The Amistad Affair (Article 77)

“…where human life and human liberty are in issue, and constitute the very essence of the controversy, it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression and to apply force against ruinous injustice.” – U.S. Supreme Court, 1841

In early 1839, professional slave-hunters (really kidnappers), some African and some White, brought their recent “haul” of native Africans to the shores of Western Africa, to a port in Sierra Leone. There they were divided into groups, with only a few members of each tribe in a group to minimize communication. Several hundred men, women, and children were herded on board the Portuguese ship Tecora, for a three-week voyage to Cuba, then a province of Spain. (This will be important later). The conditions within the hold of the ship were horrible, with the prisoners chained to only allow minimal movement and left to wallow in filth. As a result of the deplorable conditions, during the voyage, several of the Africans died before reaching Cuba. After they arrived in Cuba the survivors were sold at a large centralized slave auction, where it was common for 500-600 slaves per day to be offered to plantation owners; and to so-called wholesalers, who would then again sell them at local auctions in the Caribbean Islands and in South and North America.

To this point, the story of these particular Africans, however inhumane, was in no way unusual. In fact, nearly fifteen million people were kidnapped in Africa, chained in the hold of ships for a horrific voyage across the Atlantic, and then sold (and re-sold) as slaves throughout the Americas, but about 500,000 went to the British colonies in North America. However, the next chapters in the lives of some of the people, who were transported on the Tecora, would become very much different.

On June 27, 1839, fifty-three of the Africans were led to another smaller ship, La Amistad, a Spanish schooner; where they were placed in shackles in the hold of that ship to begin what was expected to be a three-day voyage to a plantation farther along the Cuban coastline.

The three “officers” of the La Amistad, Captain Ramón Ferrer, and First Mates José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, were Spanish citizens. (This becomes important later).  Ferrer also had a personal slave, Antonio, who was not part of the African group, but had been in his “possession” for several years. Ruiz was personally responsible for delivering forty-nine of the slaves, but Montez, for some reason, was given responsibility for four of the slaves by the Spanish Governor of Cuba. Since the trip usually required three days, the ship carried sufficient rations and fresh water only for the crew; with the expectation that the slaves, who had been fed before being placed in the hold of the La Amistad, could survive without further nourishment for three days. On this voyage, however, unusually strong headwinds required the crew to sail the ship on a longer and more erratic route and Ferrer, as captain, determined that there would not be enough food and water for the crew if they shared with all of the slaves during an extra three or four days before they reached their new port.

But he had a solution! A terrible solution. He assumed that the stronger slaves would survive and he would accept that a few of the weaker ones would not. So, he allowed some food and water to be given to those slaves he deemed worthy, and denied it to others who were already weakened. Some of them died while being chained in the hold of the ship.

Deaths of a few slaves was not unexpected on those voyages and the trade was so lucrative that the monetary “losses” could be covered. To Ferrer, as Captain, it was a business decision, not a moral dilemma. But, in a way, he would soon pay for his total disregard for the lives of those he was willing to let die of thirst and/or starvation.

Unknown to the crew, one of the slaves, a young chieftain of the Membe Tribe, who came to be called Cinque, had found an old file and, for several days, had been sawing on the irons that bound him. Sometime before dawn on July 2, the irons broke and Cinque began to release the main bindings on other slaves. Several of the men were from tribes which spoke a similar language and they began to plan an escape. The first crew member who came down into the hold was the ship’s cook and the Africans quickly killed him and raced to the deck. There they pounced on Ferrer and the rest of the crew. However, the crew was armed, while the Africans were not, and two of the slaves were killed. But, in the melee, Ferrer and another crewman were also killed. At least one, perhaps two, crewmen jumped ship and their fate is unknown.

La Amistad, was then under complete control of the Africans.

However, the slaves had never sailed, had no understanding of using winds to maintain a course, and were not even sure which direction would take them back to Africa. Their intent was, after all, to sail home!

Cinque quickly emerged as the leader of the freed Africans and he directed that the lives be spared of the two men who he believed could steer the ship, Ruiz and Montez. He also spared Ferrer’s slave, Antonio, who had some understanding of the Africans’ languages, and who would serve as an interpreter.

José Ruiz and Pedro Montez promised, under the threat of death, to sail the Amistad back to Africa. However, that first night, and every night thereafter, Ruiz and Montez steered a northern course in the darkness, that would not take the Africans back home. Instead, after a stop at an isolated area along the Cuban coastline to forage for edible plants and fresh water, they sailed La Amistad toward the eastern coastline of the United states.  Out on the open ocean, with no navigation skills and only the sun during daylight as a general directional guide, the Africans thought they were headed home. However, Ruiz and Montez continued their northward heading every night and during overcast days, which would eventually take the Amistad far from Africa.

To Connecticut!

As the ship moved along the coast of the United States, they made several stops in remote bays where a few slaves would search on land for more food and fresh water; usually accompanied by Antonio. It is unclear how much Antonio knew of the deceptive plan.  

There have been some questions about the decisions of Ruiz and Montez. For example, why the two sailors did not just cruise around Cuba until they found a “friendly” port or neared the Cuban shore and simply jump ship? The most likely reason was that the Africans guarded them so carefully that Ruiz and Montez probably believed they would have been quickly killed before reaching safety.

They probably also reasoned that the long voyage would buy them time to try to build trust with the Africans. And, they were successful. An uneasy truce developed between the two Spaniards, Antonio, and the former slaves, especially Cinque, which allowed some cooperation to sail the ship and forage for food.

But why did Ruiz and Montez head for Connecticut? Two reasons: (1) that state strictly enforced Fugitive Slave Laws, and (2) The New England seafaring states also strictly enforced International Admiralty Laws which would govern the disposition of the La Amistad and its cargo.

Ruiz and Montez hoped, when they neared the Connecticut coast, to convince the Africans that they had found a neutral port where slavery was not legal (true enough) and they would be safe (not true at all). The two Spaniards expected that, if they could turn the ship over to Connecticut authorities,there was a good chance the Africans would be held as fugitive slaves and they (Ruiz and Montez) would be personally rewarded for returning the ship to its rightful owners.

After almost two months, the La Amistad finally anchored off the New England coast on August 26, 1839. Antonio and several of the Africans rowed to shore where they again scavenged for supplies and fresh water. The small group returned to the ship with new provisions, just as La Amistad was discovered and boarded by a small ship, the USS Washington, which was assigned by the Federal government to guard the coastline. The Commander of the Washington, Thomas Gedney, placed some of his crew on the Amistad, took charge of all on board, and directed the ship and its passengers to a port at New London, Connecticut.

Ruiz and Montez thought their plan had worked, but they underestimated Gedney, who had a different idea.

In an extraordinary and selfish move, Gedney filed a salvage claim against the ship and the cargo of Africans under International Admiralty Law (the slaves, after all were only property to him). Gedney chose to dock in Connecticut because he believed, as did Ruiz and Montez, that the slaves would be treated as fugitives, unlike New York State where escaped slaves were routinely protected. He expected to make a small fortune when he repatriated the Amistad to its owners and returned the slaves to their documented slave-holders back in Cuba. Gedney transferred the captured Africans into the custody of the U.S. Court in Connecticut, and waited for his reward. He could not have cared less about the fate of Ruiz and Montez.

But there were other parties with claims to La Amistad and its human cargo. And they began to show up in Connecticut as well.

Britain filed a petition that the Africans must be freed because they had been illegally kidnapped in their home country in violation of several treaties which banned the International Slave Trade. To Britain, the Africans were, therefore, not fugitives but illegally kidnapped people.

Spain filed a brief that the matter should be tried in a Spanish court, in Cuba, which had been permitted a strange exemption from the International Slave Trade treaties which Spain had signed. The American President, Martin Van Buren, afraid of the reaction by Southern voters, had the U.S. Attorney General file a brief in support of the Spanish position. Spain also wanted Antonio returned to Cuba as a slave to be auctioned off; with the proceeds reverting to the state, since Captain Ferrer had no relatives.

Also, Ruiz and Montez filed a claim that they should receive a portion of the salvage rights to the “cargo” of Africans because the slaves had “escaped” but were re-captured, and delivered to Connecticut, only by their cunning.

The underlying issue was whether the Africans were really kidnapped from their homes, (as the British claimed); or, if they were really fugitives from Cuba, where slavery was legal, based on their short stay on the island (as Spain and the American President claimed).

Then, the case turned again, when the Cuban representatives accused the Africans of murder and demanded that they be returned to Cuba for trial on those charges. Ruiz and Montez applauded the Cuban and Spanish interpretations; but they did not get to celebrate for long.

A group of abolitionists obtained an arrest warrant against Ruiz and Montez for kidnapping, murder (for the slaves who died of thirst and/or starvation), and violations of international anti-slavery laws; and the two sailors were then detained by Connecticut authorities.  The abolitionists further demanded that the Africans be freed and that the U.S. government pay for their return to their homes.

In January 1840, all of the petitions were combined under one U.S. District Court judge, and he finally ruled that:

  1. The Africans were free men, illegally kidnapped.
  2. Ruiz and Montez should be held for trial for kidnapping and murder. They were immediately arrested and taken, howling, from the courtroom.
  3. The claims of the naval officer, Gedney, for salvage rights to the Amistad, but not the human cargo, were valid. The Spanish owners could recover the ship by payment to Gedney. Then, in an extraordinary gesture, the judge awarded one-third of the salvage proceeds be paid, by Gedney, to the Africans.
  4. The Spanish and Cuban claims to the Africans (and the ship) were declared invalid, except as to Antonio, who could be claimed under existing Fugitive Slave Laws. (But, Antonio had long since disappeared.)
  5. The Africans were free to leave the court room; however, the court decided that it had no authority to force the U.S. government to pay for their transportation back to Africa.

Then, as we find so often today, all parties, which did not get what they wanted, decided to appeal the decision.

In the meantime, the abolitionist group found housing in Connecticut for the now freed Africans and began to raise money to cover their transportation costs. But the court required the Africans to remain in the United States through the appeal process.

Ruiz and Montez posted bail and returned to Cuba. There is no evidence that there was ever any attempt to extradite them back to the U.S. for trial. It is presumed they returned to their former “profession” as transporters of kidnapped Africans into slavery in areas of the Caribbean and South America where slavery remained legal for another forty years.

The U.S. Attorney General, upon orders of President Van Buren, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the hearing was set for February 23, 1841. This was one year after the first trial ended; and almost two years after the Africans were kidnapped from their homes.

The U.S. Attorney General’s office opened the hearing pleading the case that this was a Spanish issue and that the Supreme Court should overturn the lower courts order and give custody of the slaves and La Amistad to the Spanish government. Any trials should then be conducted under Spanish law. The United States should no longer be involved.

But the U.S. Attorney General (and President Van Buren) would be up against a brilliant lawyer. John Quincy Adams, former President of the United States, had agreed to represent the Africans, as part of a strong defense team of dedicated abolitionists. Prior to the hearing, Adams told others that he believed President Van Buren had made a cowardly and purely political move in backing the Spanish claim; and then he said no less to the Supreme Court Justices.

Adams told the court that they must first keep in mind that they represented the Judicial Branch and had no allegiance to the President and the Executive Branch; adding that the forefathers intended that separation to be absolute. He went on to directly criticize the President for misusing his Constitutional authority by bowing to Spanish interests. His other comments are eloquent.

“This review of all the proceedings of the Executive (the U.S. President) I have made with utmost pain, because it was necessary to bring it fully before your Honors, to show that the course of that department had been dictated, throughout, not by justice but by a sympathy for the most partial and unjust. And this sympathy prevailed to such a degree, among all the persons concerned in this business, as to have perverted their minds with regard to all the most sacred principles of law and right, on which the liberties of the United States are founded; and a course was pursued (by the President), from the beginning to the end, which was not only an outrage upon the persons whose lives and liberties were at stake, but hostile to the power and independence of the judiciary itself”.

On March 9, 1841, Associate Justice Joseph Story read the Court’s 7-1 decision (one Justice had not participated). He declared that:

1. The Africans were free men, they were never legal property. They were not fugitive criminals, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office argued, but rather “unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board a certain vessel”

2. The documents submitted by the U.S. Attorney were actually fraudulent on the part of the Spanish government and were given no consideration.

3. Lt. Gedney was to be awarded salvage from the La Amistad (but not for the slaves) for having performed “a highly meritorious and useful service to the proprietors of the ship and cargo”. The one-third awarded to the Africans was not mentioned and the disposition of that part of the lower decree is lost in history. It is possible that the Africans waived any rights to the salvage value to gain support from Lt. Gedney’s lawyers.

4. The U.S. President was not required to return the Africans to their homes.

Then the Chief Justice added:  These African negroes are not slaves, but kidnapped, and free negroes and the United States are bound to respect their rights as much as those of Spanish subjects. The conflict of rights between the parties, must be decided upon the eternal principles of justice and international law, where human life and human liberty are in issue, and constitute the very essence of the controversy. It was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression and to apply force against ruinous injustice. When the “Amistad” arrived, (in Connecticut) she was in possession of the negroes, asserting their freedom; and in no sense could they possibly intend to import themselves here, as slaves, or for sale as slaves.” He concluded with,“The said negroes are declared to be free, and be dismissed from the custody of the court, and go without delay.

The group of Abolitionists had arranged for temporary housing of the Africans in Farmington Connecticut, and by April 1842 they had gathered sufficient funds to buy their passage back to Africa, including any overland travel to their homes. Most of those newly freed, including Cinque, chose to return to Africa; however, a small group stayed in and around Farmington. A contingent of American Christian missionaries accompanied those who returned to Africa to establish schools and hospitals.

The ordeal for the survivors of the Amistad had lasted three years.