THE AMISTAD REBELLION

THE HISTORY OF LA AMISTAD REBELLION AS TOLD THROUGH THE COLLECTION OF THE AMISTAD CENTER FOR ART & CULTURE

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1839

Portuguese merchants kidnapped and enslaved a large group of Africans in Sierra Leone and transported them to Havana, Cuba, on the slave ship Tecora, where they were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Don Pedro Montez and Don Jose Ruiz, two Spaniards, purchased 53 victims, Mende people, in Havana and imprisoned them inside of the schooner La Amistad for a voyage to a nearby plantation. The enslaved revolted just three days into the journey, when 25-year-old Sengbe Pieh, also known as Cinque, freed himself and set about freeing the other hostages.

Language barriers and taunts from the ship’s cook who teased the entrapped Mende with threats that they were to be eaten drove the Mende captives to fight back against their captors. They killed the ship’s captain and forced Montez and Ruiz to direct the ship back to Africa. During the day, the ship sailed east, following the position of the sun, but at night, Montez and Ruiz silently changed their route away from Africa towards the coast of the United States. This journey took nearly two months until the Amistad arrived in Long Island, New York, on August 24, 1839. The ship and her cargo were confiscated by the United States federal ship the Washington.

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When Spain's foreign minister learned of the Amistad's seizure, he claimed that the ship and its cargo were being held in violation of a 1795 pact between the United States and Spain and demanded the return of the ship and its cargo, the enslaved Mende peoples. U.S. President Martin Van Buren agreed with Spain out of fear of inflaming tensions, but Secretary of State John Forsyth intervened and stated that an executive, such as the president of the United States, had no legal authority to intervene in court proceedings. The destiny of the Mende detainees had to be decided by the American legal system.

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A judge found in favor of dropping murder and conspiracy charges against the enslaved Mende at a US Circuit Court hearing in Hartford but felt that rival property claims filed by the Spanish and the crew of the Washington belonged under the authority of the Federal District Court. The Spanish had no right to enslave the Mende, according to a district court judge they were free men residing in their home.

The detainees were to be released and returned to Africa, he instructed. However, the matter was once again complicated by foreign diplomatic considerations. Van Buren's administration ordered an appeal to the US Supreme Court in response to pressure from the Spanish government.

In January of 1841, the Supreme Court began considering the case. The Mende were defended by American abolitionists, who raised funds to pay future Connecticut Governor Roger Sherman Baldwin and former US president John Quincy Adams to represent them in court. Adams and Baldwin persuaded the court to release Mende by arguing in support of basic human rights. The decision was made in March 1841, and later that year, five American missionaries and the remaining 35 Mende (18 of whom died during the voyage or in prison) set off for Sierra Leone.

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