Amistad Case Opens in Supreme Court in 1839
On February 22 of 1841, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments on the “Amistads”
In July 1839, while en route between two Cuban ports, a group of 53 Africans aboard La Amistad, a Spanish slave ship, broke from their chains in revolt. After two months at sea with several stops for water and provisions, the Amistad anchored off Montauk Point.
Once assured they had not landed in slave holding territory, the Africans allowed themselves to be taken into custody. The Africans, known popularly as the Amistads, were claimed as cargo by Cuban slave traders, as salvage by the crew of the Washington and as property by the Spanish government.
But the slaves themselves, whose charismatic leader was given the name Cinque, argued that they were free men and women, kidnapped by Cuban slavers in Africa and carried to the U.S. against their will. After hearing details of their abduction and enslavement, punctuated by the riveting testimony of Cinque, Judge Judson ruled that the Africians were free men and women, and should be returned to their homeland.
President Van Buren, who was concerned about relations with Spain, appealed to the Supreme court, which was seen as a favorable jurisdiction because a majority of the justices were from Southern states and had previously owned slave. Arguments began on Feb. 22, 1841, with the Africans represented by Baldwin and an aging John Quincy Adams. On March 9, the Supreme ruled 7-1 that the Amistads had been kidnapped, and that, even under the laws of Spain, the Africans must be freed.
On November 1841, 35 of the surviving Amistads-with an American mission group-boarded a ship called the Gentleman and returned to Sierra Leone. Upon their arrival, Cinque learned that his wife and children had been killed in his absence.