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Amistad Revolt 1839-1842

By the late 18th century, the clamor to abolish the slave trade increased in Western Europe and in the northern colonies of America. Denmark was the first to answer the call to end the importation of slaves from Africa to its colonies in the West Indies. But in spite of fierce resistance from slaveholders at home, the North American abolitionist movement led by the Quakers was quick to gather steam. The abolitionist movement finally bore fruit between 1811 and 1848 when several Western European nations officially put an end to slavery through legislation.

By 1811, Spain had outlawed the slave trade and slavery itself. However, it was not until 1886 that Cuba, one of Spain’s overseas colonies, followed suit. In what would become the United States, slavery would become a contentious and bitter issue that would eventually lead an entire nation to a civil war in 1861. Amidst these developments was the controversial Amistad Revolt (1839-1842). This mutiny captivated the American public when it was tried in American courts between 1840 and 1841. Apart from its political, societal, and legal repercussions at home, the Amistad also sent ripples across the Atlantic when Spain decided to intervene with the case. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.

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La Amistad: From the Lomboko to Cuba

Britain had outlawed the slave trade in its colonies in 1807, and this was soon followed by the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. Despite the British ban, the illicit slave trade remained lucrative thanks to the steady demand in some colonies in the West Indies. At the center of this illegal activity was the Lomboko slave fortress in Sierra Leone, a facility owned by the wealthy Spanish slave trader Pedro Blanco.

Many of the men, women, and children kidnapped and sold to Blanco belonged to the Mende people. Others belonged to different tribes such as the Bembe and Kono. Some people were kidnapped because they failed to repay their debts on time. Others meanwhile were prisoners of war or were captured from slave raids. A few were accused of adultery and were punished by some disgruntled husbands by capturing and selling them into slavery.

A doctor checked the health and viability of each slave upon their arrival at the Lomboko. They spent some weeks in Blanco’s slave fortress before they were loaded into the Tecora, a Portuguese slave ship. After separating them from the women and children, the men were shackled together inside the cramped holds to prevent them from rebelling or from committing suicide by throwing themselves overboard. During the voyage, they were given meager rations of food. They had to relieve themselves where they were shackled together so that the poorly ventilated hold quickly stank and soon became a petri dish for diseases. The Tecora’s crew disposed of dead captives by throwing them into the ocean. Sick or dying captives were also thrown into watery graves because of the crew’s fears that they would infect the rest of the “cargo.”

The Tecora finally docked in the port of Havana in June 1839. The slave traders cautiously auctioned the slaves in Havana for fear of British naval officers who patrolled the area. Among those who arrived in Havana for the slave auctions were the Spanish merchants and slaves owners Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz. After purchasing 49 men, one boy, and three girls, the Spaniards chartered the vessel La Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) and sailed for Camaguey, Cuba. Ramon Ferrer owned and captained the ship, and was assisted by two crew members. Also on board were the ship’s cook Celestino and the cabin boy Antonio.

The Amistad Mutiny

The Amistad was the site of the 1839 Mende slave rebellion.

La Amistad left Havana for Camaguey on June 28, 1839. Unlike in the Tecora, Montes and Ruiz did not shackle the slaves during the day. They were allowed to roam the ship if they wanted during daylight but were once again shackled at night. During the voyage,  Sengbe (Cinque) Pieh (one of the Mende captives) tried to find out what Montes and Ruiz intended to do to him and the other captives. He asked the cook Celestino who insinuated that the Africans would be chopped up, cooked, and eaten by the crew. The cook’s joke was not only in bad taste but also ill-timed. He would eventually pay for his morbid sense of humor with his life.

Sengbe saw for himself the atrocities committed by white men during the Middle Passage, so he readily believed Celestino. He wasted no time in planning a rebellion with the help of fellow captives Grabeau and Burnah. On the eve of July 1, 1839, Sengbe was able to pick the locks of the shackles with a nail and free himself and the other slaves. Once freed, they found cane machetes stashed in the hold. Each man took a machete and headed to the deck where their first victim, Captain Ramon Ferrer, was sleeping.

Ferrer woke up and managed to warn Montes and Ruiz of the mutiny. The Africans, however, easily overpowered him and strangled him to death. Montes was wounded during the fight, while the two seamen immediately abandoned the ship. The depth of the slaves’ anger was reserved for Celestino who they hacked to death. Only the cabin boy Antonio was spared from the slaves’ wrath.

With the ship now under their control, Sengbe and the other Africans decided to sail for home. Since none of them knew how to steer the vessel toward Sierra Leone, they forced Montes and Ruiz to steer for them. The two agreed but craftily directed the ship in a meandering course toward the coast of North America in hopes that a United States ship would eventually find and help them. The Amistad sometimes came across merchant ships, but the Africans concealed the mutiny by hiding Montes and Ruiz below deck. With the slave owners’ money, they were able to buy food and water from passing ships when their stocks ran dangerously low.

The sailors of the vessels the Amistad came across were mystified by the appearance of the all-African crew and the ship’s derelict condition. Soon, wild rumors of a pirate ship commandeered by Africans spread to the American East Coast and fired up the locals’ imagination. Some people claimed it was a pirate ship loaded with gold, while others believed that it was the ghostly ship of the Flying Dutchman.

Sengbe, Grabeau, and Burnah decided to drop anchor in Long Island and buy food there by the end of August 1839. The men stood out like a sore thumb, and they were soon spotted by Captain Henry Green and his men. Green realized that this must be the mysterious ship that he heard about in the news, so he immediately made moves to ingratiate himself with Sengbe and his companions so he could eventually claim for himself the Amistad, its cargo, and the Africans. Despite not knowing each other’s language, both sides agreed through gestures to meet again on the following day.

As agreed, both parties appeared on the beach and met again the next day. Captain Green’s dream of salvaging the Amistad was dashed when the revenue cutter USS Washington appeared and interrupted them. Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney of the USS Washington ordered his crew to seize the Amistad and subdue its crew.

To the American crew’s surprise, they found the ship full of Africans and quickly realized that they were the mutineers. Gedney also saw an opportunity to claim the Amistad and acquire the Africans as his own slaves. He then had Sengbe seized and isolated in the USS Washington to prevent him from launching another mutiny. Gedney did not want to stay in New York as slavery had been outlawed in the State, so he had it towed to New London, Connecticut where slavery was still legal. He then submitted his claims to the Amistad and its cargo for hearing to Judge Andrew T. Judson of Connecticut.

Preparing for a Legal Battle

The Africans (the four children included) were jailed in New Haven while the judge examined Amistad’s papers. He also listened to the testimonies of Ruiz and Montes, as well as those given by the cabin boy Antonio. All three identified Sengbe, Burnah, and Grabeau as the leaders of the mutiny. The judge did not bother to interview the Africans because not one of them knew how to speak English or Spanish. In addition, no one living in Connecticut at that time knew the Mende language. Sengbe and his companions were charged with piracy and murder after the judge heard the Spaniards’ testimonies. Their trial was set on September 19, 1839.

News of the plight of the Amistad mutineers soon reached prominent Connecticut abolitionists. The Quaker abolitionist and New London grocer Dwight P. Janes were the first to take up their cause and form the Amistad Committee. He was joined by fellow abolitionists Lewis and Arthur Tappan, Reverend Simeon Jocelyn, and Reverend Joshua Leavitt.

These men took it upon themselves to raise funds for the mutineers’ legal fees. The Committee managed to convince Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin to represent the Africans in the long legal battle. They also wrote to the press about the plight of the mutineers and spread the news about their situation. Their efforts became so successful (perhaps too successful) as thousands of well-meaning visitors and gawkers flocked to New Haven prison where the Africans were kept.

The Amistad Case and its Political Implications

For the US President Martin Van Buren, the arrival of the Amistad could not have come at the worst time. He was up for reelection in 1840 and his campaign was in full swing. The Amistad case was both a domestic and international issue, so he sought a decision that would satisfy the American voters (both abolitionists and staunch slaveholders) and prevent a diplomatic row with Spain. He found neither.

Van Buren’s top advisers (who also happened to be Southern slaveholders) wanted him to return the Amistad, its cargo, as well as Sengbe and his friends, to Cuba to pacify Spain. There they would eventually be tried and hanged if found guilty. The Spanish foreign minister also reminded the president of the two treaties America signed with Spain in 1795 and 1819 in regards to aiding ships in distress. Spain only wanted the Amistad issue silenced because of some thorny and embarrassing facts about its legality. Spain had abolished the slave trade in 1811, so its citizens had no business transporting enslaved people across the Atlantic. Its law enforcement too had been so weak that it was unable to impose the ban in Cuba. Spain also wanted the Amistad matter resolved quietly and quickly because it had signed an anti-slavery treaty with Britain in 1833. If the Amistad issue Britain, Spain surmised that British government would consider this a violation of the treaty and would immediately intervene in Cuba.

Van Buren, on the other hand, was torn between the abolitionists (mostly concentrated in the North) and the staunch slaveholders (who mostly lived in the South) at home. The abolitionists believed that the Africans had gained their freedom by launching a mutiny and should be allowed to go back to Sierra Leone. The slaveholders, meanwhile, wanted to return the Africans to Ruiz and Montes. They insisted that the Africans should go back to Cuba and be hanged there for murdering the ship captain and the cook. They readily believed the Spaniards’ story that Sengbe and his friends were born in Cuba and they had been slaves there for many years. This in spite of the fact that none of the Africans understood Spanish, and none of them answered to their alleged Spanish names read out to them during the trial.

The Amistad Trial

The Amistad trial for murder and piracy began on September 19, 1839, in Hartford, Connecticut. The case was presided by Justice Smith Thompson of the United States Circuit Court. U.S. District Attorney W.S. Holabird led the prosecution, while Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin led the Amistad defense. Baldwin was assisted by lawyers Seth Perkins Staples and Theodore Sedgwick.

The defense first asked the court to issue a writ of habeas corpus for the captive girls, but this was immediately blocked by Holabird. He asserted that the African children were considered as properties and not humans, so the principles of the writ of habeas corpus did not apply to them. Besides, he already had secret orders from President Van Buren to wrap the case up so it could be transferred to Cuba as quickly as possible.

Baldwin countered this and presented the little girls to the court to garner sympathy for their plight. The children were visibly distressed during their appearance. The argument whether to grant the girls the writ of habeas corpus went on for two days before Holabird did an abrupt about-face. He acknowledged that the girls were humans and were born free so that a writ was completely unnecessary. He also asserted that the girls should be sent back to Africa as soon as possible. The truth, however, was Holabird was pressured to deflect anything in the trial that might taint Van Buren’s reputation and damage his campaign.

On September 23, Justice Thompson declared that the case could not be tried by a U.S. court as the mutiny happened in waters controlled by Spain. The judge, however, did not issue a writ of habeas corpus as the matter of whether the Africans were properties of Ruiz and Montes was yet to be decided. The second trial was set in a U.S. District Court.

The District Court Trial

The Amistad Committee had already realized that their case might be in danger when they learned that it was assigned to Judge Andrew T. Judson. The prejudiced Judson had prosecuted the Connecticut schoolteacher Prudence Crandall when she tried to integrate an African-American girl into her school in 1833. The odds were against the abolitionists and the Amistad mutineers, but the Committee and the legal defense continued to prepare for the trial.

While they awaited the trial, members of the Committee were busy combing through New York Harbor in search of a Mende interpreter. They were lucky to find James Covey, a native of Sierra Leone and former captive himself, who worked as a sailor on a British vessel.    

To the Committee’s surprise, however, Judson allowed a little improvement on the prisoners’ living conditions. He permitted them to be brought outside every now and then to do some exercises and breathe in some fresh air. The captive children were sent to private homes where foster families taught them the English language. Students from the nearby Yale College visited the captives to evangelize and teach them English.

Dr. Richard Madden, an Irish abolitionist who lived and worked in Havana, had hurried to Connecticut to give his sworn testimony on the thriving slave trade in Cuba. This damning testimony shredded the credibility of Montes and Ruiz, and they were soon charged with imprisonment. Both men were arrested and sent to prison in New York in October 1839. Montes posted bail and quickly sailed to Cuba, while Ruiz refused to post bail (he did not want to admit to any wrongdoing) and remained in prison. He eventually posted bail and also fled to Cuba. The indictment and imprisonment of his compatriots outraged the Spanish foreign minister. The events only added to the pressure on the beleaguered Van Buren.

The District Court hearing of the Amistad finally began on January 7, 1840, in New Haven. With James Covey as interpreter, Sengbe was able to narrate how they were captured in Sierra Leone and eventually sold in Havana. While the Amistad narration was ongoing, two ships were already waiting on the dock to take the Africans away. The first one was the USS Grampus, a vessel sent by Van Buren to take the captives to Cuba after the trial. The Amistad Committee, however, had prepared their own chartered ship. The abolitionists’ ship was to take the Africans to Canada after the trial.

Judge Judson shocked everyone when he ruled in favor of the captives on January 13, 1840. The court granted Lieutenant Gedney one-third of the value of the Amistad and its cargo as per U.S. law of salvage. He, however, was not allowed to claim the captives as part of the salvage as the Africans were transported to Cuba illegally. The judge ruled that the captives should be returned to Africa posthaste. Captain Green’s claim, on the other hand, was denied by the court. Perhaps one of the most unhappy persons at that time was Van Buren who, despite his illegal maneuvers, was not successful in his reelection bid later that year.

The Final Showdown

The prosecution, naturally, was unhappy with the decision and decided to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. A new trial was set on February 22, 1841.

For the defense, the chances of winning the case did not look too good once again as five out of nine Justices (including the Chief Justice) came from the South. The abolitionists, therefore, was forced to look for a prominent anti-slavery advocate who would support their case and lend a voice to the cause. They found one in the former U.S. president John Quincy Adams.

The 73-year old John Q. Adams was the son of the United States second president John Adams and his progressive first lady, Abigail Adams. A staunch anti-slavery advocate, he had already served the United States as a senator, ambassador, and Secretary of State. He served as U.S. President between 1825 and 1829 and was serving as a Representative of Massachusetts when Attorney Baldwin approached him. He was initially hesitant to accept the Committee’s offer because of his age, but Baldwin eventually convinced him to join the defense team.

The Supreme Court trial began on February 22, 1841. The U.S. Attorney General Henry D. Gilpin led the prosecution this time and was first to deliver the opening statements. Baldwin’s opening statements, meanwhile, hinged on three premises. First, he questioned and demolished the truthfulness and validity of the papers produced by Montes and Ruiz. He then argued that the Adams-Onis Treaty did not apply to the captives as they were not born in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Lastly, he argued that since Sengbe and the other captives were free men, the U.S. Federal government had no right to send them to Cuba as it would go against the U.S. Constitution.

Four days later, John Quincy Adams himself addressed the Supreme Court. He stated that the Adams-Onis Treaty could only be used during wartime, and its terms did not apply to the Amistad case. He also blasted former President Van Buren in front of the Supreme Court for interfering with the Amistad case. His lecture on the Amistad case went on for another eight hours.

The Supreme Court finally reached a decision in March 1841. The Court determined that Sengbe and the other mutineers were free men, and as such, they were to be released from prison and be allowed to return to their homeland immediately. The Justices also decided that Ruiz, Montes, and the Spanish foreign minister had no right to hold the captives or prevent them from returning to Sierra Leone. To the Amistad Committee’s relief, the Justices asserted that all human beings have the right to fight for their freedom and the captives had earned theirs through the mutiny. Gedney’s claims to a portion of the cargo were also affirmed. Attorney Baldwin was not present when the Supreme Court handed the decision on the case so Adams sent him an ecstatic note instead.

Bittersweet Victory

Sengbe and his fellow captives were at first skeptical when the news of their freedom reached them. But celebrations and joy replaced their initial skepticism when they realized that they were finally going home. The abolitionists also met the news with great joy and were quick to publicize the Amistad victory. The Africans stayed in Connecticut for several months while the abolitionists were raising funds so they could charter a ship back to Sierra Leone. Sengbe and his companions helped in raising funds by creating and selling handicrafts.

The Africans boarded the ship Gentleman on November 25, 1841, and said tearful farewells to their American friends. They were accompanied by American missionaries who saw an opportunity to evangelize in Sierra Leone. The Amistad mutineers and the American missionaries arrived in Sierra Leone in January 1842.


Picture by: Unknown – New Haven Colony Historical Society and Adams National Historic Site, Public Domain, Link

Kromer, Helen. The Amistad Revolt, 1839: The Slave Uprising Aboard the Spanish Schooner. New York: F. Watts, 1973.

Osagie, Iyunolu Folayan. The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Zeinert, Karen. The Amistad Slave Revolt and American Abolition. North Haven, CT: Linnet Books, 1997.

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