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