Amistad Term Paper

This essay has a total of 2389 words and 9 pages.



The Amistad, ironically a ship that means "friendship," was the setting of one of the most
historical slave revolts led by black Africans in 1839. This revolt gained considerable
attention from the American population, the media and well as other international
interests. It was the black insurrection on board the Amistad that ignited the underlying
issues of politics, slavery, sectionalism, religion, trade rights, and anti-British
sentiment that already plagued the nation at the time of the Amistad incident. The
controversy drew the entire world into the conflict over human and property rights, an
issue that divided our nation and would eventually catapult it into war over the
relationship of race and slavery to liberty.

Treaties and Laws in the 1800's sought to further slavery regulation by making it legal,
but prohibiting the further importation of slaves. Great Britain banned slavery in its own
colonies, and pursued the suppression of trade. The United States passed the Slave
Importation Act of 1807, which declared further importation of slaves into the United
States illegal. Yet these Laws proved to be unenforceable due to Presidential denial of
power to halt trades in the United States, as well as the rising cotton production in the
South and the demand for Cuban sugar and Brazilian coffee, both expanding the market for
slave labor. Thus the 1817 treaty with Great Britain that also outlawed foreign slave
trade especially hurt the Spanish colony of Cuba. In spite of the ban, slave-traders
continued to smuggle in slaves for several decades and tried to pass them off as legal.

Slaves were constantly kidnapped from their homeland and taken most on route to Cuba,
where slave labor was in most frequent demand. In 1839, the two men, Jose Ruiz and Pedro
Montes chartered the Amistad to transport the 49 slaves to plantations in Cuba. One of the
slaves on board the ship, Joseph Cinque, was given the impression that he and the other
prisoners were being taken somewhere to be turned into dried meat and eaten. Deciding he
had nothing to lose by trying to get free, Cinque led others on board in a rebellion
against the ship, killing the ship's captain and the cook. Two other crewmembers either
died during the revolt or jumped off the ship to try to reach shore. Only one slave died
during the uprising.

The slaves on board, with Cinque in charge, ordered Ruiz and Montes to sail to Africa. In
hope of being rescued, the two men instead pursued a different course, that which would
lead them down Atlantic Ocean, where they would eventually reach the United States, along
the coast of Long Island. As Cinque and some others left the ship, members of the U.S.S.
Washington came on board. The Africans were charged with murder and mutiny, and they were
transported to New Haven, Conn. to await trial. The rebellion on board the ship
immediately caught the attention of abolitionists Lewis Tappan, Joshua Leavitt, Simeon
Jocelyn. Together they rallied for public support and established themselves as the
Amistad Committee , a precursor to the American Missionary Association. They conducted a
nationwide appeal for funds to provide for the legal defense. They saw the Amistad blacks
as noble savages, who though untutored in education or religion, realized the value of
freedom. While genuinely and sincerely committed to fighting for the blacks' release,
abolitionists perceived as well the value of the Africans as dramatic symbols in the
battle against slavery. Right away the abolitionists searched for a translator who could
break the language barrier and allow the captives to tell their side of the story in
court. They found a linguistics professor from Yale University knew the Mende language.
The abolitionists sought to also save the blacks by sending theology students to visit
them in jail to teach them English and Christianity.

The abolitionist dedication to the cause increased with the firm opposition to the
Africans by the Van Buren administration and leading Southern spokesmen. The Van Buren
Administration could not afford to alienate his Southern supporters in his upcoming 1840
election and thus did have reason to heed Southern views on the Amistad question. A public
dispute over slavery would divide his Democratic Party. Moreover, both the Secretary of
State and Attorney General were not only Southerners but slaveholders as well. The
administration in fact, had but recently proven its sensitivity on the fugitive slave
issue. Van Buren disregarded both American law and the Constitution in an attempt to quiet
the issue by complying with Spanish demands. By having a ship ready to deliver the
Africans back to Spanish authorities, Van Buren interfered in the judicial process and
violated the blacks' rights as human beings.

"Spain shared both the Van Buren fear of slave revolt and his fear of abolitionist gain
through events like the Amistad rebellion. The Spanish government had made demands upon
the United States concerning the Amistad. Angel Calderon de La Barca, a Spanish minister,
cited four articles of the Pinckney's Treaty, which had been reaffirmend by the Adams-Onis
Treaty of 1819. They claimed that the US had no right to try the captives, and that they
should be immediately returned to Cuba so they can stand trial for murder and piracy, the
Africans were being described in a contradiction of property and pirates. Ruiz and Montes
claimed that the Africans had been slaves in Cuba prior to the time of purchase and were
therefore Ruiz and Montes' legal property.

Along with support from the Abolitionists, Great Britain, given its recent disagreements
with the American government over the right of search, did not show sympathy to American
or Spanish concerns, especially in the Amistad incident. The Glasgow Emancipation Society
and other groups passed resolutions in support of the Amistad Africans. A year before the
Amistad Africans landed in the United States, U.S. Minister to Great Britain demanded that
the British "refrain from forcing liberty upon such American slaves," as might enter
British ports, prohibited slaves from landing in her colonies, and guard such slaves that
landed until they would be claimed. Spain, in Van Buren's view, took a more reasonable
view than Britain toward slavery and the slave trade. This is why Van Buren felt it was
more important to maintain good relations with Spain.

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