July 1st, 1839

Kidnapped Africans Seize Control Aboard Amistad Slave Ship

Though the United States Congress passed legislation in 1807 banning the importation of enslaved persons, traders continued to transport enslaved Africans into the country. During the early 1800s, many European countries also placed prohibitions on the trafficking of enslaved Africans. In January 1839, a group of Africans from the Mende tribe who had been kidnapped in Sierra Leone by Portuguese traders were sold to Spanish traders Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro. Ruiz and Pedro then transported the Africans to Havana, Cuba, on the ship La Amistad. In Cuba, the traders falsely classified the Africans as native Cubans. On June 27, 1839, the Amistad departed for another Cuban city, still carrying 49 of the Africans.

On July 1, 1839, Cinque, a Mende leader aboard La Amistad, used a file to free himself and others from their chains. The captives then revolted, killing the ship’s captain and cook. After taking control of the ship, the Africans demanded that the remaining crew return them to their homeland. The crew deceived the revolters and instead sailed toward the northeastern United States.

On August 24, 1839, American authorities in New York seized the ship. The Africans aboard were arrested and charged with murder. Though murder charges were eventually dropped, a debate arose over the status of the Africans: were they free human beings or enslaved property? Future President John Quincy Adams represented the Africans in litigation to decide that question, and won their release with a ruling from the United States Supreme Court. Many of the Africans died awaiting recognition of their freedom, but in 1841, 35 of the survivors - including Cinque - were returned to their homeland.

(From Mural No. 2, The Court Scene, by Hale Woodruff, 1938, housed in Savery Library at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama)