La Amistad

The Ship

La Amistad was a 19th-century two masted schooner of about 120 feet (37 m). Built in the United States, La Amistad was originally named Friendship but she was renamed after being purchased by a Spaniard. Strictly speaking, La Amistad was not a slave ship; she was not designed to transport large cargoes of slaves, nor did she engage in the Middle Passage of Africans to the Americas. The crew of La Amistad, lacking purpose-built slave quarters, placed half the captives in the main hold, and the other half on deck. The captives were relatively free to move about, which aided their revolt and commandeering of the vessel.

La Amistad engaged in shorter, coastal trade. The primary cargo carried by La Amistad was sugar-industry products, and her normal route ran from Havana to her home port of Guanaja. She also took on passengers and, on occasion, slaves for transport. The captives who revolted while aboard La Amistad had been illegally transported from Africa to Cuba aboard the slave ship Tecora.

After being moored at the wharf behind the US Custom House in New London, Connecticut, for a year and a half, La Amistad was auctioned off by the U.S. Marshal in October 1840. Captain George Hawford, of Newport, Rhode Island, purchased the vessel and then needed an Act of Congress passed to register her.  He renamed her Ion. In late 1841, he sailed Ion to Bermuda and Saint Thomas with a typical New England cargo of onions, apples, live poultry, and cheese.

After sailing Ion for a few years, Hawford sold her in Guadeloupe in 1844. There is no record of what became of Ion under her new French owners in the Caribbean.

The mutiny and trial

The Amistad Rebellion was a revolt upon the ship in 1839 by black slaves against Spaniards who had bought them. A young man whom slave traders named Joseph Cinque, a member of the Mende people of what is now Sierra Leone, led the uprising. The slaves were later tried in courts in the United States for their rebellion and were found not guilty. This legal decision was a landmark because blacks had few rights at the time.

The slaves who became the Amistad rebels were captured in western Africa. Early in 1839, Spanish slave traders brought them to Cuba illegally on a Portuguese ship. In Havana, two Spaniards, Pedro Montez and Jose Ruiz, bought Cinque and 52 other captives from the traders.

Montez and Ruiz intended to take the 53 slaves to the Cuban town of Puerto Principe (now Camaguey) to resell them. They set sail in the Caribbean Sea on the schooner La Amistad. They hired a ship captain and two crewmen. The captain brought a cook and a cabin boy with him.

The slaves were chained to a wall below the deck of the ship. Strong winds at sea made the trip longer than expected. One night, when the crew and their masters were asleep, Cinque saw an opportunity to escape. He used a nail to break his wrist chains and iron collar. He then helped other slaves get free and they, in turn, helped others. The slaves attacked the crew and took control of the ship. They killed the captain and his cook. The two crewmen jumped ship and escaped back to Havana in a boat. Montez, Ruiz, and the cabin boy were not killed. Two of the slaves died during the rebellion.

Although the rebels had control of La Amistad, they did not know how to sail or navigate it. Cinque ordered Montez and Ruiz to sail the ship to Africa. During the day, the Spaniards sailed slowly eastward, the direction of Africa. At night, they secretly changed to a northwest course and moved more rapidly. The ship ended up at Long Island, New York. Eight of the rebels had died since the rebellion.

When La Amistad reached New York, Montez and Ruiz reported the killings. Cinque and his followers were arrested and transported to Connecticut, where they were put on trial. Abolitionists gave strong support to the rebels.

United States district and circuit courts ruled that the rebels had been free people who were illegally enslaved and thus were justified in rebelling. The case finally went to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1841. John Quincy Adams, who had been president of the United States from 1825 to 1829, defended the rebels in the Supreme Court. He based his defense on the right of every person to be free. The court ruled in favor of the rebels. Cinque and most of the other remaining Amistad rebels then returned to Africa.

An account of the Amistad case


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