August 24: Capture of the Slave Ship Amistad


In early 1839, Portuguese slave traders captured dozens of native Mende Africans from the territory of modern-day Sierra Leone — technically, in violation of several international treaties — and sold them to two Spaniards in the slave markets of Havana, Cuba.  On July 1, while en route to nearby plantations aboard the Spaniards’ schooner La Amistad, the Africans staged a successful mutiny, killing the ship’s captain and demanding the remaining crew sail them back to Africa.  Unbeknownst to the Africans, the crew of the Amistad instead slowly steered the ship northward toward the northeastern coast of the United States.  On August 24, 1839, American authorities captured the Amistad off the eastern coast of Long Island.  By then, the news of the slave revolt had spread throughout the states, and upon encountering the renegade ship, the Africans were promptly arrested, charged with murder, and imprisoned in nearby New Haven, Connecticut.

A 1839 engraving depicting the mutiny aboard La Amistad.

The capture of La Amistad sparked one of the most famous and impactful series of court cases in U.S. history, as several parties sued to determine the legal status of the fifty-three Africans who were then sitting in a Connecticut prison.  Even though the murder charges against the captives were soon dropped, the government of Spain argued that the Africans, like the Amistad itself, were Spanish property and demanded them returned to their former owners, despite the illegality of the slave trade under U.S. law.  Meanwhile, several prominent American abolitionists had raised enough money to hire former president John Quincy Adams and future Connecticut governor Roger Sherman Baldwin to act as legal counsel for the imprisoned Africans, arguing that they were free men who deserved to be released.

The widely-publicized United States vs. The Amistad legal battle continued for nearly two years, eventually landing in the U.S. Supreme Court.  In March of 1841, the Supreme Court ruled that the African captives were free men and should be immediately released — a decision that sent shock waves through the United States, angering Southern slaveholders and encouraging Northern abolitionists.  The thirty-five Mende who had survived their two years of captivity were immediately sent back to Africa, destined to never forget their fateful Connecticut sojourn in the long journey to regain their freedom.

Further Reading

The Amistad,”

Stories: Travel the Amistad Freedom-Seeking Story in Connecticut,” National Park Service