return to Spanish control—a position supported by President Martin Van Buren.

But the slaves themselves, whose charismatic leader was given the name Cinque, argued that they were free men and women, kidnapped by Cuban slavers in Africa and carried to the U.S. against their will. Aided by a group of abolitionists led by lawyer Roger Baldwin, they pressed their case before U.S. District Judge Andrew Judson. After hearing details of their abduction and enslavement, punctuated by the riveting testimony of Cinque, Judge Judson ruled that the Africans were free men and women, and should be returned to their homeland.

President Van Buren appealed to the Supreme Court, which was seen as a favorable jurisdiction because a majority of the justices were from Southern states and had previously owned slaves. Arguments began on Feb. 22, 1841, with the Africans represented by Baldwin and an aging John Quincy Adams. On March 9, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that the Amistads had been kidnapped, and that, even under the laws of Spain, the Africans must be freed. And in November 1841, 35 of the surviving Amistads—with an American mission group—boarded a ship called the Gentleman and returned to Sierra Leone. Upon their arrival, Cinque learned that his wife and children had been killed in his absence.

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