The Amistad Slaves, 1839-1840

After being kidnapped in 1839 from what is now Sierra Leone, Joseph Cinque and 52 other Africans were sold in Cuba and put aboard a sleek black schooner named The Amistad -- Spanish for friendship. A few days out to sea, Cinque led a revolt in which two crew members were killed. But the Africans spared the lives of two others and ordered them to steer the ship back east to Africa. During the day, the crew sailed toward the morning sun, but at night, they secretly turned the craft around, hoping to be rescued in the Americas. After months of zigzagging off the east coast of the United States, they were spotted by a U.S. Navy ship and towed to New London. The crew members told their tale, and the Africans were charged with murder and piracy and sent to a prison in New Haven. The odds were low that a group of blacks who spoke no English would find much sympathy in a Connecticut court in 1839 -- nine years before the state would formally outlaw slavery. And the odds were lower still when the Africans were brought before Judge Andrew Judson, who six years earlier had prosecuted Prudence Crandall for running a school for black girls in Canterbury. "The colored people can never rise from their menial condition in our country; they ought not to be permitted to rise here," Judson had said. "They are an inferior race of beings." If that weren't enough, the Africans had a powerful foe in President Martin Van Buren, who was eager to placate the Spanish government, which had demanded that the Amistad and its cargo be returned to Cuba. But the Africans had friends as well, and their case became a cause celebre for spirited abolitionists of the time, who financed the defense. Judson had sent the criminal case to another court, where a judge ruled that since the killings occurred in international waters and the victims were not U.S. citizens, the court had no jurisdiction. But the question of whether the Africans were property or kidnap victims returned to Judson's court. The White House prepared for victory, placing a ship at the ready in Long Island Sound to whisk the Africans to Cuba before an appeal could be filed. But on Jan. 13, 1840, Judge Judson, a former politician who had extraordinarily low regard for blacks, nevertheless defied the White House, ruling that the Africans had been kidnapped in violation of international law, and that they could not be held as slaves under either U.S. or Spanish law. The ruling, later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, granted the Africans' wish to return to their homes. Cinque and others, Judson ruled: "shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred." IMAGE CAPTION: An 1839 portrait of Joseph Cinque by New Haven abolitionist and painter Nathaniel Jocelyn.
New Haven Museum Collection
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