In 1839, in waters off the coast of Cuba, a group of forty-nine Africans ensnared in the Atlantic slave trade struck out for freedom. They had been captured, and transported across the ocean, and sold into slavery in Cuba. One of these individuals was a man the world would come to know as “Cinque” worked free of his chains and led a shipboard revolt.
The vessel they won was a schooner that had been named the Amistad, ironically translated as (“Friendship”). The Africans tried to force two Cuban survivors to sail them back to Africa, but the Amistad wound up instead in U.S. waters, at Culloden Point, Montauk, New York, on August 25, 1839. Ashore, the Africans encountered a small group of white men - - Henry Green and four other local seamen. Wary but desperate, the Africans tried to engage the men to sail the schooner back to Africa, promising to pay in gold they claimed to have on board. Green sensing the possibility of loot, made vague promises. The two parties agreed to meet the next morning.
That meeting was broken up by the arrival of the U.S.S. Washington - - a naval brig surveying the coast commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney - - which brought this leg of the Africans’ voyage to an abrupt end. They were taken into custody and brought into New London, just across from Montauk Point. Once again the Africans were in captivity. Their fate now depended on American authorities. Spain promptly emanded their extradition to face trial in Cuba for piracy and murder, but their plight caught the attention of American abolitionists, who mounted a legal defense on the Africans’ behalf. The case went through the American judicial system all the way up to the Supreme Court, where former President John Quincy Adams joined the abolitionists’ legal team. Finally, in March, 1841, the Supreme Court upheld the freedom the Africans had claimed for themselves. Ten months later, in January, 1842, the thirty-five Amistad Africans who had survived the ordeal returned to their homelands.