JULY 2, 1839 slave
rebellion that took place on the slave ship Amistad near the coast of Cuba and had
important political and legal repercussions in the American Abolitionist movement.
The mutineers were captured and tried in the United States, and a suprising victory for
the country's antislavery forces resulted in 1841 when the U.S. Supreme Court freed the
rebels. A committee formed to defend the slaves later developed into the American Missionary
Association (incorporated 1846). On July 2, 1839, the Spanish schooner Amistad
was sailing from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba, when the ship's unwilling passengers, 53
slaves recently abducted from Africa, revolted.
Led by Joseph Cinque (Sengbe Pieh)
they killed the captain and the cook but spared the life of a Spanish navigator, so that
he could sail them home to Sierra Leone. The navigator managed instead to sail the
Amistad generally northward. Two months later the U.S. Navy seized the ship off Long
Island, N.Y. and towed into New London, Conn. The mutineers were held in jail in New
Haven, Conn., a state in which slavery was legal. The Spanish embassy's demand for
the return of the African captives to Cuba led to an 1840 trial in Hartford, Connecticut
New England Abolitionist Lewis Tappan stirred public sympathy
for the African captives, while the U.S. government took the proslavery side. U.S.
President Martin Van Buren
ordered a Navy ship sent to Connecticut to return the Africans to Cuba immediately after
the trial. A candidate for re-election that year, he anticipated a ruling against
the defendants and hoped to gain proslavery votes by removing the Africans before
Abolitionists could appeal to a higher court. Prosecutors argued that, as slaves,
the mutineers were subject to the laws governing conduct between slaves and their
masters. But trial testimony determined that while slavery was legal in Cuba,
importation of slaves from Africa was not.
Therefore, the judge ruled rather than
being merchandise, the Africans were victims of kidnapping and had the right to escape
their captors in any way they could. When the U.S. Government appealed the case
before the U.S. Supreme Court the next year, congressman and former president John Quincy Adams argued
eloquently for the Amistad rebels. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court, private
and missionary society donations helped the 35 surviving Africans secure passage