March 9: Free at Last

This Day in History

The ship’s Spanish name, La Amistad, means “Friendship.” Below decks, in the main hold however, the scene was anything but friendly. 

Sengbe Pieh, who would for a time be known as Joseph Cinque, and 56 other members of the Mende tribe, were chained in the hold. They had been among several hundred Africans purchased by a Portuguese slave trader and shipped on the infamous slave ship, The Tecora, bound for the Spanish colony of Cuba.

Miraculously they survived the Middle Passage, the euphemistic name of the transatlantic stage of the slave trade in which horrified Africans were forced into the most horrendous and inhumane conditions aboard a floating prison. 

The ships were designed to maximize the number of slaves that could be crammed into the holds. The men were chained right leg to another’s left  to save room. Women and children were given slightly more space as they were less likely to survive the months long journey. Historians estimate that between two and four million captives died during the Middle Passage to the new world in the four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. 


Mercifully, in the early nineteenth century, the international slave trade had been banned by most countries; in 1807 by Great Britain and in 1808 by the United States. But there still existed a robust and illegal trade in human beings.

Arriving in Havana, Sengbe and his fellow captives were sold to two Cubans, Pedro Montez and Jos Ruiz who gave them Spanish names and falsely designated them “black ladinos”, a designation which would imply to all that they had been born in Cuba and thus were legally slaves. Montez and Ruiz planned to sell them to a not-too-distant sugar plantation and, provisioning the ship for the short trip, set sail for a port just down the Cuban coast.

On the fourth night of the journey, Singbe, having cut his chains with a rusty file, broke free, commandeered the cane knives (similar to machetes) and laid in wait until dawn. As the sun rose he wielded the cane knife and killed the Captain and cook. Two of the Amistad’s crewman escaped by small boat. The cabin boy who was a slave himself was left unharmed. As the African’s were not skilled in seamanship, the two slaveowners Ruiz and Montez, were spared in return for their promise to take the captives back to Africa. 

By day the ship and passengers traveled east toward Africa and the rising sun. By night the slaveholders tricked their former captives and turned the ship west toward the United States, intending to land in a southern port, hoping to be rescued.

Their provisions, inadequate owing to the fact that they had only planned to sail down the Cuban coast, were quickly depleted. Nearly two months after setting sail, the desperate ship was spotted and apprehended off Long Island, New York by a U.S. Coastal Survey brig. They were taken to New London, Connecticut where they became the centerpiece of a global entanglement.

No less than seven different parties laid claim to the “merchandise.” The determined and disparate interests ignited a firestorm of international proportions. The situation was further complicated by the fact that given the law and circumstances of the time, and when viewed independent of one another, each of the seven claimants appeared to have legitimate title to the “cargo.”
The claimants were: the original purchasers, slavers Montez and Ruiz; eleven year old Queen Isabella II of Spain through the Spanish Ambassador who laid claim that because both Cuba and the Amistad were under the dominion of Spain, she was thus entitled; two Navy officers who claimed interest under maritime law incentive they were entitled to one-third of the salvage value; a similar and bogus claim of some opportunistic Long Island residents, three prominent abolitionists - Lewis Tappan, an industrialist, merchant and banker, Simeon S. Jocelyn who was active in the abolitionist movement and the Reverend Joshua Leavitt, editor of the antislavery paper, Emancipator, who collectively saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate the righteousness of their causes; the District Court in Hartford Connecticut, and, eventually the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, who, at first viewed the case as an inconsequential matter until the growing prominence of the case stirred the southern electorate, whom he was reliant upon in the upcoming election.

Despite the underhandedness of the government in attempting to influence the decision, the judge in the case at Hartford ruled in favor of the captives and ordered their immediate release. The victory was short-lived however as the government, at the direction of the President, appealed to the Supreme Court. The cased was styled “The United States of America v. The Amistad Africans”

The government argued that Article 9 of the 1795 Treaty with Spain stated  that “seized ships and cargo are to be returned entirely to their proprietary.” This, they posited, required that the U. S. return the Amistad and its “cargo.”

The Court ruled that the government did not show that these Africans fit the description of slaves. Because they were not slaves they could not be considered “merchandise” and were therefore free individuals and endowed with certain legal and moral rights. 

One right of a free people is the right to engage in acts of insurrection against those who would deny them that freedom and as such, the Amistad Africans were to be set free immediately and if they so chose, were to be transported to their home country immediately.

Some consider The Amistad case a landmark because, they claimed it laid bare America’s founding tenet, that “all men were created equal” and further it tested the declaration, that all of us are entitled to “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The case confirms that when liberty is allowed to shine in the open light of day, it will always cast away the shadows of the more depraved parts of our human nature. In the end, the nine justice panel ruled in favor of liberty, with only one dissent. More remarkable is that seven of the nine justices were Southern slaveholders! 

Queen Isabella II, blossoming into a feisty sovereign, continued to argue the Amistad case relentlessly with the next seven presidents while Sengbe returned home. Once there he found his entire village had disappeared, along with his wife. She and the others most likely fell victim to slave traders. 

One more extraordinary thing emerged from the tragedy – through the relentless devotion of the Connecticut faithful, Sengbe became a devout Christian, establishing a mission in Africa which is still remembered today.

The president, for his part, had already lost the election when the Supreme Court’s ruling was handed down. His fear therefore, that losing the case would alienate the southern electorate was never tested. 

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