The Record - January 1998


In a special document display in Washington, the National Archives and Records Administration is featuring two documents from its holdings that relate to the Amistad affair. The materials include John Quincy Adams' request, in his own hand, for papers relating to the lower court trials of the Amistad, January 23, 1841, and the Supreme Court decision United States v. the Amistad, March 9, 1841. The documents are incorporated into "American Originals: Part III," the major exhibition featuring milestone documents.

The dramatic story of the Amistad, which was featured in a major motion picture that opened in December, is found among the court records at the National Archives - Northeast Region at Waltham, MA, and in the Supreme Court records at the National Archives in Washington, DC. In 1839, 53 African natives were kidnaped .from an area now known as Sierra Leone and illegally sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were transported to Havana, Cuba and sold at auction as native Cuban slaves to two "Spanish gentlemen." The Spaniards were transporting the Africans and other cargo to another part of Cuba on board the Spanish schooner Amistad when the Africans staged a revolt, seizing control of the schooner, killing the captain and the cook, and driving off the rest of the crew. The two "Spanish gentlemen" were ordered to sail back to Africa. By day, the Spaniards sailed eastward and by night they surreptitiously sailed westward, hoping to land back in Cuba or the southern United States. After 63 days at .

John Quincy Adams handwritten request, page 1
John Quincy Adams, 73-year-old former President of the United States and later a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, became a counsel for the slaves on the Amistad.

John Quincy Adams handwritten request, page 2

sea, the Amistad was sighted by the US Navy. The ship was seized and towed to New London, Connecticut, where the imprisoned Africans began a lengthy legal battle to win back their freedom.

Early documents from the National Archives - Northeast Region contain testimony and depositions relating to the first sightings of the Amistad off Long Island, New York. Lt. R.W. Meade, USN, testified on August 29, 1839, that "said schooner was manned by forty-five negroes some of whom had landed near said (Montauk) Point. . . Also on board [were] two Spanish Gentlemen who represented and were part owners of the cargo and of the Negroes on board who were slaves belonging to said Spanish Gentlemen. . ." The report enumerates the "large and valuable cargo" which the schooner was carrying at the time: "25 bags of beans, 25 boxes of raisons, 10 doz. morocco skins, 5 doz. calf skins, 11 boxes of crockery and glass, 30 pieces of muslin, 1 doz. shawls, gloves, fans, shirts. . . and also 54 slaves to wit 51 male slaves and 3 young female slaves who are worth $25,000 and while on said voyage from Havana to Principe the said slaves rose upon the captain and crew of said schooner and killed and murdered the captain and one of said crew and two more of said crew escaped and got away from said schooner. . ."

Abolitionists seized upon the case as a vehicle to publicly display the cruelties of slavery and the slave trade. The freedom of the Africans became entangled in the conflicting claims of the Spaniards who had brought the "human cargo" and the Americans who had salvaged the ship. The case captured national and international attention as it made its way through the lower courts to the US Supreme Court, where the cause of prisoners was argued by former US President John Quincy Adams. On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled that all of the Africans were legally free—that they had never been slaves because the African slave trade was illegal and that they should be released and allowed to return to Africa. The Court also affirmed that ". . . it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice." Three years after they were kidnaped, in January 1842, the 35 surviving Africans finally returned to their homeland where they established a mission colony which formed the basis for the eventual independence of Sierra Leone from Great Britain.