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THE AMISTAD

In late August 1839, the schooner Amistad dropped anchor off the coast of Connecticut. A group of hungry, thirsty men in tattered clothing went ashore to seek food, water, and information. Although they did not speak English, they did communicate through pantomime to inform the spectators they were from Africa and needed some help to sail home. However, communication broke off the next morning when a U.S. Navy brig, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney, sailed into view. Gedney suspected the Amistad was engaged in piracy or smuggling, so he boarded the ship and discovered a group of armed black men and three Cuban prisoners. A Cuban named Ruiz told a story of mutiny and mayhem that riveted the nations attention.

Ruiz related that the Amistad had departed Havana on June 28, but its cargo of slaves, produce, and textiles never reached its destination on Cuba's north coast due to a violent slave rebellion. He told how fifty-three black men on board managed to free themselves from their chains, and using knives found in the hold, killed the captain and took command of the ship. In his story, Ruiz neglected to mention that the slaves were recently brought from Africa, because although slavery was legal at the time, importing slaves had been banned by America in 1808, and by Spain and Britain in 1817.

The slaves who seized command of the Amistad, led by a young man called Cinque, forced the Cubans to sail toward Africa. The Cubans, fearing for their lives, tricked the Africans and attempted to sail toward the southern United States, where they believed the Africans would be recaptured. However, due to weather and problems with navigation, the Amistad landed near Connecticut, bringing with it a host of legal and ethical questions concerning the status of the rebellious slaves.

The Africans were arrested on charges of murder and piracy, and were held in the county jail in New Haven, Connecticut. As public interest grew and thousands of people filed through the jail each day to stare at the Africans, interested parties began to debate their fate. Abolitionists, or those who favored the end of slavery, seized upon the Amistad incident as a way to garner public sympathy for their cause. The Spanish government also entered the debate, arguing that since the Africans were Spanish property, the ship and the Africans should be returned to Cuba to undergo trial there. The Cubans who survived the rebellion filed claims asserting the Africans were their property. Similarly, Lieutenant Gedney maintained that he was due one-third of the value of the Amistad as salvage.

In September, the trial began in a U.S. circuit court in Hartford, presided over by Judge Smith Thompson, also an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Thompson quickly disposed of the issue, ruling that the United States did not have jurisdiction over the murder and piracy charges because the offenses occurred in a Spanish ship sailing in Spanish waters. After that ruling, following the accepted procedure of the time, the property issues would be decided in a district court, under Judge Andrew Judson.

The key to resolving the question of whether the Amistad Africans were anyone's property was to examine whether they were recently imported from Africa, which would mean they were illegally traded. In order to argue for that position, the abolitionists finally found a translator who could help the Africans communicate. The story the Africans told was a horrific tale of the transatlantic slave trade. Although President Van Buren pressured the judge to rule in Spain's favor, Judson ruled that the Amistad Africans were "born free and ever since have been and still of right are free and not slaves." The United States attorney filed an immediate appeal, and the case of the Amistad was destined for the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court began to hear the case in February 1841, with former president John Quincy Adams vigorously defending the Africans. He criticized the Van Buren administration for acting as Spain's agent, and argued that to return the Africans to Cuba would serve to satisfy the vengeance of blood-thirsty slave traders. When the Court returned its verdict, with one dissent, they ruled that the Africans had been kidnapped, illegally transported, and had mutinied in self-defense. They were free men, and all chose to return to Africa.

Although this decision freed the Amistad Africans, it did not set any precedent that would be relevant to the millions of American slaves. In fact, the Dred Scott ruling would follow sixteen years later and establish that American slaves were indeed property. The Amistad ruling did, however, attract national attention to the pain and misery of slavery, while lending respectability to the cause of abolitionism.

 

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TITLE: Law and Legal Services at CitiMall.com Online Shopping Mall

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