Primary Sources Related to the Amistad

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Primary Sources Related to the Amistad Trial

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Document 1

Keep Cool”

The Colored American
, November 2, 1839

The editors of the nation’s leading African American newspaper closely followed the coverage of other New York newspapers during the Amistad proceedings. The city’s papers presented a broad range of opinion about the case, although many, especially those among the “penny press,” expressed exaggerated prejudice against the Mende and their abolitionist supporters. The Colored American reserved special criticism for the “brothel Morning Herald,” which had sent a reporter to Connecticut and printed some of the cruelest and most vulgar accounts of the African captives. Here the Colored American explicitly linked the racist coverage in northern newspapers with the southern defenders of slavery.

We have been highly pleased, for some weeks past, with the independent and fearless tone of the N.Y. Sun, while discussing the rights and wrongs of the Amistad affair. It views this matter as it ought, and reasons it with sound judgement and good sense. We are also happy to find a like spirit alive in several others of our most respectable penny papers, of which are the SIGNAL and the TATTLER. … These paper do not permit their columns to be disgraced, in this matter, with the low born and vulgar prejudice – the mean and contemptible spirit - the absurd and weak dogmas, and the fiend-like nature, which are the characteristics of a junto of infamous prints in this city ycleped [sic] as follows: the N.Y. Star, N.Y. Gazette, Courier & Enquirer, the brothel Morning Herald, and a few others equally detestable in character.

Ever since the capture of the Amistad, and the confinement of the Africans, the editors of these latter papers have been growling and firing volley upon volley of abuse from their smut-machines upon these men, because, forsooth, they had dared, after having been stolen from their native land, and torn from the arms of their wives and children, and forced on board a slave-ship, being bound in irons and otherwise cruelly treated, to break their shackels and assert their “inalienable rights to life, LIBERTY,” &c. Yes, because they had dared to this, they have been denounced as pirates, as murderers, and have had every epithet heaped upon them which these editors could cull from their natural vocabulary. Chiveralrous, high-minded editors, they! How valiantly – how corageously they fight those forty poor African prisoners!!! The South will owe them much – perhaps, grant them a pension!

Document 2

The several plea of Cinque and the other Mende captives, November 19, 1839, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

The Mende entered this plea submitted by their lawyers, Seth Staples and Roger Sherman Baldwin.

[Document Source: Thomas R. Gedney &c. v. The Schooner Amistad, &c., Case files, U.S. District Court, District of Connecticut, Record Group 21, National Archives and Records Administration – Northeast Region (Boston).]

United States of America District of Connecticut To the Honorable Andrew T. Judson Esqr., Judge of the District Court of the United States for the District of Connecticut.

The several plea of Sinqua, Burnah 1st, Carpree, Dannah, Fourrie 1st, Shumah, Fouluah, Conoma, Chooley, Burnah 2nd, Baah, Cabbah, Poomah, Kimbo, Peeah, Bangyeah, Saah, Carlee, Parle, Morrah, Yahome, Nahquoi, Quato, Sesse, Con, Fourrie 2, Kennah, Lammame, Fajanah, Faah, Yahbey, Faquannah, Berrie, Fawnee, Chockamaw, Gabbo, Carre, Teme, Kene, Mahgra,--Africans now in the custody of the Marshal of said District under color of process issued from this Honorable Court on the 29th day of August A.D. 1839, against the Schooner Amistad ...

The said Respondents severally, by protestation, not confessing or acknowledging any of the matters and things in said Several libels to be true, as therein alleged, for plea thereto respectively say that they are severally 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, as is in said several libels pretended or surmised; that they were never domiciled in the Island of Cuba, or the dominions of the Queen of Spain, or subject to the laws thereof; that on or about the 15th day of April 1839 they and each of them were, in the land of their nativity, unlawfully kidnapped & forcibly and wrongfully carried on board of a certain vessel, near the coast of Africa then & there unlawfully engaged in the slave trade, by certain persons to them unknown, and were thence in said vessel contrary to the will of the respondents, unlawfully transported to the Island of Cuba for the unlawful purpose of being there sold as slaves, and were there illegally landed for the purpose aforesaid ...

That the respondents, being treated on board said vessel, by said Ruis & Montes, & the Capt. & crew thereof with great cruelty and oppression, and being of right free as aforesaid were incited by the love of liberty natural to all men, and by the desire of returning to their families and kindred, to take possession of said vessel, while navigating the high seas as aforesaid near said Island of Cuba, as they had right to do, with the intent to return therein to their native country, or to reach an asylum in some free State where Slavery did not exist, in order that they might enjoy their liberty under the protection of its government ...

By Staples & Baldwin

Document 3
Judge Andrew Judson’s decision (excerpts), U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut

On January 13, 1840, after five days of testimony in the district court, Judge Andrew Judson appeared before a crowded courtroom in New Haven to read his decision in the
Amistad case. When he declared that the Mende were free under Spanish law and could not be returned to Cuba, Judson surprised nearly everyone involved in the case.

[Document Source: Gedney et al. v. L'Amistad, 10 Fed. Cases 141-51.]


... The two great questions still remain to be settled. Shall these Africans, by a decree of this court, be delivered over to the government of Spain, upon the demand of her minister, as the property of Don Pedro Montez and Don Jose Ruez? But if not, what ultimate disposition shall the government of the United States make of them? The other questions, in importance, cannot be compared with these. Here we have her majesty, the queen of Spain, by her resident minister, at the court of the United States, unequivocally demanding for her subjects these Africans, as their property in the fulfillment, as he says, of treaty stipulations, solemnly entered into by this nation. These Africans come in person, as our law permits them to do, denying this right. They say, that they are not the slaves of Spanish subjects, and are not amenable to Spanish laws. We have also the humanity of our own laws, ready to embrace them, provided we are not compelled by these treaty stipulations to deliver them up.

I find, then, as a matter of fact, that in the month of June, 1839, the law of Spain did prohibit, under severe penalty, the importation into Cuba of negroes from Africa. These negroes were imported in violation of that law, and be it remembered that, by the same law of Spain, such imported negroes are declared to be free in Spain. …

… If, by their own laws, they cannot enslave them, then it follows, of necessity, they cannot be demanded. When these facts are known by the Spanish minister, he cannot but discover that the subjects of his queen have acquired no rights in these men. They are not the property of Spain. His demand must be withdrawn.

Document 4
Supreme Court arguments of John Quincy Adams (excerpts)

John Quincy Adams declined to include his arguments for the
Amistad case in the Supreme Court Reports and instead chose to publish them separately. The published arguments reached a large audience, just as Adams’ appearance in the Supreme Court attracted a large crowd of listeners.

[Document Source: Argument of John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of the United States, appellants, vs. Cinque, and others, Africans, captured in the schooner Amistad, by Lieut. Gedney, delivered on the 24th of February and 1st of March, 1841, with a review of the case of the Antelope, reported in the 10th, 11th and 12th volumes of Wheaton’s Reports (New York: S.W. Benedict, 1841).]

... The charge I make against the present Executive administration is that in all their proceedings relating to these unfortunate men, instead of that Justice, which they were bound not less than this honorable Court itself to observe, they have substituted Sympathy!-sympathy with one of the parties in this conflict of justice, and antipathy to the other. Sympathy with the white, antipathy to the black.

... But my clients are claimed under the treaty as merchandise, rescued from pirates and robbers. Who were the merchandise, and who were the robbers? According to the construction of the Spanish minister, the merchandise were the robbers, and the robbers were the merchandise. The merchandise was rescued out of its own hands, and the robbers were rescued out of the hands of the robbers. Is this the meaning of the treaty? Will this Court adopt a rule of construction in regard to solemn treaties that will sanction such conclusions.… Is any thing more absurd than to say these forty Africans are robbers, out of whose hands they have themselves been rescued? Can a greater absurdity be imagined in construction than this, which applies the double character of robbers and of merchandise to human beings?

... The moment you come, to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided. I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men, than this Declaration. ...

Document 5
Supreme Court opinion (excerpts)

Justice Joseph Story delivered the Supreme Court’s opinion in the
Amistad case on March 9, 1841, and instructed the circuit court in Connecticut to free the Mende captives.

THE AMISTAD, 40 U.S. 518 (1841)

UNITED STATES, Appellants, v. The LIBELLANTS AND CLAIMANTS of the SCHOONER AMISTAD, her tackle, apparel and furniture, together with her cargo, and the AFRICANS mentioned and described in the several libels and claims, Appellees.

January Term, 1841

... If then, these negroes are not slaves, but are kidnapped Africans, who, by the laws of Spain itself, are entitled to their freedom, and were kidnapped and illegally carried to Cuba, and illegally detained and restrained on board the Amistad; there is no pretence to say, that they are pirates or robbers. We may lament the dreadful acts, by which they asserted their liberty, and took possession of the Amistad, and endeavored to regain their native country; but they cannot be deemed pirates or robbers in the sense of the law of nations, or the treaty with Spain, or the laws of Spain itself; at least so far as those laws have been brought to our knowledge. …

It is also a most important consideration in the present case, which ought not to be lost sight of, that, supposing these African negroes not to be slaves, but kidnapped, and free negroes, the treaty with Spain cannot be obligatory upon them; and the United States are bound to respect their rights as much as those of Spanish subjects. The conflict of rights between the parties under such circumstances, becomes positive and inevitable, and must be decided upon the eternal principles of justice and international law. If the contest were about any goods on board of this ship, to which American citizens asserted a title, which was denied by the Spanish claimants, there could be no doubt of the right of such American citizens to litigate their claims before any competent American tribunal, notwithstanding the treaty with Spain. A fortiori, the doctrine must apply where human life and human liberty are in issue; and constitute the very essence of the controversy. The treaty with Spain never could have intended to take away the equal rights of all foreigners, who should contest their claims before any of our courts, to equal justice; or to deprive such foreigners of the protection given them by other treaties, or by the general law of nations. Upon the merits of the case, then, there does not seem to us to be any ground for doubt, that these negroes ought to be deemed free; and that the Spanish treaty interposes no obstacle to the just assertion of their rights.

Document 6

Appeal to the Friends of Liberty.” New York Commercial Advertiser, September 5, 1839.

Lewis Tappan and other abolitionists organized a committee to support the Mende from the Amistad and to hire lawyers to represent the captives in court. One of the committee’s first efforts was to publish this newspaper appeal that sought to publicize the plight of the Mende as well as raise funds for their protection. Another version of this appeal was circulated on broadsides for the public collection of signatures from those who pledged support for the Mende. Tappan’s committee emphasized both the injustice of the Africans’ detention and the need to care for their material and spiritual welfare.

Appeal to the Friends of Liberty. Thirty-eight fellow-men from Africa, after having been piratically kidnapped from their native land, transported across the seas, and subjected to atrocious cruelties, have been thrown upon our shores, and are now incarcerated in jail to await their trial for crimes alleged by their oppressors to have been committed by them. They are now ignorant of our language, of the usages of civilized society, and the obligations of christianity. Under these circumstances, several friends of human rights have met to consult upon the case of these unfortunate men, and have appointed the undersigned a committee to employ interpreters, able counsel, and take all the necessary means to secure the rights of the accused. It is intended to employ three legal gentlemen of distinguished abilities, and to incur other needful expenses. The poor prisoners being destitute of clothing, and several having scarcely a rag to cover them, immediate steps will be taken to provide what may be necessary. The undersigned, therefore, make this appeal to the friends of humanity to contribute for the above objects. Donations may be sent to either of the committee, who will acknowledge the same, and make a public report of all their disbursements.

Simeon S. Jocelyn, 34 Wall street.
Joshua Leavitt, 143 Nassau street.
Lewis Tappan, 122 Pearl street.
New York, Sept. 4, 1839.

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