The word "amistad" is translated from Spanish, meaning "friendship." Amistad refers to a mutiny on a ship of this name that occurred in the 1800s and had national and international ramifications. In February 1839 a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone were abducted. They were taken captive by Portuguese slave hunters, and placed on board the Amistad, a Cuban schooner. The ship is described as a slaver, built for space, with a wide hatchway and five sweeps on each side. The Africans were transported to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. The abduction was a violation of all existing treaties at that time.
On July 1, 1839, 53 of the Africans, who had been bought at the slave market by Spanish planters and were being transported on the ship, revolted. The mutiny on the Amistad was led by a young man, known as Cinque. The Africans seized the ship by killing the captain and owner, Ramxon Ferrer, and the cook, Celestino. Jose Ruiz, a Spanish trader, surrendered. His companion, Pedro Montes, initially hid below but was discovered. Possibly saved due to their navigational skills, the two submitted to the Africans' demands that the ship to be steered to Africa. The Spaniards deceived them, however, leading them into U.S. waters instead.
The Amistad was seized off Long Island, New York, by the U.S. brig Washington, when it anchored there on August 24, 1839. American naval officers took over the ship and its passengers. Ruiz and Montes claimed that they were the legal owners of the 53 slaves aboard the Spanish vessel. They insisted that the blacks had been purchased, not illegally, through the public slave market in Havana, Cuba. The Spanish planters were freed. The Africans were arrested on charges of piracy and murder and were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut.
The murder charge was eventually dropped. The Africans were held in continued confinement as legal battles ensued. The disputes centered on the ship, its cargo, and the Africans on board, amidst salvage claims and property rights.
Initial reports of the Amistad revolt portrayed the Spaniards as victims of black "buccaneers." In the August 26th edition of The New London Gazette descriptions by Ruiz and Montes painted a graphic picture of their claims. Cinque was reported as the "master spirit and hero of this bloody tragedy."
The U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, favored extraditing the Africans to Cuba, then under Spanish jurisdiction. Abolitionists, who were vehemently opposed to slavery, opposed extradition. They proceeded to raise money for the legal defense of the Africans. The Spanish planters and traders, the government of Spain, and the captain of the U.S. brig brought a case against the Africans. This led to a trial in the Federal District Court of Connecticut.
Spain claimed ownership of the ship and the Africans on behalf of its citizens. The U.S. government, with Van Buren as president, filed the claim on Spain's behalf. They also appealed the lower court's decision. Anti-slavery activists led the legal team for the Africans to uphold their right to freedom.
The Federal Court ruled that the case fell within federal jurisdiction. They upheld that the claims regarding the Africans being "property" were not legitimate and thus that they had been held illegally as slaves. Former president, John Quincy Adams, pleaded for the defendants, defending the right to freedom of the Africans. Adams was instrumental in leading the appeal. The case went to the Supreme Court in January 1841. The Amistad case was one of the first "civil rights" cases to be heard by the Supreme Court.
The entire case elicited various issues, such as a former U.S. president being pitted against the current one. Escalated tensions between the Southerners who favored slavery and the antislavery Northerners ensued. The relationship between the Spain and the U.S. was also threatened.
The United States vs. Amistad case of 1841 focused attention on the issue of slavery. Whilst the U.S. had officially banned the importation of slaves in 1808, slavery was still rife.
The Supreme Court also decided (8 to 1) in favor of the Africans, stating that "the United States are bound to respect their [the Africans] right as much as those of Spanish subjects." The records of both the Federal and Supreme Court cases are still available. The Supreme Court case records are located in Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, Record Group 267, at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. The Federal District Court records of the case are held by the National Archives, Northeast Region, Waltham, MA. Included are the case papers and docket books, which are available on NARA Microfilm Publication M-1753.
The Africans were released and allowed to return to their homeland. Of the original captives, 35 were returned in 1842; their passage paid by money raised by the abolitionists. The remainder had perished at sea or in prison awaiting trial.