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.

Aug 272013


On this date in 1928 the Kellogg–Briand Pact (or Pact of Paris, officially General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy) was signed by France, the United States, and 13 other nations.  It was the brainchild of French foreign minister Aristide Briand, but codified and expanded by United States Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg. It was a most laudable effort in the aftermath of the First World War (known as “The Great War” at that time), to appeal to nations to resolve differences without resort to war.  I wholeheartedly applaud the effort, and have no difficulty celebrating the day, even though the effort was a complete failure.  I should note that the pact has never been repealed in the U.S. so, in some technical sense, it is still in force.

The guts of the Kellogg–Briand Pact are contained in the first two articles:

The High Contracting Parties solemnly declare in the names of their respective peoples that they condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.

The High Contracting Parties agree that the settlement or solution of all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them, shall never be sought except by pacific means.

Kellogg was awarded the 1929 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to provide what he hoped would be a permanent end to war as an “instrument of national policy.” Well, you get an A for effort Frank. (Briand had already shared the Nobel Prize in 1926 for previous peace efforts)


The map below charts the worldwide signatories to the pact. Dark green represents the original signatories, light green represents subsequent signatories, and light blue represents dependent colonies of nations who signed, and were, therefore, legally bound as well.  I am interested to note that almost all of Latin America is conspicuous in its failure to sign on, mainly because Latin American nations were neutral during the First World War (following the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907). Only Brazil was directly involved and not until 1917.


French Minister of Foreign Affairs Aristide Briand’s initial proposal was for a peace pact as a bilateral agreement between the United States and France to outlaw war between them. Particularly hard hit by the First World War, France faced continuing insecurity from Germany and sought alliances to shore up its defenses. Briand published an open letter in April of 1927 containing the proposal. Though the suggestion had the enthusiastic support of some members of the U.S. peace movement, President Calvin Coolidge and Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg were less eager than Briand to enter into a bilateral arrangement. They worried that the agreement against war could be interpreted as a bilateral alliance and require the United States to intervene if France was ever threatened (which it was). To avoid this, Kellogg suggested that the two nations take the lead in inviting all nations to join them in outlawing war.  So, although Briand initiated the idea of a peace pact, it was Kellogg who broadened it to its global basis.


The original signatories were France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The U.S. Senate ratified the agreement by a vote of 85–1, though it did so only after making reservations to note that U.S. participation did not limit its right to self-defense or require it to act against signatories breaking the agreement – pretty much a “get out of jail free” card.

In reality the pact had zero impact on the signatories.  Makes one wonder why they bothered.  The following cartoon is perhaps a little obscure nowadays even with the handwritten legend “Innocents Abroad.” The intent is pretty clear, though.  Europe saw the U.S. as being naïvely paternalistic in its efforts in this regard.  Europe plays the dutiful child saying “yes, daddy” and then goes and does what it pleases.  It was naïve to expect such a pact to achieve anything, but I believe it was sincere.


The first major test of the pact came just a few years later in 1931, when the Mukden Incident led to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Though Japan had signed the pact, the combination of the worldwide depression and a limited desire to go to war to preserve China prevented the League of Nations or the United States from taking any action to enforce it. Further threats to the pact also came from fellow signatories Germany, Austria, and Italy. It soon became clear that there was no way to enforce the pact or sanction those who broke it; it also never fully defined what constituted “self-defense,” so there were many ways around its terms (including the avoidance of formal declarations of war). In the end, the Kellogg-Briand Pact did nothing to prevent World War II or any of the conflicts that followed. Its legacy remains as a statement of the idealism expressed by advocates for peace in the interwar period. Let us hope for a return to that idealism SOON.

I thought that French fries  would be a good choice for a recipe to celebrate a pact that came out of U.S./France negotiations.  I’m going to go two ways with this.  First I am going to give you my recipe (and notes) for perfect fries. Second, I am going to list a number of ways that French fries are served around the world (whatever they call them — let’s not fight!).

© Tío Juan’s Perfect French Fries

Starting notes:

Type of potato. Russet or Idaho potatoes are the classics in the U.S. They are in the category of mealy potatoes sometimes called floury potatoes.  You need to use the one available where you live.  King Edward used to be the classic in the U.K. Maris Peer and Maris Piper are newer varieties that work well. In other countries use a potato classified as a baking potato. Do not use waxy potatoes.

Peeling.  For a long time I never peeled potatoes at all, no matter what the dish.  I would simply scrub them well on the outside and then cut them, skins on, for whatever I needed them for.  Unpeeled French fries have a tasty, crispy skin side that has a slight earthiness to it.  These go well with rustic dishes.  Peeled French fries are a bit more refined, but also cleaner in taste.

Cutting. Style of cutting depends on personal preferences plus the nature of the dish the fries are to be served with. The general issue has to do with the ratio of crisp outer layer to tender insides.  Here I think it is cook’s choice plus some common sense.  Shoestring fries are ultra-thin, so they are crispy with almost no insides.  They are perhaps best as a snack or garnish.  “Regular” fries, the size you get in fast food joints, are multi-purpose, but best served with other fried foods. Wedges and steak fries, are big and hearty with lots of floury center.  They go well with robustly sauced dishes where you might otherwise use boiled or baked potatoes.

Fat.  What fat you choose depends to a large degree on how often you eat fried foods. I rarely do (maybe three or four times per year) so I have no problem making French fries with the most hideously artery clogging fats there are.  If you are more of a glutton for fried foods, you might want to go with healthier choices. Although it is a relatively modern trend, duck fat is unrivalled, producing crispy delicious fries.  Lard was the usual fat for British chippies when I used to eat in them in the 60’s, and is my fat of choice when I cannot get anything else.  If I cook a goose at Christmas I will use the plenteous fat from the baking dish for deep frying.   Otherwise, use oils that are low in saturated fats and trans-fat. Your best choices in this regard are safflower oil and canola oil.

Draining. This is a big issue for me.  Just about every recipe I ever read calls for draining cooked fries (and other deep fried foods) on paper towels. WRONG! If the food sits on paper towels the paper absorbs the fat but the fries then sit in the fat. Always drain fried food on a wire rack with a pan lined with paper towels underneath. If you like you can pat the fries with paper towels to remove excess, but that it is all.


1 ½ lbs potatoes (your choice)
cooking fat/oil (your choice)


Peel the potatoes or not as you choose. Cut the potatoes to the shape and size of your choice.  Put them in a colander or large sieve and rinse them under cold running water until the water runs clear. Put the potatoes in a bowl and cover them with cold water.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.

You can use the fryer of your choice. You MUST have a way to accurately measure the temperature of the fat.

Preheat the fat/oil to 325°F/160°C

Drain the potatoes and dry them with a kitchen towel or paper towels.

Fry the potatoes in batches.  If you cook too many at a time the temperature of the fryer will drop too much.  Fry each batch for around 8 minutes, until the potatoes are limp and begin to turn color, about 6 minutes.  Drain on a wire rack (see notes). Cool to room temperature.

Reheat the oil/fat to 350°F/175°C. Fry the blanched potatoes in batches again until golden. This should not take more than 2 minutes.  Drain on a wire rack again, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.

Choice of toppings or condiments.

These are generalizations, more to give you the idea than hard and fast rules as to how people in a few different countries season their fries. Dip them in whatever you want, or douse them in anything tasty.

U.S.A. Tomato ketchup reigns supreme, of course, but don’t forget chili cheese fries – a healthy dose of chili (no beans) and grated cheese.


U.K. Of course British chips are not really French fries at all. The ones I am familiar with from fish and chip shops tend to be fat and rather limp – delicious, though.  The classic flavorings are malt vinegar and salt. If you let them put the salt on for you, you may well have a stroke.  In the Midlands of England it is common to eat chips with mushy peas (which are what the name suggests). It’s also common to get chips with curry sauce at both Chinese and Indian takeaways, although the style of curry is quite different at each.


Argentina. Tomato ketchup is common, but we also use salsa golf, which is a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise, sometimes with a touch of oregano.  You can also use chimichurri, a blend of chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano, and white or red wine vinegar.

Belgium and Holland. Mayonnaise is usual, but it is a richer, creamier mayonnaise than you get elsewhere.  Belgians also serve meat stews directly over French fries (see post 21 July).  Belgians claim they invented the French fry, which may or may not be true. The historical evidence is not very clear. Whatever the case, Belgians enjoy deep fried potatoes with a variety of meals, including formal ones.


Romania. In Romania, you can dip French fries in mujdei, a spicy sauce made with minced garlic cloves, salt, oil, vinegar, and a little bit of water. It’s rather liquid.

Canada. In Canada you can get poutine in quick food joints: fries smothered in beef gravy and topped with crumbled cheese curds.


Philippines. Banana ketchup is a common condiment.  It’s sweeter than tomato ketchup, and a little spicier.  Throughout SE Asia sweeter, spicier sauces are common.

Japan. There are spice mixes in Japan that are used as seasonings for plain rice that are used for fries also.  A blend of nori flakes with the shichimi togarashi (red chili pepper, orange peel, sesame seeds, Japanese pepper, ginger and seaweed) is common.

With fries there are no rules.  Any sauce works. Mayonnaise can be juiced up a hundred ways: curry powder, fines herbes, garlic . . . Or go with bearnaise sauce, tartar sauce, tzatziki, feta cheese, barbecue sauce, chicken gravy, brown sauce, lemon juice, piccalilli, pickled cucumber, gherkins, pickled onions (a fav of mine), fresh cheese curds of any variety. Mix and match. Try not to be dull in this life.