Slavery and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Amistad Case

Description

On June 28, 1839, the schooner La Amistad set sail from Havana, Cuba, setting off a series of events that would have international and historical consequences. On board the schooner were 53 Africans who had been abducted from West Africa and sold in violation of international law. Their intended fate was enslavement on plantations down coast from Havana. On the third day out, the Africans revolted and ordered that the ship be guided toward the rising sun back to Africa, but each night the Cuban plantation owners who had purchased them from Havana’s slave market and survived the uprising changed course. Zigzagging for two months, the ship eventually was brought by northerly winds and currents to Long Island. Intercepted by the United States Navy, the Africans were jailed and charged with piracy and murder. In New York City, a group of Christian abolitionists, headed by Lewis Tappan, formed a defense committee. Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin, with help from former President John Quincy Adams, took the case to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in March 1841 that the Africans were free. This digital collection is comprised of correspondence, dating from 1839-1841, by abolitionists, pro-slavery advocates, governmental officials, and the Amistad Africans themselves, related to the development of efforts to provide legal assistance to the Africans. The resulting trials in the U.S. court system; the political interests on the part of the United States, Cuba, and Spain; and the personal experiences of the imprisoned Africans are detailed in these letters, which are housed in the archives of the American Missionary Association, an abolitionist missionary organization that grew out of the Amistad Committee’s efforts.

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Letter from [illegible] to Lewis Tappan
A donation letter from unidentified individual pledging support for the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Isaac Parish to Lewis Tappan
Isaac Parish writes that he has obtained a copy of the book, Rene Caillie's Travels. He mentions that another book [possibly Thomas Edward Bowdich's Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, & c.] cannot be obtained in stores, but a copy can be obtained from a library., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Isaac Parrish to "Dear Friends"
A letter from James Thomson regarding John Shain as a possible interpreter for the Amistad Captives and D.P. Brown as possible lawyer., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Isaac Parrish to Joshua Leavitt
A letter suggesting D.P. Brown as a prospective lawyer to assist the Amistad Captives. The letter mentions a possible interpreter for the Amistad Captives, a white man named John Shain, who "when a child was placed on board of slave ship and lived 6 or 7 years amongst the Africans." Included is a list of words to "test the language spoken by the Africans.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Isaac Parrish to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Isaac Parrish acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter from November 4 and reporting that a committee was appointed by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society to assist with the defense of the Amistad Captives. He claims that they have raised $200, $140 of which will apply to the Captives' defense. Parrish writes that he will meet with his colleagues regarding the matter and adds that a circular and editorial have been published in the National Gazette in Philadelphia., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Isaac Parrish to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Isaac Parrish acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter from December 11. Enclosed is $150 from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Isaac Parrish to Lewis Tappan
A letter from Isaac Parris offering to send Levi Ganges as an interpreter and commenting on the importance of "the right of Spain or Cuba to demand the Prisoners.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Isaac Parrish to Lewis Tappan
A letter regarding Isaac Parrish's visit with "an old Mandingo man" who may be able to serve as an interpreter for the Amistad Captives. Parrish reports that the man speaks "several African languages, French, and English" along with Spanish, and is willing to assist. Parrish mentions that there are preparations for the grand jury to convene in New Haven., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from Isaac Pendleton to "Luis Tappan"
Donation letter from Isaac Pendleton to "Luis Tappan" pledging support for the Amistad Captives., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from J. Holcomb to Lewis Tappan
A letter from J. Holcomb informing Lewis Tappan that "after a long time, a few of us [responded] to the call of the Committee on behalf of the Amistad Captives." Following the publication of the Committee's appeal, Holcomb supposed that donations would be forwarded to the Brandon Anti-Slavery Society, but saw "I should get nothing to send unless I was at the trouble of looking it up." Holcomb states that there are good anti-slavery men in the area who are able to pay, but they believe "that government ought to see that the captives are defended." Holcomb admits that he cannot pay much money but "must pay my abolition & temperance bills by getting others to pay & by circulating publications favorable to the Anti-Slavery & Temperance causes." He lists the papers he subscribes to and considers taking to the National Anti-Slavery Standard. He asks Tappan to forward money to the publisher for a subscription and offers a suggestion of coordinating abolitionist and temperance meetings in proximity so that he and others can attend both. Holcomb then discusses the relationship of the two causes and explains that he had sent Tappan a copy of the Telegraph containing "a statement of facts relative to the Cong [Congregational] Church -- their Pastor & myself.” He writes that he has now received a letter of excommunication. Holocomb asks if Tappan sees Brother C.B. [Charles B.] Ray, he is to give his respects to him. He then discusses subscriptions to various newspapers and states he is an agent for the Colored American., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from J. Holcomb to Lewis Tappan
In a letter to Lewis Tappan, J. Holcomb writes that "A young man (colored) came to the village yesterday, saying he was Antonio, cabin boy to the captain of the Amistad." Holcomb admits that he was doubtful and is anxious to learn if Antonio is in Connecticut. Mr. Murray believes the man is Antonio, so, Holcomb asks Tappan to confirm Antonio's whereabouts and provide a description of him. He goes on to ask when the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society will have its anniversary. He mentions that he wrote to Thomas Davenport, inventor of the "Electro Magnetic Machine," but has received no answer. Holcomb expresses his desire to attend the A.S. [anti-slavery?] Political Convention and does not "see it expedient to have candidates for President & Vice President nominated by the Abolitionists." He thinks more can be done by having the abolitionists of both parties influence the next nominations of their parties., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from J. Kennedy and Campbell J. Dalrymple to Seth Staples and Theodore Sedgwick
Campbell J. Dalrymple and J. Kennedy, British Commissioners in Havana, acknowledge the September 13 letter from Seth Staples and Theodore Sedgwick and "hasten to afford you whatever assistance may be in our powers in accordance with your request." In the letter, they write that news of the revolt on board the Amistad was "made known in this city almost immediately by the two sailors who escaped" and that soon afterwards a report that the Amistad had landed in the Bahamas was prevalent. News was then confirmed that the ship had reached the United States, and Dalrymple's and Kennedy's "first impression of duty was that we should write to the British minister at Washington stating the fact of the negroes having been newly and illegally brought into this Island from Africa and therefore as being entitled to be considered free persons acting under illegal restraint." Learning of the deposition of Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, both appeared to acknowledge the recent importation of the Africans and "as we could have stated no more" they thought any perceived interference on their part would be considered improper; "this opinion we still continue to hold but with less regret now relying on your particular zeal and ability to ensure success." The commissioners have read further reports of the case, the arguments of Staples and Sedgwick, and the decision of Judge Smith Thompson with much interest. They provide information on laws and treaties of Spain governing the slave trade as they relate to the Amistad case, stating, "from these several enactments we think the conclusion is inevitable that the negroes of the "Amistad" are entitled to be considered as free men having been unlawfully brought into captivity and therefore that the persons claiming them as slaves or merchandize claim them so wrongfully." They provide a series of names of individuals "learned in the Spanish law by whom to prove the Spanish law in case it becomes necessary to send a Commission to Cuba for this purpose.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from James B. Covey to Lewis Tappan
James B. Covey writes that he has seen "the Little Book" which Lewis Tappan sent to Cinque and the Amistad Captives and requests a copy of his own. Covey then requests a Bible, a geography book, and a dictionary. He claims that he is a "member of Zion Church in New Haven & try to go to Colage to try to write and spell my...name...and I try to teach Kila [Kale] and Kanna and Cinque.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from James B. Covey to Lewis Tappan
A letter from James Covey acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter. Covey states that Stanton Pendleton has let him return to teach the Amistad Captives. If he is to stay in New Haven, he asks that Tappan provide him with work. He writes that "the man who keep the house is wicked man indeed I never saw in my life and he is a lire [liar] man and drink rum and swear and curse God who made him." Covey mentions that he has seen a likeness of Cinque but does not think it good and if Covey does not have work he, "desire to go to sarvent [servent] to rich men," stating that Tappan told him he sent a letter "to London to the Capt. Feety.", reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from James B. Covey to Lewis Tappan
Transcription in unknown hand of a letter from James B. Covey to Lewis Tappan., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from James B. Covey to Lewis Tappan
A letter from James Covey to Lewis Tappan informing him that he is unhappy. He explains to Tappan that he loves God in his soul, but "I have father and mother sister and brothers never heard about God and Jesus Christ" asking to be sent back to Sierra Leone. Covey requests to be sent home if the Amistad Africans go to Africa and writes that if he goes back he "shall do good before he dies." He then mentions that he has taught the Africans but has not been paid and if he is allowed to go home, he would take $100 or $20., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from James B. Covey to Lewis Tappan
A letter from James Covey to Lewis Tappan stating that he wants to go home and that he "get no money so much as I want." Covey explains that he gets more money when he boards a man of war. He writes that if the Amistad Captives are moved to Westville and Mr. Townsend gets a house, Covey will teach them, but, if he is to stay in New Haven, he requests more money., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from James Birney to Lewis Tappan
A letter from James Birney acknowledging Lewis Tappan's letter and explaining that he has "consulted the committee and the instructions respecting its contents. They did not appear very definite in their views of the matter." He claims the Committee feels that "unless the Africans can be kept together & in a situation where the can have efficient instruction they had better remain in their present situation" or as Tappan suggested, "they could be placed under the care of Mr. Norton at Farmington...this might also be well to do." However, the Committee does not wish them to be separated and any interference may result in limiting the Amistad Captive's privileges while jailed. Any efforts to remove the young girls from Stanton Pendleton would be unsuccessful and would upset him. It is mentioned that Amos Townsend agrees in general but feels it would benefit the girls "to be placed in private families." The instructors think it desirable that the Africans learn "some useful trades" and for "two or three of the more intelligent, and apt, [be] situated in private families where they would acquire more rapidly the English language.” They would then potentially serve as interpreters should they return to Africa. Birney suggests Kale and Kinna for this and goes on to provide answers to Tappan's questions concerning the girls and their roles in the Pendleton home and their instruction there., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org
Letter from James Birney to Lewis Tappan
James Birney's reply to Lewis Tappan's letter of September 29 was detained. He writes that he did, however, received Tappan's letter from October 5 and has discussed its contents with the New Haven Committee. Birney informs Tappan about the Committee's decision and expresses his confusion as to why Tappan never received the letter. Birney offers to re-write the substance of it and asks Tappan for money. He also includes his opinion of Mr. McGill., reference@amistadresearchcenter.org

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