The Amistad trial: a case for freedom

175 years ago, the famous Amistad trial was a turning point for the anti-slavery movement. James Ferguson revisits the landmark case

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

On 19 September, 1839 — 175 years ago — Judge Smith Thompson opened proceedings at the circuit court in Hartford, Connecticut. This was to be no run-of-the-mill case for a judge more used to dealing with cases of assault or burglary. For in the dock were thirty-six Africans, none of whom could speak a word of English, charged with mutiny and murder.

There was little doubt — despite the language barrier — that murders had been committed, and a mutiny had taken place. But this was not the issue: this was a trial that needed to consider exceptional circumstances and unprecedented legal complications. It was a test case in human rights and — as it transpired — a turning point in international understanding of slavery and the slave trade from Europe to North America via the Caribbean.

The story had begun some six months earlier, when a group of Africans belonging to the Mende people were loaded onto a slave ship in what is now Sierra Leone and brought over to Cuba. In June, they were again in chains on a ship, this time being transported from Havana towards the sugar plantations of Puerto Principe (now Camagüey). On board the schooner Amistad were five white men, a mixed-race cook, a black cabin boy, and a total of fifty-three slaves. Of the white men, two were slave owners: José Ruiz, a Spanish Cuban, had bought forty-nine African men in Havana at $450 per head, while the older Pedro Montes had purchased four children, including three girls. Among the adult slaves was Sengbe Pieh, later known as Joseph Cinqué, apparently the son of a Mende chief, and seized by slave traders near to his village.

The journey along the coast of Cuba was meant to take no longer than three days, but adverse weather slowed the Amistad’s progress and food began to run low. When the shackled Africans showed signs of restlessness, the crew beat some of them, while the cook jeered that they would be eaten upon arriving on dry land. It was at this point that Cinqué, who appears to have been accepted as the slaves’ leader, decided that they had no option but to take control of the Amistad. When the slaves were allowed on deck for fresh air, Cinqué found a loose nail with which he was able to unlock his shackles. Having helped release others, he then discovered knives among the ship’s cargo of sugar. Armed and massively outnumbering the crew, the Africans stormed the captain’s quarters. The captain and cook were killed and two other crewmen escaped, while Ruiz and Montes were now, ironically, captives. Two of the Africans died.

Cinqué and the other slaves treated their ex-masters with more compassion than they had received. They promised that the two men’s lives would be spared if they agreed to sail the Amistad to Africa (though the lack of food would have made this impossible). Montes had little choice but to comply, and told the Africans he would steer the ship eastwards. But in fact at night he took a north-westerly course, heading for the coastline of the United States. The Africans were none the wiser as the Amistad moved slowly northwards, until on 26 August the ship dropped anchor off Long Island and a group of Africans rowed ashore to find food and water. Had the Amistad been spotted? The evidence is not clear, but what was obvious was the sudden arrival of an American revenue cutter, the USS Washington, doubtless on the lookout for smugglers. All the passengers, Cubans and Africans alike, were arrested on the spot and delivered by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney to New London, Connecticut.

Here it is worth remembering that slavery and the slave trade were then subject to a complex mix of legislation and prohibition in the Americas. In most of the northern US states, it was abolished, but it survived in the South. It was abolished in British colonies in 1833, twenty-six years after the slave trade was outlawed and the Royal Navy began policing the seas to apprehend slave traders. In Cuba, however, still a colony of Spain, slavery flourished, and there was a steady demand for new slaves from Africa — hence the forced journey of Cinqué and his compatriots. Such was the context of the Amistad trial.

The criminal trial was over quickly, Judge Thompson ruling that the offences had taken place outside US jurisdiction in Spanish waters. There then followed a protracted civil case, where the question was not one of murder but chiefly of property rights. In short, Montes and Ruiz wanted “their” slaves back, while, bizarrely, Lieutenant Gledney was also staking a claim to what he considered “salvage.” To complicate matters further, the Spanish government believed that ship and slaves alike should be returned to Spain, but Britain took the view that they should be liberated. Even US public opinion was divided: the Democratic President Martin von Buren, mindful of pro-slavery votes in the South, wanted the Africans shipped back to captivity in Spain, but the growing abolitionist lobby in the North resisted any such move.

There now appeared the two real heroes of the tale. Josiah Gibbs, a Yale professor and keen abolitionist, realised that the Africans were at a disadvantage, as they could not communicate in their native language. Visiting them in jail, he managed to learn to count to ten in Mende. He then went to the busy seaport at New York City, shouting the numbers aloud until a sailor, puzzled by this strange sight, asked him why he was counting in his language. This was James Covey, a former slave from the Mende people who had been freed and was now a crewman on a British man-of-war. Covey at once agreed to help his countrymen and to act as interpreter — even though it was later discovered that only three of the Amistad accused spoke Mende.

The civil court case was long and technical, but eventually the claims of Ruiz and Montes, Spain and Gledney were dismissed: on 9 March, 1841, the US Supreme Court finally upheld the district court’s ruling that the Africans were to be freed. After a period spent with abolitionist supporters, the survivors of the Amistad affair, together with James Covey and some American missionaries, boarded the ship Gentleman in November 1841, and sailed back to Sierra Leone.

The ending, it seems, was not entirely happy. While Spain continued to press for compensation, the new mission in Sierra Leone failed to prosper, and many of the Amistad survivors abandoned the missionaries. Cinqué was among those who left, but almost forty years later in 1879 he reportedly returned, dying, and was buried in the mission cemetery.

He might reasonably have been surprised to learn that more than a century later his bold act of resistance aboard a slave ship would inspire a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg. And Professor Gibbs would doubtless relish the Amistad film’s theme song, “Dry Your Tears, Afrika”, with its lyrics in Mende.