September 12, 1994
Draft text for a half-hour educational documentary sponsored by the
Amistad Committee, Inc
[Opening location: possibly a 19th century sailing ship on Long Island Sound or the Amistad monument in New Haven. The narrator may tell the story to a group of New Haven school children.]
This is the story of a group of Africans who were captured in their homeland and brought in chains to the Americas — and who revolted, captured their ship, the Amistad, and eventually were seized off the coast of New England. They won their freedom in a famous court case and ultimately sailed back to their homeland in Africa.
The fight for the rights of the Amistad Africans not only gained their freedom; it also helped build the movement against slavery in the United States. And while it happened a hundred and fifty years ago, it is still remembered today.
“Much excitement has been created in New York for the past week, from the report of several boats having seen a schooner, full of Negroes, and in such condition as to lead to the suspicion that she was a pirate.”
The “long black schooner” was the Amistad. A United States Navy ship sighted her here, near Long Island, New York, and captured her. It took prisoner the Africans who were in control of the Amistad, released two white Spaniards they were holding, and towed the ship to New London, Connecticut. The next day Federal District Judge Andrew T. Judson heard the Spaniards give their version of the Amistad‘s story.
I bought 49 slaves in Havana, Cuba, and shipped them on board the schooner Amistad.
Ruiz was accompanied by another Spaniard, Pedro Montes, and four children he had bought as slaves. The Amistad sailed for the Spaniards’ plantations in another part of Cuba. But after three days a rebellion broke out, led by Sengbe Pieh, whom the Spaniards called by the name Joseph Cinque.
In the night I heard a noise in the forecastle. All of us were asleep except the man at the helm. I saw this man Joseph Cinque. There was no moon. It was very dark. I took up an oar and tried to quell the mutiny; I cried no! no! Then I heard one of the crew cry murder.
The captives rushed the deck and seized the Spaniards.
They told me I should not be hurt. They tied our hands. The slaves told us next day they had killed all.
“They were all glad, next day, at what had happened. They commanded me to steer for their country.”
Montes and Ruiz were ordered to head the Amistad toward the rising sun — back to Africa — but at night they secretly turned around and headed up the coast of North America, eventually making their way to Long Island Sound.
The two Spaniards asked the court to hand over the Amistad to Spanish officials. They also demanded the cargo — and they included as part of the cargo the Black men and children they claimed to own as slaves.
Slavery goes back to the dawn of human history and has been practiced by peoples in many parts of the world, including both Africa and Europe. Europeans began to explore and trade with Africa around 1500 — and slaves became an important part of that trade. At the same time Europeans began to portray Black Africans as an inferior race — people it was neither a sin nor a crime to enslave.
As Europeans colonized the Americas, they imported millions of Africans to work as slaves. At the time of our story, two and a half million Black people were slaves in the United States. Most were in the South, but slavery was still legal in Connecticut where a court was deciding the fate of the Amistad captives.
After hearing the Spaniards’ hair-raising story, Judge Judson decided that the African men should be charged with mutiny and murder and the children held as witnesses. They were all taken to the New Haven, Connecticut jail to await trial.
Most Americans at that time accepted the idea that some people had the right to own others as slaves. But a small, vocal movement believed slavery to be a sin against Christianity and a betrayal of the ideals of American democracy. They were called “abolitionists” because they demanded the immediate abolition of slavery.
A Connecticut abolitionist named Dwight Janes went to the first court hearing and asked Ruiz about the captives:
I inquired if they could speak Spanish. He said no, they were just from Africa.
Janes immediately contacted abolitionists elsewhere about the Amistad. They saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity to call public attention to the evils of slavery. They quickly formed the Amistad Committee and requested contributions to hire lawyers for the captives:
Thirty-eight fellow-men from Africa, piratically kidnapped from their native land, transported across the seas, and subjected to atrocious cruelties.
Three veteran abolitionists led the Amistad Committee:
Lewis Tappan was a wealthy New York merchant. He and his brother founded the Journal of Commerce. In 1834 an anti-abolitionist crowd had ransacked his home and burned its furnishings.
Joshua Leavitt was a lawyer and a Congregational minister who edited the abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator in New York. He helped found the Liberty Party, a predecessor to today’s Republican Party.
Simeon Jocelyn was a draftsman who had founded and served as minister to the first Black church in New Haven. He had tried to establish a college there for Blacks but it was blocked by anti-abolitionists.
The Amistad Committee persuaded Roger Sherman Baldwin, a distinguished lawyer who would later become the governor of Connecticut, to serve as lawyer for the Africans.
The captives were taken to Hartford for an appearance before the U.S. Circuit Court. Justice Smith Thompson dismissed the charges of murder and mutiny on the grounds that a United States court could not try the captives for a crime alleged to have occurred on a Spanish vessel. But Judge Judson of the Distict Court refused to release the Africans because they were still claimed as property by Ruiz and Montes.
Josiah Willard Gibbs, a professor of langugaes at Yale, visited the Africans. He held up one finger and the Africans told him their word for “one.”
He held up two fingers, then three and four.
After learning to count from one to ten in the Africans’ language, Professor Gibbs went to New York and walked up and down the docks counting out loud until he found James Covey, an African seaman who could understand his counting. Professor Gibbs brought Covey to meet the prisoners and serve as their interpreter.
One of the captives, coming to the door and finding one who could talk in his own language, took hold of him and literally dragged him in. All seemed overwhelmed with joy, all talking as fast as possible.
Covey made it clear that most of the captives were Mendi, a people who live in what is now Sierra Leone.
With Covey to interpret, the Mendi were finally able to tell their story. They had been captured in Africa by Africans who sold them to European slave traders.
Cinque was a rice farmer with a wife and three children. He was seized by four men when travelling in the road and his right hand tied to his neck. He was sold to the son of a neighboring king who sold him to a Spaniard.
Grabeau speaks four African languages. He was caught on the road when going to buy clothes.
Kali was a small boy. He was stolen in the street.
Teme, a young girl, lived with her mother, brother, and sister. A party of men in the night broke into her mother’s house and made them prisoners; she never saw her mother or brother again.
Hundreds of captives from all over the region were brought to the slave port of Lomboko.
Slaves are put into a prison, two are chained together by the legs.
A Portuguese slave trader bought five or six hundred Africans and loaded them onto the slave ship Tecora.
On board there was a large number of men, but the women and children were far the most numerous. They were fastened together in couples by the wrists and legs day and night. The space between decks was four feet — they were obliged, if they attempted to stand, to keep in a crouching posture. If they left any of the rice that was given to them uneaten, they were whipped. It was a common thing for them to be forced to eat so much as to vomit. Many of the men, women, and children died on the passage.
The Africans were brought to Havana, in the Spanish colony of Cuba, and sold as slaves. Cinque recalled that when the captives were separated in Havana, most of them, himself included, were in tears.
They had come from the same country, and were now to be parted forever.
Ruiz and Montes bought fifty-three of the captives and set sail in the Amistad for their plantations in another part of Cuba.
Conditions on the Amistad were harsh, Fonni told a translator:
On board the vessel he had not enough to eat or drink, only two potatoes and one plantain twice a day, and half a teacup of water morning and evening. He asked for more water and was refused. For stealing water he was severely flogged. Powder, salt, and rum were applied to his wounds. The marks of his wounds are still to be seen.
The captives were told that a terrible fate lay ahead:
Cook told us they’d kill and eat us.
That night Cinque used a nail to break his padlock, then unchained his companions. They found sugar cane knives and stormed the deck.
Cinque killed cook, because cook said he was going to kill them and eat them. He killed the captain after he killed an African.
Before their stories were known, the Amistad Africans had often been portrayed as violent savages.
They were hardly above the apes and monkeys of their own Africa; the language they jabber incomprehensible here.
Once they were able to tell their stories through their translator, James Covey, the Africans were increasingly seen as victims of oppression who had fought for their freedom. They were portrayed as heroes in paintings . . . poems . . . and plays.
Students from Yale University began teaching the Mendi English and instructing them in Christian religion.
It would do your heart and soul good to sit and see them learn. When they come to a hard word, soon as they find out what it is, so that they understand it, they will laugh right out loud, it makes them so glad.
One of their teachers wrote:
Those who have been with them have not unfrequently seen the tear start at the mention of the aged father, or the defenceless wife and child, and stout men turn aside and weep, and the little children cry as if their hearts would break.[15
Asked if they wanted to return to Africa, one replied in broken English:
Tell the American people, that we very, very much want to go to our home.
After months of delay, the Amistad case finally came to trial in New Haven.
The Abolitionists had good reason to fear the outcome of this trial. The judge was Andrew Judson, who had instigated a law prohibiting schools for Blacks in Connecticut and then prosecuted Prudence Crandall for admitting Black girls to her school in Canterbury, Connecticut.
Lawyers for the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, strove to keep the courts from letting the Africans go free. President Van Buren had no strong views on slavery, but he needed votes from slaveholders in the South to win reelection. His District Attorney William Holabird secretly wrote the State Department:
I should regret extremely that the rascally Blacks should fall into the hands of the abolitionists, with whom Hartford is filled.
The President had a ship waiting in the New Haven harbor to carry the Africans back to Cuba — and almost certain death — should they lose their case.
Hundreds of spectators crowded the trial, which lasted a week.
Representatives for Spain demanded that the Amistad and its cargo should be returned. They cited a treaty between Spain and the United States:
All ships and merchandise which shall be rescued out of the hands of any pirates or robbers on the high seas [shall] be taken care of and restored entire.
Spain’s lawyers argued that the Black prisoners were “merchandise” that should be returned along with the ship.
They pointed out that slavery was legal in Cuba, and that the Amistad‘s papers showed that the Blacks were legally the property of Ruiz and Montes.
Lawyers for the Africans answered that while slavery might be legal in Cuba, the slave trade between Africa and the Americas was illegal. It had been outlawed by a treaty between Spain and Great Britain and had been declared a “heinous crime” by Spain itself. The papers saying the Africans were legal slaves of Ruiz and Montes falsely stated they had long been slaves in Cuba.
They are natives of Africa, and were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are and ought to be free and not slaves.
The Mendi were familiar with court proceedings because Mendi society had a legal system of its own. Through their interpreter James Covey they again told their story:
Four men took me on the road. Came from Mendi to Lomboko. Three moons from Africa to Havana; ten nights in Havana. The cook told us they carry us to some place, and kill and eat us.
The judge found that the Africans were neither slaves nor Spanish subjects. They were therefore free by the law of Spain itself.
Cinque and Grabeau shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred.
But the United States government appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
The abolitionists persuaded a former President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, to help argue their case before the Supreme Court. One of the African children, eleven years old and a star student, wrote him in English:
Dear Friend Mr. Adams,
I want to write a letter to you because you love Mendi people and you talk to the great court.
We want you to ask the court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison.
Some people say Mendi people dolt, because we no talk American language. Merica people no talk Mendi language; Merica people dolt!
Dear friend Mr. Adams, you have children, you have friends, you love them, you feel very sorry if Mendi people come and carry them all to Africa. We feel bad for our friends, and our friends all feel bad for us.
We want you to tell court that Mendi people no want to go back to Havana, we no want to be killed. All we want is make us free.
Before the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams, known as “Old Man Eloquent,” condemned the role played by United States government officials as “an immense array of power” exerted “on the side of injustice.”
Have the officers of the U.S. Navy a right to seize men by force, to fire at them, to overpower them, to disarm them, to put them on board of a vessel and carry them by force and against their will to another State, without warrant or form of law?
The Supreme Court ruled that the Africans were entitled to their liberty like any other freeborn human beings and should be free to go wherever they wished. The court said they had exercized an “ultimate right”:
the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice.
The decision gave heart to abolitionists both Black and white. A New York abolitionist meeting declared:
The decision by which the Amistad captives were liberated has a powerful influence on the question of human rights, not only in this country, but throughout the world. We can behold the faint glimmering of a more auspicious morn when the judges of our land will declare that property in man cannot be held.
The Mendi greeted the news of the Supreme Court’s decision with joy.
In a Bible presented to John Quincy Adams, Kali wrote,
We thank you very much because you make us free.
Free at last, the Mendi moved to the farm of an abolitionist supporter in Farmington, Connecticut.
It was nearly two years since they had first been kidnapped. They were ready to go home.
Thousands contributed to help them return to Africa. Many of the contributors hoped the Mendi would help set up a Christian mission in their country.
James Pennington, pastor of the First Colored Congregational Church in Hartford, was himself an escaped slave.
I love the Mendians. I love their country. I purpose to cooperate in fitting out a mission in every possible way, and also to give my prayers and labors to its support.
Pennington helped form the Union Missionary Society, the first such organization which refused to accept money from slaveholders. Together with the Amistad Committee it organized dozens of fundraising meetings.
The Africans read from the New Testament, by which they showed the success with which they had mastered our language, as well as the proficiency they had made in learning to read. They sung two hymns in English with great melody and harmony, and sung, also, two of their native songs. Kinna made an address in English, giving the history of their captivity.
They raised enough money to hire a ship for the thirty-five surviving Africans and five missionaries. As they reached the coast of Sierra Leone, Cinque wrote Lewis Tappan of the Amistad Committee:
I thank all ‘merican people, for they send Mendi people home. I shall never forget ‘merican people. Your friend, Cinque.
Some of the Mendi returned to their home villages; others remained at the Mission. Many of the future leaders of Sierra Leone were educated at schools established by the Mendi mission in Africa. Sarah Margru, one of the children from the Amistad, went to Oberlin College in Ohio, then came back to teach at the Mendi mission. 
In the United States, the Amistad Committee and the Union Missionary Society joined with other groups to form the American Missionary Association, which became the largest abolitionist organization in the country. After the Civil War, it founded hundreds of schools for freed slaves in the South. The Race Relations Institute it set up at Fisk University trained many of the civil rights leaders of the 1960s.
The Amistad represented an important step in the struggle to abolish slavery. It provided an issue around which the often-divided abolitionist movement could unite. It focussed public attention on the conflict between slavery and widely-held religious and political values. And it showed the humanity and the capacity for heroism of those who might be enslaved.
The legal decision in the Amistad case did not challenge slavery itself. But for the first time the United States Supreme Court asserted that people of color had the same rights as anybody else and that the courts must enforce them:
The United States are bound to respect their rights.
It would be many years, however, before the United States would actually begin to respect the rights of people of color. Indeed, sixteen years after the Amistad decision, the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case declared that a Negro had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
They are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.
Only in the wake of the Civil War did the United States begin to implement the racial equality that the Amistad case had seemed to promise. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution banned slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed “equal protection of the laws”; and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed “the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Judge Constance Baker Motley has called the Supreme Court’s Amistad decision “the first legal milestone in the long, difficult struggle in the courts by persons of color for equal justice under law.”
Twenty-two years after the Amistad case, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring slaves in the South free. At an abolitionst meeting to celebrate, Lewis Tappan pointed out the connection between the Amistad case and the abolition of slavery. As he spoke, he held in his hand the letter he had received from John Quincy Adams twenty-two years before telling him the results of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Amistad case:
The captives are free.
An 1841 letter in the abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator prophesied:
Cinque will continue to be an object of interest, and his name will be the watchword of freedom to Africa and her enslaved sons throughout the world.
A century-and-a-half later, the Amistad captives remain a powerful symbol. In the past few years they have been represented in plays . . . a cantata . . . and a best-selling novel. . . In the 1970s, a highly-publicized African-American revolutionary took the name of Cinque. . . And students continue to reenact the case’s dramatic courtroom scenes.
On the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Amistad‘s liberation, a new “Amistad Committee” composed of New Haven citizens unveiled a bronze sculpture to commemorate the Amistad.
A writer for the newspaper The Colored American visited the Mendi before they returned to Sierra Leone. Realizing that their story would be remembered long into the future, he wrote:
Please record the names of Cinque and his comrades, that they may be a matter of history, to hand down to posterity.
Their names were:
Cinque. . . Grabeau . . .Kimbo . . . Konnoma . . . Burna . . . Bartu . . . Buakwoi . . . Kwong . . . Fuliwa . . . Pie . . . Pungwuni . . . Sessi . . . Moru . . . Ndamma . . . Fukliwulu . . . Bau . . . Ba . . . Shule . . . Kale . . . Bagna . . . Sa . . . Kinna . . . Ngahoni . . . Fakinna . . . Faginna . . . Yaboi . . . Fabanna . . . Tsukama . . . Berri . . . Fonni . . . Burna . . . Shuma . . . Kali . . . Teme . . . Kagne . . . Margru.
 New London Gazette, story datelined August 26, 1839, quoted in Barber, History of the Amistad Captives, NHCHS p 35.
 Some of the history of slavery could be covered in an interview soundbite with an expert, e.g. John Blassingame or David Brion Davis.
 Abolitionism could be covered in an interview soundbite with an expert, e.g. John Blassingame or David Brion Davis.
 Supreme Court of the US No. 42. p 51
 Martin 105.
 Barber 50
 Material about the Mendi people from a documentary on Sierra Leone can be added here.
 Barber p. 51.
 Barber, 51-2
 Deposition October 7, 1839
 Supreme Court of the US No. 42. p 53
 Supreme Court of the US No. 42. p 53
 quoted Jones p 48
 Johnson to Colored American, 11/20/41
 Anti-Slavery Reporter, 12/40
 Anti-Slavery Reporter 12/40
 Simeon Baldwin, “The Captives of the Amistad” p 340
 Jones p 50
 U.S. vs. Schooner Amistad p 20
 U.S. vs. Schooner Amistad p 52-3
 Quoted in Simeon Baldwin, “The Captives of the Amistad,” p. 347-8, citing the New Haven Daily Palladium.
 Anti-Slavery Reporter, March, 1841.
 Jones p 176.
 Anti-Slavery Reporter, March, 1841, p 10.
 Colored American, May 22, 1841
 Handwritten letter October 9, 1841 to Executive Committee, American Missionary Association
 “Meetings of the Liberated Africans,” no source on my copy but apparently from Colored American.
 Anti-Slavery Reporter, June 20, 1842,p 63
 Clifton Johnson p 19. The Mendi mission could be covered by a soundbite from an interview with an expert, e.g. Clifton Johnson.
 The American Missionary Society could be covered by a soundbite from an interview with an expert, e.g. Clifton Johnson.
 The significance of the Amistad incident could be covered in part by one or more soundbites from interviews with experts.
 Motley p 28. Any of the material between this point and the close could be cut, depending on available time and desired emphasis.
 Dred Scott v. Sandford, March 6, 1857.
 The legal implications of the Amistad decision could be partially covered in a soundbite from an interview with an appropriate authority.
 Martin, p 41.
 Emancipator, June 17, 1841.