The Amistad Mutiny, 1839

Death of Captain Ferrer, the Captain of the Amistad, July 1839
Courtesy New York Public Library (485453)

The Amistad Mutiny occurred on the Spanish schooner La Amistad on July 2, 1839. The incident began In February 1839 when Portuguese slave hunters illegally seized 53 Africans in Sierra Leone, a British colony, whom they intended to sell in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Several weeks into the slave-raiding trip, the 53, along with 500 other captured Africans were loaded on to the Tecora, a Portuguese slave ship. After a two month voyage the Tecora landed in Havana, Cuba.  There Jose Ruiz purchased 49 adult slaves and Pedro Montes bought four children. Ruiz and Montes wanted to bring the slaves to the sugar plantations in Puerto Principe (now Camaguey), Cuba where they would resell them. The slave merchants boarded the 53  African captives on the Amistad which departed from Havana, Cuba on June 28, 1839.

Joseph Cinqué portrait
Courtesy US Library of Congress (2018647801)


Because the captives on the ship experienced harsh treatment by their captors, four days into the voyage on July 2, 1839, one of them, Joseph Cinqué (also known as Sengbe Pieh), freed himself. After freeing other captives and helping them find weapons, Cinqué led them to the upper deck where they killed the ship’s cook, Celestino.  They then killed the ship’s captain, Ramon Ferrer, although in the attack two captives died as well. Two Amistad crew members escaped from the ship by boat. Ruiz and Montes were spared during the revolt on the promise that they would sail the Amistad back to Sierra Leone as captives demanded.

Instead they sailed the ship toward the United States. Along the way several Africans died from dysentery and dehydration. On August 26, 1839, the Amistad landed off the eastern end of Long Island, New York at Culloden Point where a U.S. Navy ship took it into custody. Ruiz and Montes were freed while the surviving Africans were arrested and imprisoned at New London, Connecticut.

When the Spanish embassy claimed the African captives were slaves and demanded their return to Cuba, a trial ensued on January 1840 in a federal court in Hartford, Connecticut.  The judge ruled that the Africans were illegally brought to Cuba since Great Britain, Spain, and the United States signed agreements outlawing the international slave trade.  Under pressure from Southern slaveholders, however, U.S. President Martin Van Buren appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that anti-piracy agreements with Spain compelled the U.S. to return the Africans to Cuba.  Meanwhile Northern Presbyterian and Congregational denominations led by abolitionist Lewis Tappin organized the Amistad Committee in New York City to support the legal defense of the Africans.  Former President John Quincy Adams, then a Massachusetts Congressman, agreed to represent the Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling in The United States v. The Amistad with a 7-1 decision declaring that the captives were illegally kidnapped and thus were free. Soon afterwards Northern abolitionists raised funds to pay for African men and boys, and three girls, to return to Sierra Leone. On November 25, 1841, the surviving Amistad captives departed from New York harbor for Sierra Leone.  They were accompanied by James Covey, a British sailor and former slave who spoke their language, and five white missionaries, all sailing on the Gentleman. The British governor of Sierra Leone, William Fergusson, led the colony in welcoming the captives when they arrived in Freetown, in January 1842.