Mar 092016


On this date in 1841 the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its judgment in United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, a case resulting from the rebellion of Africans on board the Spanish schooner La Amistad in 1839. It was an unusual freedom suit that involved international issues and parties, as well as United States law. It has been described as the most important court case involving slavery before being eclipsed by that of Dred Scott.


On June 27, 1839, La Amistad (“Friendship”), a Spanish vessel, departed from the port of Havana, Cuba (then a Spanish colony), for the Province of Puerto Principe, also in Cuba. The masters of La Amistad were the ship’s captain Ramón Ferrer, José Ruiz, and Pedro Montez, all Spanish nationals. With Ferrer was his personal slave Antonio. Ruiz was transporting 49 Africans, entrusted to him by the governor-general of Cuba. Montez held four additional Africans, also entrusted to him by the governor-general. As the voyage normally took only four days, the crew had brought four days’ worth of rations, not anticipating the strong headwind that slowed the schooner. On July 2, 1839, one of the Africans, Cinqué, freed himself and the other captives using a file that had been found and kept by a woman who, like them, had been on the Tecora (the ship that had transported them illegally as slaves from Africa to Cuba).

The Mende Africans killed the ship’s cook, Celestino, who had told them that they were to be killed and eaten by their captors. The slaves also killed Captain Ferrer; the struggle resulted in the deaths of two Africans as well. Two sailors escaped in a lifeboat. The Africans spared the lives of the two masters who could navigate the ship, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, upon the condition that they return the ship to Africa. They also spared the captain’s personal slave, Antonio, a creole, and used him as an interpreter with Ruiz and Montez.


The crew deceived the Africans and steered La Amistad north along the coast of the United States, where the ship was sighted repeatedly. They dropped anchor half a mile off eastern Long Island, New York, on August 26, 1839, at Culloden Point. Some of the Africans went ashore to procure water and provisions from the hamlet of Montauk. The vessel was discovered by the United States revenue cutter USS Washington. Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, commanding the cutter, saw some of the Africans on shore and, assisted by his officers and crew, took custody of La Amistad and the Africans.


Taking them to the port of New London, Connecticut, he presented officials with a written claim for his property rights under admiralty law for salvage of the vessel, the cargo, and the Africans. Gedney allegedly chose to land in Connecticut because slavery was still technically legal there, unlike in New York. He hoped to profit from sale of the Africans. Gedney transferred the captured Africans to the custody of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, at which time legal proceedings began. The parties to various lawsuits were as follows:

Lt Thomas R. Gedney filed a libel (a lawsuit in admiralty law) for rights to the African captives and cargo on board La Amistad as property seized on the high seas.

Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham filed a libel for salvage, claiming that they had been the first to discover La Amistad.

José Ruiz and Pedro Montez filed libels requesting that their property of “slaves” and cargo be returned to them.

The Office of the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, representing the Spanish Government, filed a libel stating that the “slaves,” cargo, and vessel be returned to Spain as its property.

Antonio Vega, vice-consul of Spain, filed a libel for “the slave Antonio,” on the grounds that this man was his personal property.

The Africans denied that they were slaves or property, and that the court could not “return” them to the control of the government of Spain.

As you might surmise, this was an exceptionally complex case. There were matters of sea law, international law, U.S. law, Spanish law, and local law to consider. These matters included the ownership of the vessel and cargo, whether the Africans were slaves or not, whether the killings were justified or murder, and so forth. I’m going to pare things down a lot, and cut to the chase.

A case before the circuit court in Hartford, Connecticut, was filed in September 1839, charging the Africans with mutiny and murder on La Amistad. The court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction, because the alleged acts took place on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters. It was entered into the docket books of the federal court as United States v. Cinque, et al.

Various parties filed property claims with the district court as putative owners of the African captives, the ship, and its cargo: Ruiz and Montez, Lieutenant Gedney, and Captain Henry Green (who had met the Africans while on shore on Long Island and claimed to have helped in their capture). The Spanish government asked that the ship, cargo and slaves be restored to Spain under the Pinckney treaty of 1795 between Spain and the United States. Article IX of this treaty holds that “all ships and merchandises of what nature soever, which shall be rescued out of the hands of pirates or robbers on the high seas, shall be restored, entire, to the true proprietor.” The United States filed a claim on behalf of Spain.


The abolitionist movement had formed the “Amistad Committee”, headed by New York City merchant Lewis Tappan, and had collected money to mount a defense of the Africans. Initially, communication with the Africans was difficult, since they spoke neither English nor Spanish. Professor J. Willard Gibbs, Sr. learned from the Africans to count to ten in their Mende language. He went to the docks of New York City, and counted aloud in front of sailors until he located a person able to understand and translate. He found James Covey, a twenty-year-old sailor on the British man-of-war HMS Buzzard. Covey was a former slave from West Africa.

The abolitionists filed charges of assault, kidnapping, and false imprisonment against Ruiz and Montez. Their arrest in New York City in October 1839 outraged pro-slavery rights advocates and the Spanish government. Montez immediately posted bail and went to Cuba. Ruiz, “more comfortable in a New England setting (and entitled to many amenities not available to the Africans), hoped to garner further public support by staying in jail. Ruiz, however, soon tired of his martyred lifestyle in jail and posted bond. Like Montez, he returned to Cuba.” Outraged, the Spanish minister Cavallero Pedro Alcantara Argaiz made “caustic accusations against America’s judicial system and continued to condemn the abolitionist affront. Ruiz’s imprisonment only added to Argaiz’s anger, and he pressured Forsyth to seek ways to throw out the case altogether.” The Spanish held that the bailbonds that the men had to acquire (so that they could leave jail and return to Cuba) caused them a grave financial burden, and “by the treaty of 1795, no obstacle or impediment [to leave the U.S.] should have [been] placed” in their way.

On January 7, 1840, all the parties, with the Spanish minister representing Ruiz and Montez, appeared before the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut and presented their arguments. The abolitionists’ main argument before the district court was that a treaty between Britain and Spain of 1817 and a subsequent pronouncement by the Spanish government had outlawed the slave trade across the Atlantic. They established that the “slaves” had been captured in Mendiland (also spelled Mendeland, current Sierra Leone) in Africa, sold to a Portuguese trader in Lomboko (south of Freetown) in April 1839, and taken to Havana illegally on a Portuguese ship. As the Africans were victims of illegal kidnapping, the abolitionists argued they were not slaves and were free to return to Africa. Their papers wrongly identified them as slaves who had been in Cuba since before 1820 (and were thus considered to have been born there as slaves). They contended that government officials in Cuba condoned such mistaken classifications.

Concerned about relations with Spain and his re-election prospects in the South, the Democratic President Martin Van Buren sided with the Spanish position. He ordered a U.S. schooner to New Haven Harbor to return the Africans to Cuba immediately after a favorable decision, before any appeals could be decided.

The district court ruled in favor of the abolitionist and Africans’ position. In January 1840, it ordered that the Africans be returned to their homeland by the U.S. government, and that one-third of La Amistad and its cargo be given to Lieutenant Gedney as salvage property. (The federal government had outlawed the slave trade between the U.S. and other countries in 1808; an 1818 law, as amended in 1819, provided for the return of all illegally traded slaves.) The captain’s personal slave Antonio was declared the rightful property of the captain’s heirs and was ordered restored to Cuba (Sterne said that he willingly returned to Cuba.) Smithsonian sources say that he escaped to New York, or to Canada, with the help of an abolitionist group).


In detail, the district court ruled as follows:

It rejected the claim of the U.S. Attorney, argued on behalf of the Spanish minister, for the restoration of the slaves.

It dismissed the claims of Ruiz and Montez.

It ordered that the captives be delivered to the custody of the President of the United States for transportation to Africa, since they were, in fact, legally free.

It allowed the Spanish vice-consul to claim the slave Antonio.

It allowed Lt. Gedney to claim one-third of the property on board La Amistad.

It dismissed the claims of Green and Fordham for salvage.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, by order of Van Buren, immediately appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Connecticut District. He challenged every part of the district court’s ruling except the concession of the slave Antonio to the Spanish vice-consul. Ruiz and Montez, and the owners of La Amistad, did not appeal.

The circuit court of appeals affirmed the district court’s decision in April 1840. The U.S. Attorney appealed the federal government’s case to the United States Supreme Court. John Quincy Adams, former president of the United States and at that time a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, had agreed to argue for the Africans.

On March 9, Associate Justice Joseph Story delivered the Court’s decision. Article IX of Pinckney’s Treaty was ruled off topic since the Africans in question were never legal property. They were not criminals, as the U.S. Attorney’s Office argued, but rather “unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board a certain vessel”. The documents submitted by Attorney General Gilpin were not evidence of property, but rather of fraud on the part of the Spanish government. Lt. Gedney and the USS Washington were to be awarded salvage from the vessel for having performed “a highly meritorious and useful service to the proprietors of the ship and cargo.”

When La Amistad came into Long Island, however, the Court believed it to be in the possession of the Africans on board, who had never intended to become slaves.

Upon the whole, our opinion is, that the decree of the circuit court, affirming that of the district court, ought to be affirmed, except so far as it directs the negroes to be delivered to the president, to be transported to Africa, in pursuance of the act of the 3rd of March 1819; and as to this, it ought to be reversed: and that the said negroes be declared to be free, and be dismissed from the custody of the court, and go without delay.


Abolitionist supporters took the survivors – 36 men and boys and three girls – to Farmington, a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Their residents had agreed to have the Africans stay there until they could return to their homeland. Some households took them in; supporters also provided barracks for them. The Amistad Committee instructed the Africans in English and Christianity, and raised funds to pay for their return home. Along with several missionaries, in 1842 the surviving 39 Africans sailed to Sierra Leone.

The case was of considerable importance in the lead up to the U.S. Civil War, not least because it magnified the cracks in the Union, and pointed out the significant inconsistencies in the law – notably that the Atlantic slave trade was illegal, but the ownership of slaves was still legal in many U.S. states, especially in the South, and these states had no intention of giving up their slaves. Hard times were coming.

In honor of the freed Mende people I offer a simple recipe from Sierra Leone, their homeland. Cassava has been a staple in Sierra Leone for centuries – both leaves and tubers. You can also use the starch, called tapioca, as a thickening agent or as a general ingredient. There is a big problem with cassava, however. Cassava is classified as either sweet or bitter. Like other roots and tubers, both bitter and sweet varieties of cassava contain antinutritional factors and toxins, with the bitter varieties containing much larger amounts. They must be properly prepared before consumption, as improper preparation of cassava can leave enough residual cyanide to cause acute cyanide intoxication, which can lead to paralysis, and, in the worst cases, death. Fortunately, in Western markets the sweet varieties predominate. They do contain cyanide in small quantities, but it is easily removed by fully cooking the leaves or tubers. This particular cassava leaf stew is extremely sumptuous and would only be made for special occasions. Of course, there are endless variations. Palm oil is causing havoc to the environment these days in many areas, so, if you use it make sure it is from a sustainable source. Peanut butter is also a very traditional ingredient, but some people use coconut milk instead. Maggi cubes, courtesy of British colonialism, are now the ubiquitous replacement for beef stock.


Cassava Leaf Stew


300g cassava leaves, pounded
300g beef, cubed
3-4 tablespoons of peanut butter
200 ml palm oil
1 whole fish (tilapia or mackerel)
2 onions, finely chopped
3 fresh okra, finely chopped
hot chile, to taste
beef stock (or Maggi cubes)
2 tbsp dried crayfish, ground


Put the meat, whole fish, salt and 2 cups of water or broth in a cooking pot. Simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the fish is cooked. Remove the fish, let it cool a little, and separate the fish from the bones. Set aside.

Add the cassava leaves to the pot along with the peanut butter dissolved in a cup of warm water.

Add the onion, chile pepper and several more cups of broth. Simmer for 30 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

Return the fish to the pot along with the crayfish powder and okra. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. You should not add so much broth that the stew is soup-like. This takes practice. If necessary, reduce the sauce until it is thick.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

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