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Amistad Mutiny

When the Spanish cargo schooner La Amistad came aground off the coast of Long Island, New York in August 1839, the United States found itself with an explosive legal and diplomatic case that would pit the American system’s ability to provide justice for all on its shores against the federal government’s ability to enforce its treaty obligations where the jurisdiction of states is involved.

In February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence. Fifty-three Africans were purchased by two Spanish planters and put aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad for shipment to a Caribbean plantation.

On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. brig Washington. The planters were freed and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, CT, on charges of murder.

Although the murder charges were dismissed, the Africans continued to be held in confinement as the focus of the case turned to salvage claims and property rights. President Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans.

Two lawsuits ensued. The Washington officers brought the first case to federal district court over salvage claims while the second case began in a Connecticut court after the state arrested the Spanish traders on charges of enslaving free Africans. The Spanish foreign minister, however, demanded that the Amistad and its cargo be released from custody and the “slaves” sent to Cuba for punishment by Spanish authorities.

While the Van Buren administration accepted the Spanish crown’s argument, Secretary of State John Forsyth explained, the president could not order the release of the Amistad and its cargo because the executive could not interfere with the judiciary under American law. He could also not release the Spanish traders from imprisonment in Connecticut because that would constitute federal intervention in a matter of state jurisdiction.

Less interested in the separation of powers or the division of sovereignty in a federal state than in procuring immediate satisfaction for the Queen’s honor, the Spanish minister retorted that the arrest of Spaniards and the holding of their “Negro property” were violations of the treaty of 1795 between Spain and the United States.

Thus, at Forsyth’s direction, an attorney for the United States government appeared before the U. S. District Court and presented Spain’s argument that since a federally owned ship rescued the Amistad, the United States was obligated by international treaty to return the ship and its cargo to the Spanish owners.

The district court judge ruled that the Africans were not Spanish slaves, being captured as free men in Africa, and he ordered the U.S. to release them from prison and transport them back to Africa. Rejecting the argument that the Africans were the Spanish traders’ private property and their sale subject to salvage claims, the judge ruled that the Washington officers’ salvage payments be taken from the remaining cargo of the Amistad.

The U.S. Government, feeling pressure from Spain and fearing Southern outcry against the court’s advocacy of African freedom, appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. To argue against the U.S. Government for the Africans’ freedom, the Christian Missionary Association convinced former President and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to come out of retirement and face the predominantly southern Supreme Court bench.

In a masterpiece of American law, Adams presented the case of the Africans’ freedom as a test of the American republic’s sincerity in the ideals it espoused abroad. The Supreme Court ruled for the Africans, accepting the argument that they were never citizens of Spain and were illegally taken from Africa where they lived in a state of freedom. The court acknowledged that the United States’ argument that it had obligations to Spain under the treaty, but said that the treaty “never could have been intended to take away the equal rights of [the Africans].”

Of the Africans, 35 of them were returned to their homeland. The others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial.

 Hale Woodruff - Savery Library at Talladega

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Page last modified: 21-10-2017 19:08:31 ZULU