Amistad Revolt

The Amistad revolt

In January 1839, 53 African natives were kidnapped from eastern Africa and sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were then placed aboard a Spanish slave ship bound for Havana, Cuba.

Once in Havana, the Africans were classified as native Cuban slaves and purchased at auction by two Spaniards, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez. The two planned to move the slaves to another part of Cuba. The slaves were shackled and loaded aboard the cargo schooler Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) for the brief coastal voyage.

However, three days into the journey, a 25-year-old slave named Sengbe Pieh (or “Cinque” to his Spanish captors) broke out of his shackles and released the other Africans. The slaves then revolted, killing most of the crew of the Amistad, including her cook and captain. The Africans then forced Montez and Ruiz to return the ship to Africa.

During the day, the ship sailed due east, using the sun to navigate. However, at night Montez and Ruiz would change course, attempting to return to Cuba. The zig-zag journey continued for 63 days.

The ship finally grounded near Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York State. The United States federal government seized the ship and its African occupants — who under U.S. law were “property” and therefore cargo of the ship. On August 29, 1839, the Amistad was towed into New London, Connecticut.

The government charged the slaves with piracy and murder, and classified them as salvage property. The 53 Africans were sent to prison, pending hearing of their case before the U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut.

The stage was set for an important, controversial, and highly politicized case. Local abolitionist groups rallied around the Africans’ cause, organizing a legal defense, hiring a translator for the Africans, and providing material support. Meanwhile, the Spanish government pressured the U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, to return the slaves to Spain without trial.

“The Captured Slaves,” The Richmond Enquirer, 10 Sept. 1839.


To the Editors of the Compiler.

Gentlemen- The articles which you sent me from the Northern papers, in relation to the persons in custody for offenses alleged to have been committed on board a Spanish vessel, suggest several questions of a good deal of interest.

If these persons are charged with having committed on the high seas the crime of piracy, as defined by the law of nations, there is no doubt that they may be tried before a Circuit Court in the Unites States. If they had been found in this country, the trial would have been in the Circuit Court for that district in which they were found. Being brought into the U. States, the trial takes place before the Circuit Court for the district into which they were first brought.

Cinque Cinque
Grabo Marghu
Pedro Montes permit to take slaves from Havana to Principe, June 26, 1839 Pedro Montes permit to take slaves from Havana to Principe, June 26, 1839

Montes (right) identifies Cinque in court

Roger Baldwin John Quincy Adams

The whole of the particulars concerning the piracy, mutiny, and murders on board the Spanish schooner Amistad (New Bedford Mercury, Sept. 6, 1839)
The Abolitionists at the North making great efforts in favor of the Amistad Negroes (Fayetteville Observer NC, Sept. 18, 1839)
New Haven obituary (The Liberator, Sept. 20, 1839, 150)
The captured Africans of the Amistad (N.Y. Morning Herald, Oct. 4, 1839)
Another Captured African Dead (Philadelphia North American, Nov. 2, 1839)
Africans of the Amistad shovelling snow  (Philadelphia Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, Dec. 28, 1839)
Kab-ba obituary (Philadelphia North American and Daily Advertiser, Jan. 4, 1840)
Monies Received for the Amistad Captives (The Emancipator, March 26, 1840, p. 191)
Amistad Captives (Norwich Aurora CT, Sept. 2, 1840)
Sale of the Amistad (Boston Courier, Oct. 26, 1840)
Sale of the Amistad (Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov. 10, 1840)
Letter of John Quincy Adams to Roger Bladwin, March 9, 1841
Trial of the Amistad captives (The Emancipator, March 11, 1841, p. 282)
The Case of the Amistad. Supreme Court of the United States. January Term 1841 (Boston Courier, March 22, 1841)
The Amistad Negroes have been discharged from the prison in New Haven (Cleveland Daily Herald, March 29, 1841)
Antonio, slave of Captain Ferrer (New York Spectator, March 31, 1841)
The Amistad Africans (Philadelphia Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier, May 29, 1841)
Departure of the Amistad Africans (New York Spectator, Dec. 1, 1841)
The Amistad Africans sailed from New York (Vermont Watchman and State Journal, Dec. 6, 1841)
The Amistad Africans (Philadelphia Pennsylvania Inquirer and National Gazette, April 13, 1842)
The Amistad Negroes (New York Herald, Sept. 6, 1842)
The Case of the Amistad (The Emancipator and Free Soil Press, Oct. 25, 1848)

The Amistad Claims: Inconsistencies of Policy. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Sep., 1933), pp. 386-412
Black Mutiny on the Amistad. The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer, 1969), pp. 493-532
Historical Memory and a New National Consciousness: The Amistad Revolt Revisited in Sierra Leone. The Massachusetts Review, Spring, 1997, pp. 63-83
Federal Historical Records on the Amistad Case. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 18 (Winter, 1997-1998), pp. 124-125
Review: Dreamworking Amistad: Representing Slavery, Revolt, and Freedom in America, 1839 and 1997. The New England Quarterly, Mar., 1998, pp. 127-133
Virgil’s Aeneid and John Quincy Adams’s Speech on Behalf of the Amistad Africans. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Sep., 1998), pp. 473-477
Amistad: A True Story of Freedom. The Journal of American History, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Jun., 1999), pp. 170-173
Cinque of the Amistad a Slave Trader? Perpetuating a Myth. The Journal of American History, Vol. 87, No. 3 (Dec., 2000), pp. 923-939
Amistad America
Amistad film censored in Jamaica
Thousands crowd Mystic Seaport to watch launch of Amistad replica

Article 6 clause 2, The Untied States Vs Robins

 No production of papers, no entreaties availed them: they were compelled to submit. Had these men been enterprising, or an opportunity offered, and they had possessed themselves of their oppressors, and brought them into port: or had they, in the attempt to regain their freedom, been obliged to destroy them, while the world would have applauded the act, the judge must, from the decision, have delivered them to a similar demand; neither influence, fortune, or friends could have saved them. However superior in these, in political privileges they were only equal to the unknown and friendless Robbins. A consistent and inflexible magistrate must view them with the same impartial eye: he must give to them the same construction of the law or constitution; he could not vary them without the immediate loss of character. An enlightened people, therefore, will as attentively, nay, they ought more carefully to guard them in the person of a poor and unprotected than a rich or considerable man. The latter will always find powerful friends to support and protect his privileges; while the rights of the former may in silence and with impunity be unattended to merely because he is unknown, and has not an advocate to assert them. This would probably have been the case in the present instance, had not some gentlemen voluntarily offered themselves to examine and discuss its consequences. The public are obliged to them: it is an excellent example, I hope it will be followed upon every occasion, and that it will make us infinitely more vigilant of our rights than ever. We must never forget that in this country the poor and the rich, the humble and the influential, are entitled to equal privileges; that we ought to consider a violation of the rights of the most indigent and unprotected man, as an injury to the whole; while we have a pen to guide, or a voice to lift, they should constantly be exerted against the exercise of tyranny or oppression, by whatever nation committed or to whomsoever the violence may be done.






May it please your Honors,–

In preparing to address this honorable Court on the questions arising upon this record, in behalf of the humble Africans whom I represent,–contending, as they are, for freedom and for life, with two powerful governments arrayed against them,–it has been to me a source of high gratification, in this unequal contest, that those questions will be heard and decided by a tribunal, not only elevated far above the influence of Executive power and popular prejudice, but from its very constitution exempt from liability to those imputations to which a Court, less happily constituted, or composed only of members from one section of the Union, might, however unjustly, be exposed.

In a case like this, involving the destiny of thirty-six human beings, cast by Providence on our shores, under circumstances peculiarly fitted to excite the sympathies of all to whom their history has become accurately known, it is much to be regretted that attempts should have been made in the official paper of the Government, on the eve of the trial before this Court of dernier resort, to disturb the course of justice, not only by passionate appeals to local prejudices, and supposed sectional interests, but by fierce and groundless denunciation of the honorable Judge before whom the cause was originally tried, in the Court below: and, as if this were not enough, that two miserable articles from a Spanish newspaper, denouncing these helpless victims of piracy and fraud, as murderers, and monsters in human form, should have been transmitted by the minister of Spain to the Department of State, and published in

Read About Thomas Nash and the Amistad

Richmond Enguirer, 1839/09/13

John Marshal on Thomas Nash

Notes; extradited 1800 and hung by the British for mutiny and murder on the frigate Hermione. The slaves onboard the frigate where Spanish/Portuguese captured slaves.