Amistad Mutiny 1839

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The Amistad Mutiny occurred off the northern coast of Cuba in July 1839. The Spanish Schooner La Amistad was seized by African captives not long after it left Cuba around 2nd July.  The captives had been taken in Africa by a Portuguese slaving ship and then smuggled into Havana under cover of nightfall as this was a violation of treaty signed in 1817 between Britain and Spain (who owned Cuba), which forbade trading in slaves. The captives, lead by either Sengbe Pieh or Joseph Cinque, quickly over-powered the crew and killed the ship’s Captain and the cook and possibly several other members of the crew. Now in control of the ship they forced the remaining crew to sail back to Africa but the crew actually sailed the ship northwards so that the ship ended up in New York state waters.

On 25th August the now starving crew and mutineers anchored the ship off Long Island in search of provisions. They were spotted by the crew of the USS Washington and after a brief struggle they surrendered and were towed to New London Connecticut. They were then imprisoned to await trial, the case became well known internationally.  The ship owners argued that the captives had been slaves when purchased in Cuba so should be tried for piracy and murder, with the Spanish and Cuban Authorities demanding that the Americans return the ship and its human ‘cargo’ (39 adults and 4 children). Anti Slavery campaigners rallied to the mutineers’ defence trying to prove that they had been unlawfully enslaved and it was seen as a test case for the principle of natural rights applying to black people.

When the court case was heard in September 1839 thousands gathered but the case was just referred to the US district court this delayed a ruling until January 1840. The judge Andrew T. Judson ruled that the mutineers had been illegally kidnapped and sold and had legally rebelled to win their freedom and ordered the return of the captives to Africa. The US Government had not expected this verdict and was expecting to return the ship and captives to Spain and even had the USS Grampus waiting in a nearby harbour to do so. The Government now appealed but in May the judgement was upheld and the case was sent to the Supreme Court. Most agree that the Supreme Court was far from balanced with most of the court, including the judge being slave owners, although the defence did have former US president John Quincy Adams argue the case before the court. To the surprise of the Government once again the judgement was upheld and the mutineers were set free in March 1841. By November 1841 the surviving thirty five Africans left the US for Sierra Leone under British Protection.
Amistad (1997). DVD. An often over looked Steven Spielberg film, with powerful imagery and moving sequences. It has an all star cast but is fairly slow moving and focuses on the court room Drama rather than the initial revolt and it does include a visually powerful sequence depicting the initial crossing from Africa on the Portuguese Slave Ship. cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T (23 October 2008), The Amistad Mutiny of 1839 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/amistad_mutiny.html

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