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The Amistad and the Case for Freedom


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The Amistad was a international complex court case which involved four countries: Cuba, Spain, Great Britain, the United States; I am going to include Sierra Leone as a 5th, because although no government officials intervened on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case, this was their native land. In my opinion, including Sierra Leone, Africa also humanizes the experience to serve as a reminder that this is more than a case about property rights and human cargo.
In 1839 a group of natives from Sierra Leone, Africa were abducted and shipped to Havana, Cuba to be sold into slavery. Of those abducted, fifty-three of them were purchased by two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, hoping to take them to plantations in Puerto Principe; the lot purchased included 49 adults and 4 children and the Amistad was the name of the ship chartered to transport the now slaves [1]. Ruiz and Montes knew that they were breaking the law even when preparing to transport the slaves because they sought to transport them at night since they were unsure as to whether or not the ship with be searched by the British [1]. The initial capture and transport of the individuals violated international Spanish law because the international slave trade had ended some years earlier based on a treaty between the Spanish and the British [1]. The British often did more to enforce the law than the Spanish, which led to conflict between the two. The British complained that not only were the Spanish not doing their part to enforce the law, but were also selling blacks back into slavery by violating the emancipado clause [1].
In addition, Spain had internal conflict with its own officials in Cuba who were allowing slave traders and purchasers to import and transport slaves illegally in an out of Cuba. The officials would accept bribery and sign false documents that assigned the slaves Spanish names [1]. In addition to this Spain did not contribute enough resources to help patrol the African Coast and trade within Spanish colonies was still legal [1]. Even when the treated was renewed in 1835, it didn’t help to slow things down [1].
July 1, 1839 as the captives of the Amistad over took the ship, and they forced their captors to steer sail back to Africa, but instead Ruiz and Montes tricked them by sailing into an American port [2]. On August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized by U.S. Brigadier General Washington,, off the coast of Long Island, NY [2] Montes and Ruiz were set free, but the slaves were placed in a New Haven, CT prison on murder charges [2]. Eventually, the murder charges were dropped but a debate over property rights broke out since Ruiz and Montes claimed to be the rightful owner of the slaves [2]
While President Van Buren was in favor of sending them back to Cuba, abolitionist in the North opposed their extraditions and raised money to fight for their freedom [2]. Several instances of conflict arise as a result of abolitionist involvement in the movement. “While the Van Buren administration accepted the Spanish crown's argument, Secretary of State John Forsyth explained, the president could not order the release of the Amistad and its cargo because the executive could not interfere with the judiciary under American law. He also could not release the Spanish traders from imprisonment in Connecticut because that would constitute federal intervention in a matter of state jurisdiction [3]. There was the international conflict between American and Spain, because the Spanish Prime Minister demanded the return of Spanish property based on the treaty of 1795 [1]. There was also internal conflict amongst the abolitionists as to how to represent the slaves as well as who [1].
There were two lawsuits regarding the Amistad; the first involved Gen. Washington’s men over salvage claims and the second was over property rights. While in district court, the judge ruled that the Africans were not Spanish slaves, but captured free man from Africa, he order them to be freed and sent back to Africa [3]. This ruling meant that there were no claims to property or rights to salvage as claimed in either case [3]. Since the Van Buren administration still felt the pressure from Spain, they challenged the ruling in the Supreme Court, but it was upheld. In regards to the principle of justice versus the principle of law; it appears that as long as the Africans were not subject to the law of slavery, they were subject to the law of justice. While the court acknowledged that the Spanish treaty, they believed that it, “never could have been intended to take away the equal rights the Africans [1].” The Amistad incident caused strained relations between American and Spain until 1860 [1]. Also, according to the text, although the Supreme Court had made their ruling based on law, the abolitionists were not satisfied because the verdict did not rest on the laws of nature, which dictated that a man should be free (embedded in the Declaration of Independence) [1]. The irony about the Supreme Court’s ruling was that while those Africans got a chance to return home, there were thousands of free blacks walking around in America, who were still not given equal rights nor justice; they continued to be subjected to the tyranny of slavery even resulting in them being captured and resold into this system even when legally free. The case of the Amistad evoked the question as to how the Declaration of Independence which promoted freedom co-exists with a Constitution that supported slavery [1].

1. Jones, Howard. 1987. Mutiny on the Amistad. Oxford University Press; New York.
2. National Archives. [n.d.]. Teaching With Documents: The Amistad Case. Retrieved From:
3. U.S. Department of State. [n.d]. The Amistad Case. Retreived From:

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