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, The U. S. brig Washington captured the Amistad off the eastern coast of Long Island. News of the slave revolt had already spread throughout the states. Upon encountering “The Long, Low Black Schooner” (title of a play about the capture of the vessel that soon ran in New York) the Washington’s officers promptly arrested the Africans on board. They were taken to New Haven (because Connecticut, unlike New York, was still a slave state), charged with murder, and imprisoned.
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 35 Mende who had survived their two years of captivity were not immediately sent back to Africa, however, as there was no immediate source of money to fund their return voyage. Instead, they made their way to Farmington, where one man, named Foone, died in the Farmington River in 1841, The remaining thirty-five Mende helped raise money by traveling around and speaking and performing tricks. They became the abolitionists’ cause celebré. Finally, in 1842, they did leave for home, destined never to forget their fateful Connecticut sojourn and the long, hard journey to regain their freedom.
“The Amistad,” connecticuthistory.org
“Stories: Travel the Amistad Freedom-Seeking Story in Connecticut,” National Park Service