AuthorPatten, Jonathan K. Van


The story begins with a cliche: it was a dark and stormy night. Immediately, however, we are drawn into a narrative of violence with the taking control of the slave ship La Amistad by Africans, who had been kidnapped from Sierra Leone and sold into slavery. (1) Horrific conditions on the ship and the prospect of longterm captivity, or worse, left no alternative. Through sheer will and grit, a nail was pulled from a plank and used to unlock iron shackles. The fierce storm provided cover for the stealth-like movement from the jail below to control of the ship above. Retribution was violent and swift, except for two, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, who were spared to navigate the ship back to Africa. (2) The mercy proved to be a mistake. Although the ship sailed east toward the sun by day, Montes turned it north throughout the night. (3) The zig-zag course eventually brought the ship off the coast of Long Island, New York. It was there that the ship and its passengers were taken into custody by the coast guard. (4) The American captors took the side of Ruiz and Montes, who told of the rebellion, and the Africans were shackled once again. (5)

The ship was towed to the harbor at New London, Connecticut, where an initial inquest was conducted by Federal Judge Andrew T. Judson. (6) The judge ordered the federal marshal to take the Africans to New Haven, Connecticut, where there was a jail large enough to quarter them. (7) For the moment, they had traded one hellish prison for another, this time courtesy of the United States. (8) The judge also asked a grand jury of the Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut, to decide if the Africans should be tried for murder and piracy. (9) Eventually, others sought to intervene and make property claims, while others used the case to promote the cause of abolitionism. (10) The year was 1839, and this meant that the case could have implications on a national or even international scale. In order to make sense of the various claims made in the case, it is necessary to give a brief account of how the Africans came to be on the ship La Amistad and the legal significance of that journey.


The question of where to begin any story is a challenge. It has consequences for where you end up, where you stop along the way, who you see, who you do not see, and what shapes and moves the story as it unfolds. (11) The story must have a context and a theme. (12) Sometimes, it will begin with who committed the first wrong. But that may be subject to dispute. Although actions often speak louder than words, thoughts and emotions are the motivators of actions. These inner influences are mostly hidden, until they are not. This makes the question of origins problematic.

Identifying the wrong in this case--slavery--is not difficult, yet understanding its pervasive and enduring influence remains an enigma, with ageold paradoxes:

The inherent contradiction of slavery lay not in its cruelty or economic exploitation, but in the underlying conception of man as a conveyable possession with no more autonomy of will and consciousness than a domestic animal. This conception raised a host of problems and was seldom acted upon without compromise. Occasionally men recognized that the institution was dangerous to the security of the state, that it provided some masters with too much idleness and too much power, that slaves were men and should be treated with consideration. (13) The contradiction between man as property and man as a human being could never be satisfactorily resolved. Both could not be right. (14) But that docs not mean that the problem would be settled as a simple matter of logic, theology, or politics. Indeed, the reality for most of history has been that human beings were kidnapped, bought, sold, inherited, subjected to forced labor, and worse. (15)

Slavery had ancient roots, both in practice and in theory. (16) There are references to it from the time of Noah, (17) and it was widely practiced throughout ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and, later, Rome. (18) "[F]rom the ancient world we find no assertion that slavery was an intolerable evil that should be eradicated by any civilized nation." (19) And yet, ancient slavery practices were not without criticism: "But this does not mean that the Bible and classical literature had no bearing on the later antislavery movements." (20) The basis for a critique of slavery was there, but it was more like a recessive gene that would not become dominant until much later. (21)

The eventual acceptance of the proposition that all human beings are endowed with certain natural rights finally began to emerge and yet was still a contested proposition at the time of the Amistad case. (22) This conflict was embedded in the founding, which contained both antislavery principles and proslavery compromises. (23) The Declaration of Independence was a statement of principles fundamental to the creation of the new American regime. (24) The Northwest Ordinance, which functioned as the constitution for the territories, provided the basic pattern for how the republic would be extended and prohibited slavery in any newly acquired territories. (25) Compromise on the slavery question, however, was the price of Union, and it was reflected in the Constitution of 1787. (26) The antislavery principles in that document are less evident but important nonetheless. (27) Congress could not prohibit the slave trade until 1808, but it could do so (and did) thereafter. (28) In the long run, the compromises were relatively short-lived, although they had lasting consequences. (29) Other concessions to slavery were politically necessary, but were limited in time and scope. (30) The Civil War would result in the abolition of slavery and provide, through the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, the basis for a second American founding. (31)

America was by no means the only antislavery force during the nineteenth century. Great Britain had an empire on which, at the time, the sun did not set. (32) The British struggle against slavery had a different history because the practice was largely felt in the empire, not at home. Divestiture of ownership of slaves did not have the same consequences as it did in the American South. In any event, this was not an easy fight. William Wilberforce, and others, waged a decadeslong battle, explicitly on Christian principles, (33) against the practice of slavery, and eventually prevailed:

[In 1807], the slave trade was finally outlawed. The battle was not over. Wilberforce spent the remainder of his life working to ensure that the promise of abolition was fulfilled. Enforcement in England and its empire was difficult, since what was illegal remained possible (and highly profitable) for those willing to break the laws. For generations, the British Royal Navy scoured the oceans, searching for and intercepting ships that carried their illegal human cargo. (34) This is an important proposition. Enforcement was difficult because, although illegal, the slave trade "remained possible (and highly profitable) for those willing to break the laws." (35) It would be naive, however, to hold that enforcement during the nineteenth century was hindered by a lack of modern technology (although it was if one indulges in ahistorical arguments). The campaign against alcohol during Prohibition and the efforts to curtail drug trade or sex trafficking in modern times are sufficient proof of the limits of enforcement.

At the time of the Amistad seizure by a United States naval vessel, the matter of slavery was addressed by various laws, treaties, and "understandings." In the United States, although there still was no national consensus, slavery had been prohibited in the Northwest Territories and abolished or limited in most of the northern states. (36) The international slave trade had been outlawed by both the United States and Great Britain. (37) Spain, by treaty with Great Britain, had provided that "any Africans imported into Cuba after May 1820 were supposed to be legally free." (38) Spain's enforcement of that commitment, however, was notoriously lax. (39) "Though racial slavery had been legal throughout the Western Hemisphere in 1775, by 1840, it flourished only in Brazil, the southern United States, Cuba, and Puerto Rico (and to a certain degree in the French and Dutch Caribbean)." (40)


    In early 1839, Joseph Cinque, (41) a twenty-fivc-year-old free man with a wife and three children, was seized by black strangers while working on a road near his village in Sierra Leone. (42) He was sold by his original captors to another and then to a Spaniard, Pedro Blanco, who was operating a slave trade in the coastal town of Lomboko. (43) In Lomboko, captives from the area were gathered and inspected. (44) Because of the illegality of the slave trade, the preparation of the slaves for travel had to be conducted in secrecy. (45) Loading of slaves and provisions onto slave ships had to be done with stealth and quickness. (46) Cinque and approximately six hundred other Africans were put on a Portuguese ship, the Tecora, which departed Sierra Leone for Cuba. (47)

    Aboard the Tecora, conditions were horrific. (48) The cabin below was overcrowded and under-spaced. (49) Food, mostly rice, was adequate, but there was very little to drink. (50) With "seasickness, disease, overcrowding, and the pungent 'smell of bondage[,]'" conditions below deck were beyond description. (51) Many died. (52) Perhaps the only positive was a bonding of the survivors, which would serve them well for the ordeal ahead. (53)

    The Africans aboard the Amistad had been kidnapped. (54) This is beyond dispute. They had names; they had families; they had a future in Africa, whatever that might have been. It was theirs, not someone else's, and the loss of an autonomous...

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