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Slave Revolts

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"Trial of the Slaves," the second panel of artist Hale Woodruff's Amistad Murals, painted for Talladega College in Alabama in 1938. At right, with arms crossed, is lead mutineer Joseph Cinque. Courtesy of the Granger Collection, New York.

The saga of the Amistad remains one of the world's most well-known stories of slave revolt, in part because of its 1997 dramatization by the famed Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and in part because its successful outcome was so impossibly exceptional. In July 1839, a group of African slaves aboard the Spanish schooner La Amistad overpowered the small crew overseeing their transport from Havana to Port-au-Prince in Spanish-controlled Cuba. Two of the ship's sailors survived the mutiny and were ordered to return the ship to Africa. Convinced, however, that their "contraband" would be confiscated and returned to Cuba if the ship made it the American continent, the crew surreptitiously navigated the boat toward the United States, and six weeks later the Amistad arrived on the eastern end of Long Island. Within days the schooner was boarded by USS Washington, a navy customs enforcement ship. The two Spanish sailors were freed, but the Africans were placed under arrest and taken to New London, Connecticut, to stand trial.

The case of the Amistad raised a dizzying number of legal issues, among them international sovereignty, state's rights, salvage laws, criminal law, and individual rights under the U.S. Constitution. Importantly, the men had been sold into bondage at the Lomboko slave factory in modern-day Sierra Leone, despite a treaty in 1817 between Spain and Britain banning slave importation to West Indian colonies. This issue of "legality"—whether the Spanish illegally transported humans—was a key point for the slaves' defense lawyers, which included seventy-three-year-old former U.S. president John Quincy Adams. Not wanting to antagonize Spain, a European power and fellow rival of the British, the Van Buren administration continued to resist rulings in favor of the Amistads, as the men had come to be called. At last, the case arrived in the Supreme Court. On 9 March 1841, the Court voted 7–1 that the "Africans were not slaves but free Africans" and that "Spain had no right to compensation for their lost 'slaves'" (Purdy). The Amistads soon departed for Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of the very few, if not the only, groups of insurrectionists to survive the horrors of slavery.

Purdy, Elizabeth R. "Amistad," Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895— From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass. Ed. Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Oxford African American Studies Center. Web.

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