Slave Revolt Aboard Ship - History

Slave Revolt Aboard Ship - History

A slave mutiny took place on the slave ship Amistad. The mutineers brought the ship to Montauk on Lang Island, where they were arrested. The slaves were defended by former President John Quincy Adams before the Supreme Court, which granted them their freedom.

The Slave Ship

The Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on, [1] is a painting by the British artist J. M. W. Turner, first exhibited at The Royal Academy of Arts in 1840.

The Slave Ship
Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on
ArtistJ. M. W. Turner
Year1840
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions91 cm × 123 cm (36 in × 48 in)
LocationMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston

Measuring 35 + 3 ⁄ 4 in × 48 + 1 ⁄ 4 in (91 cm × 123 cm) in oil on canvas, it is now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In this classic example of a Romantic maritime painting, Turner depicts a ship visible in the background, sailing through a tumultuous sea of churning water and leaving scattered human forms floating in its wake. Turner was possibly moved to paint The Slave Ship after reading about the slave ship Zong in The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade [2] by Thomas Clarkson the second edition of which was published in 1839. The initial exhibition of the painting in 1840 coincided with international abolitionist campaigns. As the piece changed hands in subsequent years, it was subject to a wide array of conflicting interpretations. While the work is generally admired for its spectacular atmospheric effects, there are conflicting opinions about the relationship between its style and its subject matter.


Shipboard Revolt: Not an Unusual Occurrence

About 100 leagues off the west coast of Africa, the Newport slave ship Little George bobbed in the darkness.

While the crew slept – dawn was an hour away — a group of slaves escaped from their irons and killed John Harris, a doctor Jonathan Ebens, a barrel-maker and Thomas Ham, a sailor.

Awakened by the commotion, Capt. George Scott and several crewmen huddled in his quarters to come up with a plan: they would hurl two bottles of gunpowder into the midst of the slaves and “either suppress them or lose our Lives,” Scott told the Newport Mercury.

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But when a crewman tried to light a bottle of gunpowder, a slave broke it with an ax. A nearby keg of gunpowder exploded, blew out the windows, burned a crew member and injured Scott.

After blocking the captain in his quarters, the Africans sailed for land. Nine days later, the ship struck a sandbar in the Sierra Leone River. The Africans waded ashore and fired on Scott and his men as they tried to escape to the other side of the river. The beaten crew sought food and water from a French ship, “being all of us in a weak and miserable condition” Scott said of the 1730 uprising.

The shipboard revolt is 1 of 17 — including the attack aboard the Sally — reported by Rhode Island captains and newspapers from 1730 to 1807. More than a dozen crewmen and more than 100 slaves died in the uprisings, says historian Jay Coughtry. That number is probably higher because captains were reluctant to report such losses, he says.

In 1762, Newport Capt. George Frost, anchored in an African river, sent two men ashore to gather wood, then allowed 60 slaves to come topside. The Africans threw Frost overboard. When he tried to return to the ship, they harpooned him, according to a newspaper account. Frost then tried to swim to shore, “but after swimming about half the way, he sunk, and was seen no more.”

Even a few Africans could mount a takeover. In 1795, Providence Capt. Abijah Potter allowed his first six slaves to roam the main deck of the Liberty. They killed him and a mate with an ax.

Crews were careless and often ill, explains David Eltis, a history professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

Also, many slaves were prisoners from tribal wars and may have been combative, he says. In fact, during the 300 years that slave trading flourished internationally, the slaves commandeered about 40 ships and returned to Africa.

The attacks dispel the image by some historians of chained and passive captives suffering aboard ships bound for the New World. “I have no doubt that, given the opportunity, they wanted to take over the ship and return to Africa,” says Eltis.

Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.

This series was originally published in September of 2006. Click HERE for a full list of sources used in this reporting.


6.11: Primary Source: A Slave Revolt, 1732

About one in the afternoon, after dinner, we, according to custom caused them, one by one, to go down between decks, to have each his pint of water most of them were yet above deck, many of them provided with knives, which we had indiscreetly given them two or three days before, as not suspecting the least attempt of this nature from them others had pieces of iron they had torn off our forecastle door, as having premeditated a revolt, and seeing all the ship&rsquos company, at best but weak and many quite sick, they had also broken off the shackles from several of their companions feet, which served them, as well as billets they had provided themselves with, and all other things they could lay hands on, which they imagin&rsquod might be of use for this enterprize. Thus arm&rsquod, they fell in crouds and parcels on our men, upon the deck unawares, and stabb&rsquod one of the stoutest of us all, who receiv&rsquod fourteen or fifteen wounds of their knives, and so expir&rsquod. Next they assaulted our boatswain, and cut one of his legs so round the bone, that he could not move, the nerves being cut through others cut our cook&rsquos throat to the pipe, and others wounded three of the sailors, and threw one of them over- board in that condition, from the fore- castle into the sea who, however, by good providence, got hold of the bowline of the fore- sail, and sav&rsquod himself&hellipwe stood in arms, firing on the revolted slaves, of whom we kill&rsquod some, and wounded many: which so terrif&rsquod the rest, that they gave way, dispersing themselves some one way and some another between decks, and under the fore- castle and many of the most mutinous, leapt over board, and drown&rsquod themselves in the ocean with much resolution, shewing no manner of concern for life. Thus we lost twenty seven or twenty eight slaves, either kill&rsquod by us, or drown&rsquod and having master&rsquod them, caused all to go betwixt decks, giving them good words. The next day we had them all again upon deck, where they unanimously declar&rsquod, the Menbombe slaves had been the contrivers of the mutiny, and for an example we caused about thirty of the ringleaders to be very severely whipt by all our men that were capable of doing that office&hellip.

I have observ&rsquod, that the great mortality, which so often happens in slave- ships, proceeds as well from taking in too many, as from want of knowing how to manage them aboard&hellip.

As to the management of our slaves aboard, we lodge the two sexes apart, by means of a strong partition at the main mast the forepart is for men, the other behind the mast for the women. If it be in large ships carrying five or six hundred slaves, the deck in such ships ought to be at least five and a half or six foot high, which is very requisite for driving a continual trade of slaves: for the greater height it has, the more airy and convenient it is for such a considerable number of human creatures and consequently far the more healthy for them, and fitter to look after them. We build a sort of half- decks along the sides with deals and spars provided for that purpose in Europe, that half- deck extending no father than the sides of our scuttles and so the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, and as close together as they can be crouded&hellip.

The planks, or deals, contract some dampness more or less, either from the deck being so often wash&rsquod to keep it clean and sweet, or from the rain that gets in now and then through the scuttles or other openings, and even from the very sweat of the slaves which being so crouded in a low place, is perpetual, and occasions many distempers, or at best great inconveniences dangerous to their health&hellip.

It has been observ&rsquod before, that some slaves fancy they are carry&rsquod to be eaten, which make them desperate and others are so on account of their captivity: so that if care be not taken, they will mutiny and destroy the ship&rsquos crue in hopes to get away.

To prevent such misfortunes, we use to visit them daily, narrowly searching every corner between decks, to see whether they have not found means, to gather any pieces of iron, or wood, or knives, about the ship, notwithstanding the great care we take not to leave any tools or nails, or other things in the way: which, however, cannot be always so exactly observ&rsquod, where so many people are in the narrow compass of a ship.

We cause as many of our men as is convenient to lie in the quarter- deck and gun- room, and our principal officers in the great cabin, where we keep all our small arms in a readiness, with sentinels constantly at the doors and avenues to it being thus ready to disappoint any attempts our slave might make on a sudden.

These precautions contribute very much to keep them in awe and if all those who carry slaves duly observ&rsquod them, we should not hear of so many revolts as have happen&rsquod. Where I was concern&rsquod, we always kept our slaves in such order, that we did not perceive the least inclination in any of them to revolt, or mutiny, and lost very few of our number in the voyage.

It is true, we allow&rsquod them much more liberty, and us&rsquod them with more tenderness than most other Europeans would think prudent to do as, to have them all upon deck every day in good weather to take their meals twice a- day, at fix&rsquod hours, that is, at ten in the morning, and at five at night which being ended, we made the men go down again between the decks for the women were almost entirely at their own discretion, to be upon deck as long as they pleas&rsquod, nay even many of the males had the same liberty by turns, successively few or none being fetter&rsquod or kept in shackles, and that only on account of some disturbances, or injuries, offer&rsquod to their fellow captives, as will unavoidably happen among a numerous croud of such savage people. Besides, we allow&rsquod each of them betwixt their meals a handful of Indian wheat and Mandioca, and now and then short pipes and tobacco to smoak upon deck by turns, and some coconuts and to the women a piece of coarse cloth to cover them, and the same to many of the men, which we took care they did wash from time to time, to prevent vermin, which they are very subject to and because it look&rsquod sweeter and more agreeable. Toward the evening they diverted themselves on the deck, as they thought fit, some conversing together, others dancing, singing, and sporting after their manner, which pleased them highly, and often made us pastime especially the female sex, who being apart from the males, on the quarterdeck, and many of them young sprightly maidens, full of jollity and good- humour, afforded us abundance of recreation as did several little fine boys, which we mostly kept to attend on us about the ship.

We mess&rsquod the slaves twice a day, as I have observed the first meal was of our large beans boil&rsquod, with a certain quantity of Muscovy lard&hellip.The other meal was of pease, or of Indian wheat, and sometimes meal of Mandioca&hellipboiled with either lard, or suet, or grease by turns: and sometimes with palm- oil and malaguette or Guinea pepper I found they had much better stomachs for beans, and it is a proper fattening food for captives&hellip.

At each meal we allow&rsquod every slave a full coconut shell of water, and from time to time a dram of brandy, to strengthen their stomachs&hellip.

Much more might be said relating to the preservation and maintenance of slaves in such voyages, which I leave to the prudence of the officers that govern aboard, if they value their own reputation and their owners advantage and shall only add these few particulars, that tho&rsquo we ought to be circumspect in watching the slaves narrowly, to prevent or disappoint their ill designs for our own conservation, yet must we not be too severe and haughty with them, but on the contrary, caress and humor them in every reasonable thing. Some commanders, of a morose peevish temper are perpetually beating and curbing them, even without the least offence, and will not suffer any upon deck but when unavoidable to ease themselves does require under pretence it hinders the work of the ship and sailors and that they are troublesome by their nasty nauseous stench, or their noise which makes those poor wretches desperate, and besides their falling into distempers thro&rsquo melancholy, often is the occasion of their destroying themselves.

Such officers should consider, those unfortunate creatures are men as well as themselves, tho&rsquo of a different colour, and pagans and that they ought to do to others as they would be done by in like circumstances&hellip.

Source: James Barbot, Jr., &ldquoA Supplement to the Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea,&rdquo in Awnsham and John Churchill, Collection of Voyages and Travels (London, 1732).


For first time since Clotilda discovery, descendants of slave ship’s owner speak out

Up until Thursday, the descendants of Timothy Meaher – the wealthy steamship owner who financed the last slave ship to arrive in the United States -- remained silent as talks continue to ramp up over the revitalization of the Africatown community north of Mobile.

But that changed following discussions family members had with Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson.

Family members agreed to sell a former credit union building to the city for a steeply discounted price of $50,000. The building will be renovated within the next 60 to 90 days and turned into a food bank serving the low-to-moderate income neighborhood.

It will also serve as an office building for the newly-established Africatown Redevelopment Corporation (ARC).

The family, in their first public first statement since the hull of the Clotilda was discovered more than two years ago, said the future of the credit union building will have a “lasting positive impact.”

“When Mayor Stimpson contacted the Meaher family regarding the sale and/or donation of this property to the city of Mobile for this project, we could not think of a better way to give back to the community,” the Meaher family wrote in a statement provided by the city in a press release.

The statement did not indicate which member of the family was commenting.

“We all look forward to watching this endeavor become a reality with a lasting impact on the community for years to come,” the statement reads.

Stimpson and other elected officials disclosed the building’s sale during a news conference outside the former Scott Credit Union, which had been shuttered for the past 15 years.

“This is a historic day,” Stimpson said. “We’re sincerely appreciative of what they’ve done. It’s a huge step. I think everyone realizes that.”

The Africatown Welcome Center is pictured on Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, in Mobile, Ala. At the time, the welcome center was housed in a mobile home across from the Old Plateau Cemetery. The new center will be located in the same spot, but it will be much larger (approximately 18,000 square feet) and serve as a tourist attraction. That project is being funded by RESTORE Act money. (Mike Kittrell/[email protected]­l.com)

No representative with the family was at the announcement and, despite talks with Stimpson, Meaher family members have yet to have any conversations with representatives of the Africatown community, including the descendants of the enslaved Africans aboard the Clotilda.

Clotilda descendants hope the discounted sale of the credit union building on Bay Bridge Road is the “first step” toward starting meaningful dialogue on future property sales. According to the city, the appraised value on the former credit union is $300,000.

“The Meaher family is as big of a part of this story as anyone,” said Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants association, a descendant of Pollee Allen who was one of the Africatown community’s first leaders. “We need to have a dialogue with them. There is still property in Africatown they own that we want to talk about.”

Cleon Jones, an Africatown resident and community activist and former Major League Baseball All-star with the New York Mets, said the community is in a “forgiving mode” and does not blame Meaher’s descendants for the illegal voyage more than 160 years ago.

By 1860, the international slave trade had long been outlawed, but Meaher wagered he could import slaves despite the ban. He imported 110 captives Africans aboard the Clotilda, which led to his arrest. Meaher was eventually cleared of charges and historical accounts say he refused to provide land to the freed Africans after the Civil War.

More than 30 of those captive slaves founded their own community, later called Africatown.

“What we want to do is heal and move forward that benefits all of us,” said Jones. “I think that is the bottom line.”

He said the Meaher family owns “a major portion of land in Africatown” and the family “continues to flourish financially.”

Joe Womack, executive director of Africatown-C.H.E.S.S., an organization focused on making sure the community is “Clean, Healthy, Educated, Safe and Sustainable,” said he believes the family’s holdings include 20-25 percent of property in the Africatown community.

He called the credit union building a “cornerstone” of the Meaher family’s properties within the community, and said he was surprised the city received it for $50,000.

“Whatever deal they worked out was fantastic,” Womack said, adding he would like to see the family sell off more property in the community to assist in rebuilding the community’s neighborhoods and to help aid in the revitalization efforts geared toward cultural heritage tourism, a rising segment of the tourism industry.

“It’s valuable property to the residents as far as getting people back in here,” said Womack. “(The Meaher property) has the possibility for building homes on. They own properties that (could be new) residential and that is the key.”

But talks of reparations, beyond discussions of future property sales, were not part of the active conversations on Thursday.

Jones, who starred for the New York Mets during the 1969 World Series, said no one should be blamed today for the atrocities that occurred generations ago.

“I am not responsible for what my grandfather did 40 or 50 years ago or even 100 years ago,” Jones said. “How are these people today responsible for what Timothy Meaher did at that time?”

The city’s purchase of the credit union was made possible through Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). The city will also supply equipment to get the food bank running within the next 90 days. The food bank’s operation will be in a partnership between the city, Feeding the Gulf Coast, Yorktown Missionary Baptist Church and the Africatown Community Development Corporation.

“This has been a food desert for a long period of time,” Stimpson said, who then credited a local church for providing food pantry services for the community. “If it wasn’t for the efforts of the Yorktown Baptist Church and Pastor Chris Williams, it would truly be a food desert. We hope this is the first step of many in making sure it’s no longer that.”

The newly-formed ARC will also be housed inside the building. The organization was created through legislative action this spring, and will include a nine-member board of directors that will be appointed in the coming weeks.

State Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile, who sponsored legislation establishing ARC, said the group will have three main goals: Revitalize housing, preserve the community’s history and develop commerce.

“It has tall orders,” said Clarke. “Their major goal is revitalizing Africatown and focusing on housing first. That is the need.”

The Mobile County Commission, within the coming weeks, will be charged with paying for the maintenance improvements inside the building. A preliminary engineering assessment has already been conducted on the building, but no cost estimate was available Thursday.

Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said the “big-ticket” item will be replacing the building’s roof and heating and air condition system.

But Clarke said she was pleased that the building, overall, was in good condition.

“I think we can achieve the mission of having it open in 60 to 90 days,” she said.


The Creole Case (1841)

The Creole Case was the result of an American slave revolt in November 1841 on board the Creole, a ship involved in the United States coastwise slave trade. As a consequence of the revolt, 128 enslaved people won their freedom in the Bahamas, then a British possession. Because of the number of people eventually freed, the Creole mutiny was the most successful slave revolt in US history.

In the fall of 1841, the brig Creole, which was owned by the Johnson and Eperson Company of Richmond, Virginia, transported 135 slaves from Richmond for sale in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Creole had left Richmond with 103 slaves and picked up another 32 in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Most of the slaves were owned by Johnson and Eperson, but 26 were owned by Thomas McCargo, a slave trader who was one of the Creole passengers. The ship also carried tobacco a crew of ten the captain’s wife, daughter, and niece four passengers, including slave traders and eight slaves of the traders.

Madison Washington, an enslaved man who escaped to Canada in 1840 but was captured and sold when he returned to Virginia in search of his wife Susan, was among those being shipped to New Orleans. On November 7, 1841, Washington and eighteen other male slaves rebelled, overwhelming the crew and killing John R. Hewell, one of the slave traders. The ship’s captain, Robert Ensor, along with several crew members, was wounded but survived. One of the slaves was badly wounded and later died.

The rebels took overseer William Merritt at his word that he would navigate for them. They first demanded that the ship be taken to Liberia. When Merritt told them that the voyage was impossible because of the shortage of food or water, another rebel, Ben Blacksmen, said they should be taken to the British West Indies, because he knew the slaves from the Hermosa had gained their freedom the previous year under a similar circumstance. On November 9, 1841, the Creole reached Nassau where it first was boarded by the harbor pilot and his crew, all local black Bahamians. They told the American slaves that under British law they were free and then advised them to go ashore at once.

As Captain Ensor was badly wounded, the Bahamian quarantine officer took First Mate Zephaniah Gifford to inform the American consul of the events. At the consul’s request, the British governor of the Bahamas ordered a guard to board the Creole to prevent the escape of the men implicated in Hewell’s death.

The British took Washington and eighteen conspirators into custody under charges of mutiny, while the rest of the enslaved were allowed to live as free people including some who remained in the Bahamas and others who sailed to Jamaica. Five people, which included three women, a girl, and a boy, decided to stay aboard the Creole and sailed with the ship to New Orleans, returning to slavery. On April 16, 1842, the Admiralty Court in Nassau ordered the surviving seventeen mutineers to be released and freed including Washington. In total, 128 enslaved people gained their freedom, which made the Creole mutiny the most successful slave revolt in US history.


2) The Zanj Rebellion

Little Known Black History Facts: The Zanj Rebellion is one of the bloodiest African slave revolts in history. From 869 thru 883 A.D. hundreds of thousands died. East Africans called Zanj revolted against Iraqi slavers.

The slave revolt started in the salt marshes of Basra Iraq. For 14 years the slaves conquered cities, towns and villages. Those who opposed them suffered unimaginable horrors. These slaves were driven by vengeance.

Most Zanj were castrated upon first being captured. Historians of the time wrote.
When the city of Basra was sacked, its inhabitants were massacred. The Zanj founded a their own city state named, Al Mukhtarah. Several provinces in Iran also fell to them.

They crushed every Muslim army the Iraq Abbasid empire sent to defeat them. They produced their own currency, collected taxes and formed a navy.

Identifying the severed heads of loved ones in the Tigres and Euphrates rivers is how many got news of those trapped in Zanj territory.
The Iraqi rulers finally defeated the Zanj in 883 A.D.,

3) Cherokee Nation Slave Rebellion

In 1842 the Cherokee Nation Slave Rebellion of Oklahoma occurred.
Tweenty African slaves owned by the Cherokee Indian tribe escaped.

Joined by escaped Creek nation slaves they all headed for freedom in Mexico. Cherokee, Creek and Choctaw warriors formed a posse to pursue their escaped property.

The runaway blacks raided farms and homes for supplies. The slaves lost half their people in engagements with the Indians pursuing them. The group continued onward.

The fugitives encountered slave catchers with blacks they were returning to bondage. They killed the slave catchers and their captives joined the group.

The Cherokee posse eventually caught the escapees. And they excuted the leaders of the slaves for killing the slave catchers. They were returned to the Cherokee and Creek Nations, to live out their life’s in bondage.

4) The ST. John Slave Revolts Of 1733

The largest slave revolt in American history occurred in 1811. The German Cost Upraising in Louisiana. A slave, Charles Deslondes led 200 other slaves from 10 plantations.

The rest fled into the swamps lands. Fifty captured, tried, convicted and beheaded. Their severed heads on spikes adorned the plantations they’d escaped from. Warnings to those entertaining fantasies of freedom in the future.


Slave Revolt Aboard Ship - History

By now you should have read the article by Lorenzo Greene entitled "Mutiny on the Slave Ships." Previously I described the horrific conditions of Middle Passage. This was a shocking, wrenching, traumatic experience for anyone who survived it. It was a brutal and dehumanizing experience, (by dehumanizing I mean that the captives were treated as if they were less than human). And as we would expect, the captive Africans resisted despite the fact that they were chained, and unarmed, and virtually powerless.

What we know of the uprisings on the slave ships comes from the diaries and reports and newspaper accounts left by white captains, crew members and survivors. The African captives would have left few records of the uprisings, and their reports wouldn't be here in America. The stories of the African captives might survive as oral traditions among their people in Africa, but would not have been recorded in America by the slaveholders.

It is important to understand why our knowledge of this topic is so scanty. If the African captives revolted on a ship off the coast of Africa, killed all of the crew, and piloted the ship back to Africa and then ditched it, who in America would know? What record of the event would there be? All the crew are dead. They couldn't tell what had happened. The home port would realize the ship had not returned, and was missing, but no one would know why it was missing. Maybe it was lost in a storm or a hurricane. It would simply be a missing ship. Thus, we do not know and never can know how many of these revolts occurred.

And again, for the revolts that we do know about, we know about it from the accounts of the white captain of the ship or crew members who survived, and their diaries or reports to the newspapers, and so forth. Typically the slave ships had a crew of 10-20, armed. There are at least 45 documented cases of uprisings on the slave ships known to English and American sources. This does not include incidents for the Spanish or Portuguese or French or Dutch. The uprisings are usually known by the name of the ship on which it occurred, or sometimes after the captain of the ship.

In the American colonies, the most important centers of shipbuilding were in New England, in places like Boston, Salem, (MASS), Newport, Providence, Bristol (RI) and Hartfort and New London (CT). The good Puritans of New England did not own as many slaves as the landowners of Virginia and Maryland, but the New Englanders built and manned the slave ships. They carried the Africans across the ocean in their ships, and profited from the sale of other human beings as slaves.

Typically they took iron bars, rum, trinkets to Africa to trade for "Negroes," and carried the captives to the West Indies or the South. It was not only the Southerners who were guilty of involvement in the slave trade. Southerners bought the slaves, but it was most often Northerners and Englishmen who brought them here.

In 1764 a ship called the Adventure lay at anchor off the coast of Africa. Africans attacked the ship, killed the crew and liberated the captives.

Also in 1764 the slaves aboard the ship Hope revolted. in the uprising 2 crew members and 8 slaves were killed.

In January 1731 an English newspaper reported that Captain Jump, and all but 3 of his crew, had been killed in a slave uprising off the coast of Africa.

in 1735 a Captain Moore of Mass. reported that on the night of June 17 his ship was attacked by Africans on the Gambia River in West Africa. The battle lasted half the night. One crew member was killed and at dawn the Africans were driven off. Their attack was not successful.

In 1761, aboard a Boston ship called the Thomas, the slaves revolted and tried to kill the crew.

In March 1742, slavers aboard the Jolly Bachelor were loading captives onto the ship in the Sierra Leone River. Africans attacked. Captain Cutler and two of his crew were killed. The Africans stripped the ship of its rigging and sails, liberated the captives in the hold, and abandoned the ship. This was a successful attack. However we should note that rescues and uprisings were more successful if they occurred right away, on the coast. The further the ship got away from the coast of Africa the less the chance of being able to successfully get back to Africa.

In April 1789 35 slaves aboard the Felicity rose up against their captors. Captain William Fairchild was killed, and three slaves were killed before the uprising was crushed.

In June 1730 Captain George Scott sailed from the Guinea coast with a cargo of 96 slaves aboard the ship Little George. Six days out to sea the slaves revolted. They broke through the bulkhead of the ship and onto the deck. The crew retreated to a cabin and tried to make a bomb (gun powder in a bottle). The bomb went off, and the explosion nearly destroyed the ship. The captain and some of the crew remained imprisoned in the cabin for several days while the slaves steered the ship back to the coast of Africa, and successfully escaped when they came within sight of the coast. This is one of the more successful uprisings. Apparently the captain lived to tell about it.

In December 1753 one Captain Bear was loading captives onto his ship at Coast Castle in West Africa. The slaves rebelled and killed the captain and all the crew except for 2. These two crewmen escaped by leaping overboard to escape, and swimming ashore. This uprising seems to have been successful, and we only know about it from the 2 crew members who jumped overboard. (Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, Volume III, 82-83).

In 1765 nearly the entire crew of a ship from Bristol, RI was killed in a slave uprising off the coast of Africa. The lone survivor was a Mr. Dunfield, who was out in a small boat when the uprising occurred, and it is only from him that the incident is known.

In 1776 there was an unsuccessful uprising aboard the Thomas. There were 160 slaves on board. The crewmen were armed and retreated behind a barricade. The captives were unable to overpower the crew, and many of them jumped overboard. This was suicidal, and 33 drowned. But these people preferred to take their chances in the sea rather than submit to whatever fate awaited them.

There were two famous uprisings aboard ships in the United States, though in the 1800s. These are the incidents involving the Amistad (1839) and the Creole (1841).

In July 1839 slaves aboard a Spanish ship called the Amistad revolted and won control of the ship. The leader of the revolt was Joseph Cinque (the name given to him by the Spanish). (In English sometimes called Cin-que). The captives spoke Mende (a west African language). They piloted the ship to Long Island, New York. There was a trial to determine what to do with them, since in 1808 the external slave trade had ended. Former President John Quincy Adams defended them, and the Supreme Court ruled that they should be set free and allowed to return to Africa. Sadly, when some of them returned to Africa, they found their home villages destroyed. Everyone was gone. They had been raided and carrid away in warfare.

In October 1841 a ship called the Creole sailed from Hampton Roads, VA, toward New Orleans, with 135 slaves. En route, Madison Washington and Ben Blacksmith led an insurrection. On November 7th, as the ship neared the Bahamas, the slaves revolted. They seized all the firearms, and threatened to throw the crew overboard if they were not taken to an English colony. England had emancipated its slaves in 1833. The ship landed at Nassau, in the Bahamas, and the slaves escaped. The US government, under pressure from Southerners, lodged a formal complaint. It demanded that Britain return the fugitive slaves (Harding, p. 113). Britain told the US to get lost.

In conclusion, black people did not just passively surrender to Middle Passage. They were carried here in chains kicking, screaming and fighting back. As the black historian Vincent Harding says, these ships were prison-ships. They were death ships. Carrying black people to a prison-state called slavery in America. Even though the odds were stacked against the captives on those ships, they tried to revolt anyway. Sometimes their efforts were successful. Sometimes they were not. But the idea that black people did not try to resist is absurd. Black people resisted, and were subdued by superior power and force of arms. And as Greene and others point out, the captive women also played a role in these uprisings, too. The uprisings aboard the Jolly Bachelor and the Little George, and the Amistad and the Creole are the best known.


The cramped conditions below deck were not just uncomfortable and dehumanizing for the slaves, they were deadly too. In such confined spaces, disease was rife and spread quickly. Below deck, the sights, sounds and perhaps above all, the smell, would have been simply overwhelming. Understandably, ship captains tried to stay as far away from the slaves&rsquo quarters as possible, leaving the lowest members of the crew to look after them.

Not surprisingly, the leading cause of death among slaves was dysentery. Indeed, it was so common it even had its own name among the crews, being known as &ldquothe Flux&rdquo. This was caused by the unsanitary conditions below deck, especially by the lack of proper toilet facilities. While a ship&rsquos crew would be required to clean the slaves on a regular basis, dysentery outbreaks were only too common and would spread quickly and easily, killing even the strongest of slaves in a couple of days. As well as urine and faeces everywhere, the decks would also be covered in vomit. Almost none of the enslaved men and women had ever been to sea before and so, in the rough waters of the Atlantic, seasickness was very common, only adding to the unsanitary conditions.

Almost as serious was smallpox. Again, the cramped conditions meant that a single case could spread rapidly, killing dozens of slaves and even crew members. In bad weather, crews kept slaves below the deck for days at a time for fear of losing any of their human cargo overboard. This placed them at heightened risk of contracting the Pox or any other disease passing through the slaves.

The records from the slave trade show that, up until the 1750s, around one in five of the African slaves being carried on these ships died mid-journey. By 1800, this ratio had fallen to around one in 18, a significant improvement. This was due mainly to the British and French, who, towards the end of the 18 th century passed laws aimed at improving conditions on the slave ships. One such law required ships to have a ‘surgeon&rsquo onboard to look after the slaves&rsquo health. In many cases, these were men with little or no medical training or knowledge, and they could be extremely cruel themselves. Nevertheless, they were paid ‘head money&rsquo to keep their charges alive, and the greed rather than the compassion or skills of the surgeons meant many more slaves made it across the Atlantic.


The Slave Ship Rebellion

Long and low and black-hulled, the schooner beat along the Cuban coast in the black and starless night. The moon at midnight tried to break through the pall of the clouds, but was blotted from the rim of the featureless horizon by a drenching smother of rain. The schooner pitched and bucked in head winds and seas, discomfort in her after cabin where two wealthy Cuban planters slept fitfully, despair and desperation in the cramped hold where 53 Negro slaves were chained by neck and hands and feet. A hell ship, she was ironically named the Amistad , Spanish for friendship.

For four days the Amistad had been at sea on what normally should have been a two-day, 300-mile voyage from Havana to Puerto Principe. But nothing had gone normally, and on this night of July 1-2, 1839, mutiny and murder brewed. Through choppy seas the Amistad sailed into history. She was about to become a cause célèbre that would pit President against President, government against government, and that would affect the lives and education of American Negroes down to our own time.

In the hold of the Amistad on this night of storm, the slaves engaged in silent and desperate struggle. They had been kidnapped only recently from their homes in the Mendi country of Sierra Leone they had survived the horrors of the middle passage, chained in a four-loot-high hold where they could never more than half stand, packed together so closely that the sweat of one mingled with the sweat of another. They had been spirited at night through the streets of Havana they had been placed in a barracoon, examined from toes to teeth like cattle, and sold.

Even these experiences had not prepared them for the brutal foretaste of doom that had been theirs on the Amistad . When they were let above decks during the day, one of the slaves had helped himself to a dipperful of water. For this egregious offense, he had been lashed until his back streamed blood then vinegar and gunpowder had been rubbed into the raw flesh, capping punishment with excruciating agony.

This savage treatment shocked all the Africans and filled them with apprehension. Where were they being taken? What was to be their fate? By gestures, they managed to ask the questions of the ship’s cook, a mulatto named Celestino. And the cook, in ghoulish and ill-timed jest, grinned malevolently at them, drew a hand across his throat, and pointed with huge relish to his bubbling pot, giving them to understand they were to be eaten. This prospective fate as the pièce de résistance at a cannibal board “made their hearts burn,” the slaves said later, and so they listened, in the dark hold of the pitching Amistad , to the impassioned urgings of their leader.

He was, by any standards, a remarkable man. Cinquè was his name. He stood about five feet ten inches, and he possessed the powerful torso, the sinewy arms and legs, of a fine athlete. His forehead was high, the eyes wide-spaced and intelligent his carriage was erect, his bearing proud, for he was the son of a chief.

Using the technique of a born leader, Cinquè drove his followers to despair, and then held out to them a glowing hope. Did they want to die under the lash? Did they want to be eaten by the white men? When they moaned in misery and despair, he offered them the remedy: break the chains that held them kill the white men sail the ship back to their homes in Africa.

Cinquè’s exhortations whipped the slaves to frenzied action. The first barrier to their freedom was the long, heavy chain that passed from neck to neck and held them all together. It was fastened at the end only by a padlock. The slaves struggled with the lock, and with Cinquè exerting all of his tremendous strength, they finally managed to pry it open, to throw the hampering neck chain aside. One by one, the other chains followed until finally all of the slaves stood free of their shackles.

Their next need was to arm themselves, and in the nearby cargo hold of the Amistad they found what they wanted—several bales of sugar-cane knives. These were terrifying weapons. The handles were square bars of steel an inch thick, and the blades were two feet long, razor sharp, widening by regular gradation to a maximum width of three inches at the end. In the brawny hands of the aroused slaves, these machetes became deadly, hand-wielded guillotines.

The nightlong stirrings of revolt in the slave hold went undetected by the whites on the Amistad . They had no premonition of disaster when, between three and four o’clock in the morning, Cinquè led a horde of softly padding followers above decks in a final bid for freedom. On deck were Captain Ramon Ferrer a mulatto cabin boy named Antonio Gonzales, a slave of the Captain’s Celestino, the cook, snoozing in the shelter of his galley and two sailors, Manuel Pagilla and a man known only as Jacinto. In the after cabin were the two Cuban planters: Don José Ruiz, who had purchased 49 of the slaves for $450 each at the Havana barracoon, and Don Pedro Montez, who owned the other four slaves aboard, three small girls and a boy.

Creeping stealthily along the dark deck, Cinquè led his band to the galley where Celestino slept, unaware that his cruel jest about the cannibal pot was about to breed bloody retribution. Cinquè himself sprang upon the sleeping cook, and the first intimation the white men aboard had of the slave mutiny came from the thudding of Cinquè’s machete, buried repeatedly in Celestino’s body. The thumping blows were so loud that they awoke Montez from sleep in the after cabin.

Celestino expired without a movement, without a cry, and Cinquè’s followers swept aft along the deck. Seeing the wave of enraged slaves about to engulf him, Captain Ferrer shouted in desperation to his cabin boy, Antonio, “Throw them some bread!”

Antonio had no chance to carry out the futile order. Before he could move, the foremost of the slaves, machete flailing, sprang upon the Captain. Ferrer eluded the blow and ran the man through with his sword. Then Cinquè was upon him. Cinquè’s machete rose and fell in one murderous stroke, and Captain Ferrer crumpled to the deck, his head cloven.

His fall unnerved the rest. The two sailors, Manuel and Jacinto, fled aft, leaped from the taffrail and started to swim to the nearby coast. This left only the planters, Ruiz and Montez, to oppose the rioters.

Ruiz had been the first to reach the deck. He arrived just as the slaves were swarming aft to attack the Captain. Grabbing an oar, he flailed about him, shouting “No! No!” In an instant, seeing that the slaves were beyond control, sensing the futility of battle, he dropped the oar and ran back into the cabin.

Montez, awakened by the thudding blows that killed the cook, emerged on deck a few seconds later, in the midst of the melee in which Ferrer was cut down. He grabbed a club and knife, and almost on the instant found himself face to face with Cinquè. One slashing stroke of Cinquè’s lethal machete, only partially parried, opened a long gash across one side of Montez’s head. A second ripped open Montez’s arm. The planter did not wait for the third and fatal stroke, but dropped club and knife and fled for refuge in the hold.

In the darkness, he momentarily eluded Cinquè, wrapped himself in an old sail, and hid between two barrels. A skilled huntsman, Cinquè rummaged the hold, seeking his quarry. As he did so, on the deck above, Ruiz surrendered to the slaves on the promise he wouldn’t be harmed. He then pleaded with his captors to spare the life of Montez. They agreed, and several went to the hold in search of Cinquè. They arrived barely in time. Cinquè had just discovered Montez’s hiding place and was striking out with his machete, trying to reach the huddled form behind the protective barricade of the barrels, when some of the other slaves grabbed his arm and restrained him.

Thus ended one of the strangest mutinies ever to take place on the high seas. Yet it was only a prelude to an even more fantastic odyssey and to a far-reaching sequence of dramatic events.

The mutiny on the Amistad became, in the instant of its success, a challenge to all the rules of the sea and the laws of navigation. For the new captain and crew of the Amistad were familiar only with the ways of the jungle. They knew not one rope from another knew not how to handle the swift, tall-sparred Baltimore clipper or how to chart their course across the trackless pathway of the water.

All that Cinquè knew from observing the sun on their westward voyage was that their homes lay far to the east. When the sun shone, he could steer in the general direction of Africa. But in stormy weather and at night, he had no such guide. He was left with only one recourse—to enlist the aid of the white men who were his prisoners.

Montez, who had once commanded a ship, yielded to the persuasion of Cinquè’s brandished machete and agreed to sail the Africans back to their homes in Sierra Leone. He seized at once, however, upon the opportunity to dupe his captors in the hope of bringing about his own and Ruiz’s deliverance. By day Montez kept the Amistad’s prow faithfully to the east. but at night and in murky weather he altered course unobtrusively, sailing to the northwest.

For seven weeks, this voyage that nightly defeated the progress of the day kept the Amistad zigzagging back and forth in an erratic track across the Atlantic swells. There was scant food, little water. Seven of the Africans sickened and died. But the rest held grimly to their purpose, looking constantly to the east for the shores of Africa while all the time Montez edged them ever north and west, closer to the American mainland.

In late August the Amistad , nearing the coast in the triangle formed by the spit of Sandy Hook and the long, low-lying Long Island shore, began to sight ships outward bound from New York. From one, the Africans obtained some water and provisions before the captain, alarmed at the sight of black men carrying muskets and brandishing machetes, sailed hastily away. Fear spread along the coast. The strange and unkempt schooner had all the appearance of a pirate, and the steam frigate Fulton and several revenue cutters were sent out from New York looking for her.

The Amistad , flitting aimlessly off the coast, a gypsy of the sea without port or course, gave them the slip without trying. By Sunday, August 25, 1839, her odd crew had brought the ship to sight of land at Montauk Point at the extreme eastern tip of Long Island. Here Cinquè, knowing that this strange coast was not Africa, decided he would have to land to get fresh water and provisions to continue the voyage home.

He brought the schooner into the eastern entrance of Long Island Sound, and in the shelter of Culloden Point cast anchor. A boatload of slaves went ashore to forage for provisions. A small fortune in doubloons had been found in the Spanish planters’ possessions, and Cinquè gave the foragers several of these with instructions to pay for what they got. Banna, one of the slaves, who knew a few words of English, was the spokesman.

Accosting the first white men they encountered, Banna exhausted most of his English vocabulary in one question.

He showed his money and managed to dicker for a bottle of gin, some potatoes, and two fat dogs.

The success of this expedition prompted Cinquè to go ashore with another boatload of slaves and some water casks. They were filling the casks at a stream when two white men appeared, riding in a wagon.

Cinquè called Banna and asked him to inquire of the white men whether this was a slave country. Combining signs and broken English, Banna managed to convey the import of the question.

“No. This is free country,” one of the white men, a Captain Henry Green, assured the Africans.

“Spaniards?” Banna asked, sweeping his arms about in a gesture that said as plain as English: “Are there any Spaniards here?”

Captain Green shook his head emphatically.

“No, there are no Spaniards here,” he said.

At these words, believing they had at last won freedom in a free land, Cinquè and his followers leaped high in the air, kicking their heels and whooping with joy

The demonstration startled the two white men, who ran in terror for their wagon. Cinquè quickly took steps to reassure them. Shaking his head and making signs to indicate they intended no harm, he and his followers, in a gesture of perfect trust, turned over to Captain Green two guns, a knife, a hat, and a handkerchief—the total of their belongings.

Then began a strange palaver, with Banna, the most imperfect of interpreters, trying to convey to Captain Green that they wished someone to sail them back to their homes in Sierra Leone. They could pay. Would he take the job?

While the Captain was considering this weirdest of business propositions, advanced by a group of naked black men on a lonely Long Island sand spit, a sail suddenly hove into sight around Culloden Point. It was the navy brig Washington , on a coastal survey mission. Swiftly the Washington rounded to near the anchored Amistad , and the warship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander T. R. Gedney, sent a boatload of armed sailors, commanded by Lieutenant R. W. Meade, to investigate the sail-tattered, mysterious schooner.

Cinquè, at first sight of the Washington , had jumped into a boat with several of his followers and begun to row frantically for the Amistad . He was still some distance away, however, when Lieutenant Meade led his boarders up the side of the ship. The instant the navy men reached the deck, Montez and Ruiz appeared, hailing them as deliverers and asking the protection of the American flag. Cinquè arrived to find his followers disarmed, his schooner in possession of these alien men in uniform, himself again a prisoner. He sized up the situation at a glance, then leaped for the rail, dived overboard, and swam for shore.

The navy sailors quickly manned their boat and rowed him down. Then they continued on to shore to round up the rest of the Africans. The slaves, seeing the sailors approaching with brandished cutlasses, fell on their knees and pleaded with Captain Green—the man who had told them that this was a “free country”—to save them. Their piteous pleas went unheeded, and they were dragged back aboard the Amistad , a crushed and dejected band.

Aboard ship, Cinquè spoke a farewell to his followers. His wrists were manacled, but his carriage was proud and he spoke with a savage eloquence. Only Antonio Gonzales, the mulatto cabin boy whose knowledge of Mendi was admittedly imperfect and who was not above taking a bit of poetic license, pretended to know what he said. Antonio’s version, printed in the New York Sun on August 31, 1839, quoted Cinquè:

“Friends and Brothers: We would have returned, but the sun was against us. I would not see you serve the white man. So I induced you to help me kill the Captain. I thought I should be killed. I expected it. It would have been better. You had better be killed than live many moons in misery. I shall be hanged, I think, every day. But this does not pain me. I could die happy if by dying I could save so many of my brothers from the bondage of the white men.”

Though the Americans couldn’t understand Cinque’s oration, its import was obvious enough. His words brought an instantaneous angry stirring among the slaves, and the sailors, seeing his influence over his followers, hustled him from the schooner and locked him up aboard the Washington for the night.

The next day, resorting to sign language, Cinquè induced the sailors to take him back to the Amistad , pretending that he could show them where many doubloons were hidden. But once aboard the schooner, instead of unveiling treasure, he began to exhort his fellow slaves to rise and kill the white men.

The cabin boy Antonio was so stirred by the scene that he obviously added some embellishments of his own to Cinquè’s final words. This is the way he reported them:

”… It is better for you to die thus, and then you will not only avert bondage yourselves, but prevent the entailment of unnumbered wrongs on your children. Come! Come with me, then!”

The effect of the speech, reflected in the angry flashing eyes of the Africans, was such that the Americans again hurried Cinquè off the Amistad and back to close confinement on the Washington . Then both ships broke anchor and sailed across the sound to New London on the Connecticut shore.

Here it was that the American public first learned of the case that, for months to come, was to agitate the entire nation and to involve even the presidency in acrimony. The eyes through which America learned of the mutiny and the tragedy of the Amistad were those of John J. Hyde, editor of the New London Gazette . He boarded the slave ship on Tuesday and found aboard the three little girls and 41 surviving males, one more having died shortly before the Amistad was captured.

The Connecticut editor described Cinquè and the Amistad. He wrote:

On board the brig [ Washington ] we also saw Cingue, the master spirit of this bloody tragedy, in irons …. He is said to be a match for any two men on board the schooner. His countenance, for a native African, is unusually intelligent, evincing uncommon decision and coolness, with a composure characteristic of true courage and nothing to mark him as a malicious man. … we saw such a sight [on the schooner] as we never saw before and never wish to see again. The bottom and sides of this vessel are covered with barnacles and sea-grass, while her rigging and sails presented an appearance worthy of the Flying Dutchman, after her fabled cruise …. On her deck were grouped amid various goods and arms, the remnant of her Ethiop crew, some decked in the most fantastic manner, in silks and finery, pilfered from the cargo, while others, in a state of nudity, emaciated to mere skeletons, lay coiled upon the decks ….

Hyde’s story and a rough sketch of Cinquè drawn aboard the Washington were picked up by the New York papers, and within three days abolitionists began to rally to the cause. Lewis Tappan, a merchant and a dedicated foe of slavery, read the story in the Sun , and with the Reverend Simeon S. Jocelyn and the Reverend Joshua Leavitt organized the Committee of Friends of the Amistad Africans.

The Africans quickly grasped the popular imagination. Cinquè and his comrades were transferred from New London to New Haven, where they were jailed awaiting trial. They aroused so much interest that the jailer began charging an entrance fee, like the proprietor of a side show, to those who wished to see them. On pleasant days, the Negroes were taken to the village green under guard, and there they performed such feats of strength and agility that they drew crowds of spectators and showers of small coins.

Despite all this public attention, the Africans were virtually cut off from the world. Banna’s isolated words of English and the untrustworthy interpretations of Antonio formed their only links of communication. It was impossible to get their version of what had happened on the Amistad , and unless this could be obtained, they would be defenseless, unable to testify to save themselves when they were brought into court.

One determined man had already devoted himself to the task of breaking down this language barrier. He was Professor Josiah Willard Gibbs of the Yale Divinity School, a linguistic expert. Gibbs spent hours with the Africans in their cramped prison quarters, making them repeat their sounds for the numerals up to ten. Then he began to tour the water fronts. In New London he found no one who recognized the sounds he kept repeating. He went on to New York. Here he visited ship after ship, but though he found many Negroes who spoke African dialects, none understood Mendi. Finally, almost in despair, the Professor came to the British brig-of-war Buzzard . She had put into port after a cruise hunting slavers off the coast of Sierra Leone, and she had aboard a native boy, James Covey, eighteen, who spoke the Mendi language. At last a reliable interpreter had been found.

In the meantime, the legal entanglements had become infinitely complex, with salvage claims and charges of murder and piracy cluttering the issue. Most of these were quickly swept away, leaving as the crux of the case two international treaties. The first was a reciprocal agreement between Spain and the United States in 1795, under which each pledged to return any ships or goods of the other it might find on the high seas. The second was an 1817 treaty between Spain and Great Britain, under which Spain had outlawed the importation of slaves into her colonies after December 30, 1820.

This non-slave pact had become an international farce. Spanish governors in the West Indies closed their eyes, for a price, and slavers continued to run cargoes of kidnapped black contraband across the ocean to Havana. There, at a fixed bribe of $15 a head, the Negroes were supplied with official papers asserting that they were “Ladinos.” This was a term indicating a slave had learned Spanish or a Spanish dialect besides his native tongue, and was used to differentiate generations of Negroes born in the Americas from Bozals, or slaves just imported from Africa.

The Amistad’s papers showed, of course, that all the slaves were Ladinos, and the Spaniards used these documents to claim the slaves were their legitimate property and should be turned over to them automatically. The Spanish Embassy in Washington argued strongly with President Martin Van Buren that the courts had no jurisdiction that under the 1795 treaty the Chief Executive should give the slaves back to Montez and Ruiz, their rightful owners.

Van Buren asked his attorney general, Felix Grundy of Tennessee, for a legal opinion. Grundy held that the Spanish claims were just. The United States, said he, had no authority to question the validity of the Amistad’s papers all questions—the legal status of the slaves, the charges of piracy and murder—should be decided in Spanish courts. “A delivery [of the slaves] to the Spanish minister is the only safe course for this government to pursue,” Grundy told Van Buren. The President did not dare supersede the courts completely, but he did order the United States attorney in Connecticut to represent Montez and Ruiz.

With Van Buren thus a committed partisan of the slave interests, the controversy mounted to fever heat. Lewis Tappan and other abolitionist leaders spoke at public mass meetings, took up contributions for the Amistad cause, and engaged Roger Sherman Baldwin, one of the foremost attorneys of his day, as chief defense counsel.

The trial was set for early January, 1840, before Judge Andrew T. Judson in the United States District Court in New Haven. Judson was a Van Buren appointee, and his earlier career had been noteworthy for his prosecution of Prudence Crandall, a school teacher whom he had succeeded, with a mob’s help, in running out of Canterbury, Connecticut, because she had admitted a Negro girl to her young ladies’ academy and then, when the other pupils withdrew, turned it into an all-Negro school. The abolitionists were convinced that no more inimical jurist could have been selected to decide the fate of the Amistad Negroes.

Van Buren’s expectations tallied perfectly with the abolitionists’ fears. So assured was he of the outcome that he ordered the navy brig Grampus to New Haven for the express purpose of returning the slaves to Havana. The Amistad committee countered this move by chartering a fast schooner of its own, determined to make the daring attempt to spirit the slaves away if the decision should go against them.

The two rival vessels, anchored near each other in the harbor, were symbols of the rival causes that focused the tense attention of the nation on the New Haven courtroom when the hearing opened.

The case lasted a week, but the high point, with James Covey interpreting, came when Cinquè took the stand. He testified about the manner in which he had been shanghaied from the side of his wife and three small children in Africa. He squatted on the courtroom floor, demonstrating how tightly the slaves had been packed together in the shallow four-foot hold on the middle passage.

Roger Sherman Baldwin backed up this testimony by showing that the three little girls, all of whom had been born long after the 1820 slave-running ban, knew no language but their native African tongue. This prima-facie evidence that the children had been kidnaped was supported by the testimony of an expert on the slave trade. Dr. Richard Robert Madden, English member of the Mixed Commission trying to enforce the 1820 treaty, told the court he had seen the Amistad captives in the Havana barracoon shortly after they arrived from Africa.

This was the evidence before Judge Judson when, on January 13, 1840, he handed down his decision. He ruled that the navy officers, Gedney and Meade, were entitled to salvage for recovering the Amistad , but denied they had any right to collect on the value of the slaves. As for the claims of Montez and Ruiz, he cited the 1820 treaty outlawing the slave traffic and added: “These Negroes were imported in violation of that law, and by the same law of Spain, such Negroes are declared free, and of course are not the property of Spanish subjects …. Cinquez and Grabeau [another of the slaves who had testified] shall not sigh for Africa in vain. Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred.”

Then Judson ordered the slaves turned over to the President for transportation back to Africa.

The unexpected decision was greeted by abolitionists with wild rejoicing—an outburst that was stilled almost instantly by an astounding announcement. The United States attorney, acting on the orders of President Van Buren, filed an immediate notice of appeal, taking the case to the Supreme Court and dooming the Amistad Negroes to additional months of captivity.

At this juncture, a new and challenging figure entered the case—John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States. The venerable patriarch was now 73. Angered by the partisanship of the Democratic President, he forced through Congress a resolution calling for full disclosure of all official correspondence dealing with the case. And so there came to light a curious document.

This was a letter from Secretary of State John Forsyth to the United States attorney in Connecticut, written in January when Judson’s decision was pending and marked “confidential.” It revealed Van Buren’s intention to deny the slaves the right of appeal if the verdict went against them by whisking them instantly aboard the waiting Grampus . “The order of the President is to be carried into execution, unless an appeal shall actually have been interposed,” the Secretary of State wrote. “You are not to take it for granted that it will be interposed. And if, on the contrary, the decision of the court is different, you are to take out an appeal, and allow things to remain as they are until the appeal shall have been decided.”

Adams’ advocacy of the cause of the Amistad Negroes in Congress led directly to his retention to represent them, with Baldwin, in the appeal pending before the Supreme Court. Before the case came up on February 20, 1841, it had acquired a new dimension on the international scene, for Great Britain, angered by Dr. Madden’s reports on the continuance of the slave trade and the circumstances under which the Amistad Negroes had been kidnaped and sold, filed notes of protest with both Spain and the United States.

The argument before the Supreme Court followed the expected pattern. The government based its case almost entirely on legalistic rather than human concepts—on the contention that the Amistad’s papers had to be accepted at face value and that the Negroes must be returned to the Spanish courts. For the defense, Baldwin delivered a summation that Adams described in his diary as “a sound and eloquent, but exceedingly mild and modest argument.” This mildness Adams set out to rectify.

His beginning was eloquent and left no doubt that his audience was to be treated to the unprecedented spectacle of one President of the United States bitterly castigating the conduct of another before the bar of justice. Adams began by giving thanks that he stood in a court where each party would be protected “in his own right,” and then he added:

“When I say I derive consolation from the consideration that I stand before a Court of Justice, I am obliged to take this ground because, as I shall show, another Department of the Government of the United States had taken, with reference to this case, the ground of utter injustice, and these individuals for whom I appear, stand before this Court, awaiting their fate from its decision, under the array of the whole Executive power of this nation against them, in addition to that of a foreign nation ….”

Mincing no words, Adams read with scorn and sarcasm the “confidential” note containing Van Buren’s instructions that the slaves should be given no chance to appeal if the lower court decision went against them. And he asked with righteous indignation: “Was ever such a scene of Lilliputian trickery enacted by the rulers of a great, magnanimous, and Christian nation?”

Spain, he said, had demanded that the President of the United States first turn man-robber by removing the case from the courts, where the Africans would be protected in their rights then Spain had demanded that the President turn jailer and keep the slaves in close custody to prevent their escape and, lastly, Spain had induced the President to agree to turn catchpole and convey the slaves to Havana “to appease the public vengeance of the African slave-traders of the barracoons.”

Adams spoke for four and a half hours, as he noted in his diary, “with sufficient method and order to witness little flagging of attention by the Judges or the auditory.” There was a breathless hush as Adams finished his moving peroration, bowed humbly to the justices and sat down. Less than a month later, on March 9, 1841, the court denied the government’s appeal and ordered that the Amistad Negroes be set free immediately.

The sequel was almost as moving as the long and stirring drama. The liberated slaves were sent to school and given religious instruction for nearly a year in Farmington, Connecticut. Then they were taken back to Sierra Leone, accompanied by missionaries hoping to spread the gospel among Mendi tribesmen. This return to their homeland, so ardently desired, so long fought for, was laden with tragedy for many. Cinquè found that his father, his wife, and his children all had been captured by rival tribes and sold into slavery. He soon took to the bush, returning to native ways and setting himself up as a tribal chief. Others who found their families disbanded, lost to them forever, followed his lead, but several of the Amistad contingent remained for years, faithful workers at the mission.

In 1846, four societies that had been created originally to further the cause of the Amistad captives met in Syracuse, New York, and formed the American Missionary Association. With funds collected in the Amistad solicitation and other donations, the association began to work actively to educate the American Negro. In 1859 it founded Berea College, and before the close of the Civil War it had built the nucleus of what is now Hampton Institute. Throughout the next century the association continued to found schools, more than 500 in all. It was instrumental in establishing Howard University, Fisk University, Atlanta University, Talladega College, LeMoyne College, Tougaloo College, Dillard University, and Tillotson College—a legacy to an entire race from the small band of slaves who struggled so courageously for freedom more than 100 years ago.


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