Today in History

Today in History: March 9

Survivors of Amistad Mutiny Released

Brothers, we have done that which we proposed…I am resolved it is better to die than be a white man's slave.

Joseph Cinqué, leader of the Amistad mutiny, quoted in the New York Sun, 1839.

Joseph Cinquez
Joseph Cinquez, the Brave Congolese Chief…
lithograph by James or Isaac Sheffield, New York Sun, 1839.
African American Odyssey

The Supreme Court issued a ruling on March 9, 1841, freeing the remaining thirty-five survivors of the Amistad mutiny. Although seven of the nine justices on the court hailed from Southern states, only one dissented from Justice Joseph Story's majority opinion. Private donations ensured the Africans' safe return to Sierra Leone in January 1842.

The events leading up to the decision began on July 2, 1839, when Joseph Cinqué led fifty-two fellow captive Africans, recently abducted from the British protectorate of Sierra Leone by Portuguese slave traders, in a revolt aboard the Spanish schooner Amistad. The ship's navigator, who was spared in order to direct the ship back to western Africa, managed, instead, to steer it northward. When the Amistad was discovered off the coast of Long Island, New York, it was hauled into New London, Connecticut by the U.S. Navy.

President Martin Van Buren, guided in part by his desire to woo pro-slavery votes in his upcoming bid for reelection, wanted the prisoners returned to Spanish authorities in Cuba to stand trial for mutiny. A Connecticut judge, however, issued a ruling recognizing the defendants' rights as free citizens and ordering the U.S. government to escort them back to Africa.

J.Q. Adams
John Quincy Adams
engraving from an original painting by G.P.A. Healy, copyright 1898.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

The U.S. government eventually appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Former president John Quincy Adams, who represented the Amistad Africans in the Supreme Court case, argued in his defense that it was the illegally enslaved Africans, rather than the Cubans, who "were entitled to all the kindness and good offices due from a humane and Christian nation." Adams's victory in the Amistad case was a significant success for the abolition movement.

The Amistad survivors were aided, in their defense, by the American Missionary Association, an organization affiliated with the effort to colonize freed slaves overseas. African-American Mosaic includes information about the history of the colonization movement, the colonization of slaves in Liberia, and personal stories of former slaves who chose to move overseas.