In June 1839, four months after they had been forcibly enslaved and
illegally shipped to Cuba, 53 African captives revolted as they were being
transported on the schooner Amistad from Havana to Guanaja, Cuba. By day, at
the Africans' orders, two surviving whites sailed the slave ship east toward
Africa. But at night, the whites, who had purchased the rebels, altered the
ship's course to the northwest. Following this zigzag course for weeks, the
Amistad eventually anchored off eastern Long Island, where it was seized by a
U.S. naval brig. A hearing was held in New London, Connecticut. The Africans
were arrested, charged with mutiny, murder, and piracy and sent to New Haven
where they were jailed, to await trial.
Abolitionists quickly took up the cause of the Amistad rebels. Legal
battles raged for two years. In 1841, former President John Quincy Adams
argued the prisoners' case before the U.S. Supreme Court which, at last, set
The Amistad affair took place at a critical moment in the history of the
Atlantic slave system. In 1833, Britain emancipated 800,000 colonial blacks;
at the same time, the British navy was also engaged in an expensive campaign
to suppress the African slave trade. Yet in Cuba and the American South,
slavery was continuing to expand. During the 1830s, while Spain was shaken by
civil war, Cuba illegally imported approximately 181,600 slaves from Africa.
Many American slaveholders coveted Cuba and feared that Britain might seize
the Spanish colony on the pretext of violations of slave trade treaties.
To understand the Amistad affair's historical significance, it is
essential to locate the case in its proper political context. President
Martin Van Buren, who was politically weakened by the disastrous economic
Panic of 1837, feared that the Amistad case would undermine his political
support in the South and damage his bid for reelection. His administration
attempted to subvert the judicial system and deprive the rebels of their
right to due process.
By 1839, the abolitionists had failed in their efforts to end slavery
through moral suasion. Northern mobs, often instigated by "gentlemen of
property and standing," disrupted abolitionist meetings and printing
presses. The House of Representatives had adopted the "gag rule,"
automatically tabling antislavery petitions. Desperately, abolitionists
sought a way to dramatize the horrors of slavery. The Amistad case seemed to
provide a providential opportunity to illustrate the federal government's
complicity with slavery and the discrepancy between slavery American ideals
of natural rights. The affair played a pivotal role in shifting the
abolitionist movement away from the tactics of moral suasion to new methods
of political and legal agitation, which would arouse substantial numbers of
Northerners against the immoralities of slavery.
Prior to the Dred Scott decision, the Amistad case was, arguably, the
single most important legal case involving slavery during the nineteenth
century. The Amistad case raised critical issues of law and justice. The
central issue raised by the case was whether enslaved people had the right to
rise up against their captors in rebellion. Do people who are held illegally
have a right to self-defense?
Another key set of issues involved international law regarding treaty
obligations, property rights, and the legality of the international slave
trade. Was the U.S. government obligated to return the rebels to Cuba under
1795 and 1819 treaties with Spain, which provided for the return of property
rescued from pirates on the high seas? Was the United States obligated to
respect Spanish claims that the rebels were legal slave property or did it
have an independent obligation to ascertain the accuracy of those claims?
Lesson Plan | Narrative of Amistad Incident | Timeline of Abolitionism | Document Essay