Events and Legacy of the Amistad Case of 1840

Portrait of Joseph Cinqué

Interim Archives/Getty Images

While it began more than 4,000 miles from the jurisdiction of the U.S. federal courts, the Amistad Case of 1840 remains one of the most dramatic and meaningful legal battles in America’s history.

More than 20 years before the start of the Civil War, the struggle of 53 enslaved Africans, who after violently freeing themselves from their captors, went on to seek their freedom in the United States highlighted the growing North American 19th-century Black activist movement by turning the federal courts into a public forum on the very legality of enslavement.

The Enslavement

In the spring of 1839, traders in Lomboko near the West African coastal town of Sulima sent more than 500 enslaved Africans to then Spanish-ruled Cuba for sale. Most of them had been taken from the West African region of Mende, now a part of Sierra Leone.

At a sale of enslaved people in Havana, infamous Cuban plantation owner and trader of enslaved people Jose Ruiz bought 49 of the enslaved men and Ruiz’s associate Pedro Montes bought three young girls and a boy. Ruiz and Montes chartered the Spanish schooner La Amistad (Spanish for “The Friendship”) to deliver the enslaved Mende people to various plantations along the Cuban coast. Ruiz and Montes had secured documents signed by Spanish officials falsely affirming that the Mende people, having lived on Spanish territory for years, were legally enslaved. The documents also falsely anointed enslaved individuals with Spanish names.

Mutiny on the Amistad

Before the Amistad reached its first Cuban destination, a number of the enslaved Mende people escaped from their shackles in the dark of night. Led by an African named Sengbe Pieh – known to the Spanish and Americans as Joseph Cinqué – the freedom seekers killed the Amistad’s captain and cook, overpowered the rest of the crew, and took control of the ship.

Cinqué and his accomplices spared Ruiz and Montes on the condition that they take them back to West Africa. Ruiz and Montes agreed and set a course due west. However, as the Mende slept, the Spanish crew steered the Amistad northwest hoping to encounter friendly Spanish slaving ships headed for the United States.

Two months later, in August 1839, the Amistad ran aground off the coast of Long Island, New York. Desperately in need of food and fresh water, and still planning to sail back to Africa, Joseph Cinqué led a party onshore to gather supplies for the voyage. Later that day, the disabled Amistad was found and boarded by the officers and crew of the U.S. Navy survey ship Washington, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney.

The Washington escorted the Amistad, along with the surviving Mende Africans to New London, Connecticut. After reaching New London, Lieutenant Gedney informed the U.S. marshal of the incident and requested a court hearing to determine the disposition of the Amistad and her “cargo.”

At the preliminary hearing, Lieutenant Gedney argued that under admiralty law – the set of laws dealing ships at sea – he should be granted ownership of the Amistad, its cargo and the Mende Africans. Suspicion arose that Gedney intended to sell the Africans for profit and had, in fact, chosen to land in Connecticut, because the system of enslavement was still legal there. The Mende people were placed in the custody of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut and the legal battles began.

The discovery of the Amistad resulted in two precedent-setting lawsuits that would ultimately leave the fate of the Mende Africans up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Criminal Charges Against the Mende

The Mende African men were charged with piracy and murder arising from their armed takeover of the Amistad. In September 1839, a grand jury appointed by the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Connecticut considered the charges against the Mende. Serving as the presiding judge in the district court, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Smith Thompson ruled that the U.S. courts had no jurisdiction over alleged crimes at sea on foreign-owned vessels. As a result, all criminal charges against the Mende were dropped.

During the circuit court session, anti-enslavement lawyers presented two writs of habeas corpus demanding that the Mende be released from federal custody. However, Justice Thompson ruled that due to the pending property claims, the Mende could not be released. Justice Thompson also noted that the Constitution and federal laws still protected the rights of enslavers.

While the criminal charges against them had been dropped, the Mende Africans remained in custody because they were still the subject of multiple property claims for them pending in the U.S. district court.

Who ‘Owned’ the Mende?

Besides Lieutenant Gedney, the Spanish plantation owners and traders of enslaved people, Ruiz and Montes petitioned the district court to return the Mende to them as their original property. The Spanish government, of course, wanted its ship back and demanded that the Mende captives be sent to Cuba to be tried in Spanish courts.

On January 7, 1840, Judge Andrew Judson convened the Amistad case trial before the U.S. District Court of in New Haven, Connecticut. A North American 19th-century Black activist group had secured the services of attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin to represent the Mende Africans. Baldwin, who had been one of the first Americans to interview Joseph Cinqué, cited natural rights and laws governing enslavement in Spanish territories as reasons the Mende were not enslaved people in the eyes of U.S. law.

While U.S. President Martin Van Buren at first approved the Spanish government’s claim, Secretary of State John Forsyth pointed out that under the constitutionally mandated “separation of powers,” the executive branch could not interfere with the actions of the judicial branch. In addition, noted Forsyth, Van Buren could not order the release of the Spanish traders of enslaved people, Ruiz and Montes, from prison in Connecticut since doing so would amount to federal interference in the powers reserved to the states

More interested in protecting the honor of his nation’s Queen, than the practices of American federalism, the Spanish minister argued that the arrest of Spanish subjects Ruiz and Montes and the seizure of their “Negro property” by the United States violated the terms of a 1795 treaty between the two nations.

In light of the treaty, Sec. of State Forsyth ordered a U.S. attorney to go before the U. S. District Court and support Spain’s argument that since a U.S. ship had “rescued” the Amistad, the U.S. was obligated to return the ship and its cargo to Spain.

Treaty-or-not, Judge Judson ruled that since they were free when they were captured in Africa, the Mende were not enslaved Spaniards and should be returned to Africa.

Judge Judson further ruled that the Mende were not the private property of the Spanish traders Ruiz and Montes and that the officers of the U.S. naval vessel Washington were entitled only to the salvage value from the sale of the Amistad’s non-human cargo. 

Decision Appealed to U.S. Circuit Court

The U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut, convened on April 29, 1840, to hear the multiple appeals to Judge Judson’s district court decision.

The Spanish Crown, represented by the U.S. attorney, appealed Judson’s ruling that the Mende Africans were not enslaved people. The Spanish cargo owners appealed the salvage award to the officers of The Washington. Roger Sherman Baldwin, representing the Mende asked that Spain’s appeal should be denied, arguing that the U.S. government had no right to support the claims of foreign governments in the U.S. courts.

Hoping to help speed the case ahead to the Supreme Court, Justice Smith Thompson issued a brief, pro forma decree upholding Judge Judson’s district court decision.

The Supreme Court Appeal

Responding to pressure from Spain and growing public opinion from the Southern states against the federal courts’ anti-enslavement leanings, the U.S. government appealed the Amistad decision to the Supreme Court. 

On February 22, 1841, the Supreme Court, with Chief Justice Roger Taney presiding, heard opening arguments in the Amistad case.

Representing the U.S. government, Attorney General Henry Gilpin argued that the 1795 treaty obligated the U.S. to return the Mende, as enslaved Spaniards, to their Cuban captors, Ruiz and Montes. To do otherwise, Gilpin warned the court, could threaten all future U.S. commerce with other countries.

Roger Sherman Baldwin argued that the lower court’s ruling that the Mende Africans were not enslaved people should be upheld.

Aware that a majority of the Supreme Court justices were from Southern states at the time, the Christian Missionary Association convinced former President and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to join Baldwin in arguing for the Mendes’ freedom.

In what would become a classic day in Supreme Court history, Adams passionately argued that by denying the Mende their freedom, the court would be rejecting the very principles upon which the American republic had been founded. Citing the Declaration of Independence’s acknowledgment “that all men are created equal,” Adams called on the court to respect the Mende Africans’ natural rights.

On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court upheld the circuit court’s ruling that the Mende Africans were not enslaved people under Spanish law and that the U.S. federal courts lacked the authority to order their delivery to the Spanish government. In the court’s 7-1 majority opinion, Justice Joseph Story noted that since the Mende, rather than the Cuban traders of enslaved people, were in possession of the Amistad when it was found in U.S. territory, the Mende could not be considered as enslaved people imported into the U.S. illegally.

The Supreme Court also ordered the Connecticut circuit court to release the Mende from custody. Joseph Cinqué and the other surviving Mende were free persons.

The Return to Africa

While it declared them free, the Supreme Court’s decision had not provided the Mende with a way to return to their homes. To help them raise money for the trip, anti-enslavement and church groups scheduled a series of public appearances at which the Mende sang, read Bible passages, and told personal stories of their enslavement and struggle for freedom. Thanks to the attendance fees and donations raised at these appearances, the 35 surviving Mende, along with a small group of American missionaries, sailed from New York for Sierra Leone in November 1841.

The Legacy of the Amistad Case

The Amistad case and the Mende Africans’ fight for freedom galvanized the growing North American 19th-century Black activist movement and widened the political and societal division between the anti-enslavement North and the South. Many historians consider the Amistad case to be one of the events that led to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

After returning to their homes, the Amistad survivors worked to initiate a series of political reforms throughout West Africa that would eventually lead to the independence of Sierra Leone from Great Britain in 1961.

Long after the Civil War and emancipation, the Amistad case continued to have an impact on the development of African American culture. Just as it had helped lay the groundwork for the ending of enslavement, the Amistad case served as a rallying cry for racial equality during the modern Civil Rights movement in America. 

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Longley, Robert. "Events and Legacy of the Amistad Case of 1840." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). Events and Legacy of the Amistad Case of 1840. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Events and Legacy of the Amistad Case of 1840." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).