La Amistad Narrative

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La Amistad In 1839, Africans being carried from Havana, Cuba, to Puerto Principe, Cuba, revolted against their captors aboard the ship La Amistad (Spanish for ‘friendship’). They were stolen from Africa, transported to the Americas, and were “passed off’ as having been born in Cuba. After the revolt, the Africans demanded to be returned home, but the ship’s navigator lied to them about their course, and sailed them north along the North American coast to Long Island, New York. The schooner was subsequently taken into custody by the United States Navvy.

The Africans, who were deemed alvage from the vessel, were taken to Connecticut to be sold as slaves. A widely publicized court case ensued about the ship and the legal status of the African captives. This incident is very important to the anti-slavery movement because it was an important ruling. The fact that the U. S. supreme court ruled that the “Africans were taking illegally and thus not “property’ of Cuban slave-traders or of Spain as Queen Isabella II of Spain. The illegal circumstances of their capture and transportation mean they are free” (www. archives. ov) gave a huge boost to the abolitionists and gave legal validity to the anti-slavery movement. Now, slaves had a “legal” leg to stand on. Looking back now, at the Amistad incident, one can deduce that this ruling gave a foothold to the legal side of ending slavery, which happened December 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified. My belief is that, had this ruling gone the other way, it would have significantly prolonged the ending of slavery. The Ship La Amistad was a 19th-century two-masted schooner, measuring 120 feet long by 32 feet wide and displacing 120 tons.

Built in the United States, La Amistad was originally named Friendship but she was renamed after being purchased by a Spaniard (www. history. avy. mil). La Amistad was not a slave ship in the sense that she was not designed to transport slaves, nor did she engage in the Middle Passage of Africans to the Americas. La Amistad engaged in much shorter, coastal trade routes. The normal cargo carried by La Amistad was sugar-industry products, passengers and, on occasion, slaves for transport. Her normal route ran from Havana, Cuba to her homeport, GuanaJa, Honduras.

The captives that La Amistad carried during the incident had been illegally transported to Cuba aboard the slave ship Tecora. After being stored at the wharf behind the US Custom House in New London, Connecticut, for a year and a half, La Amistad was auctioned off by the U. S. Marshal in October 1840. Captain George Hawford, of Newport, Rhode Island, (history. com) purchased the vessel. He renamed her Ion. In late 1841, he sailed the ship to Caribbean with the typical New England cargo of onions, apples, live poultry, and cheese.

After sailing Ion for a few years, Hawford sold the ship in Guadeloupe in 1844. There is no record of what became of the Ion under her new French owners. The Mutiny at Sea In 1839, the slave trade is illegal in many parts of the world, but some slave traders ay no attention to the laws. It was in a place called Mendeland (modern day Sierra Leone) that a group of Mende Africans were kidnapped and taken to the port of illegally transported them to Havana, Cuba on the slave ship Tecora (history. com). Almost a third of the slaves died during the long trip, most from malnutrition and beatings.

In late June they arrived in Cuba, the slaves were quickly separated and then sold. Two Spaniards, named Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, bought 53 of the slaves, (49 men, 1 boy, and 3 girls) for their plantations (Myers). Ruiz and Montes acked their cargo and slaves on board the schooner Amistad and set sail for their plantation at Port Principe, Cuba. It should have been smooth sailing. Just a few days out to sea, on July 2, one of the Africans used simple sign language to ask the Spanish cook what lay in store for the captured slaves on board.

The cook Jokingly replied in sign language that the Africans would be killed and eaten! That night, frightened by the cooks response, one of the the slaves, a man named Sengbe Pieh, later known as Cinqu©(SEEN-Kay)broke out of his chains (Kromer). There is some debate, as to the ethod he used to break out. Some say he used a nail he found to pick the padlocks, while other maintain that he found a file and used it to escape. Either way, he immediately began working to unchain the others. Soon the Africans found some sugar cane knives, the kind with two-foot-long blades, and proceeded to take over of the Amistad.

Two Africans and two Spaniards were killed in the mutiny. The African slaves, now in control of the Amistad, demanded that Ruiz and Montes sail east, toward the rising sun, back to their homes in Africa. The crafty Spanish sailors tried to trick the Africans. The ship’s navigator, Don Pedro Montez, deceived them about which direction their course was on. During the day, they headed east into the sun. At night, the sailors slowly turned the boat back toward the Americas. The next morning they sailed east, and at night, they turned back again.

This went on for nearly two months as the Amistad made a zigzag trip up the Atlantic, off the eastern coast of the United States. During the trip from Cuba, ten more Africans died. Then, on August 26, the Amistad run aground on Long Island, New York. There the Spanish sailors and Africans hoped to trade for badly needed supplies. Instead, sailors on the U. S. Navvy ship, The Washington, spotted the Amistad. After hearing the Spaniards’ version of the story, the Navvy sailors, took captive the boat, its cargo, and the Africans.

The Navvy sailors thought they might receive a reward for capturing the Amistad and if not, they might be able to make money by selling some of the slaves (cultures. com). The Court Case The Amistad was escorted to New London, Connecticut. The Cubans were set free and the Africans were imprisoned pending an investigation of the mutiny. The Ruiz and Montes demanded the return of their allegedly “Cuban-born” slaves. The Spanish government called for the Africans extradition to Cuba to stand trial for murder and piracy.

On the opposite side were the American abolitionists who advocated the return of the “illegally bought slaves” to Africa. This case was highly publicized. On January 13, 1840, the court ruled that the Africans were illegally enslaved, that they would not be returned to Cuba to stand trial for piracy and murder, and that they should be granted free passage back to Africa (www. archives. gov). President Van Buren and Spanish authorities appealed the decision twice. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the “Africans were taking llegally and thus not “property’ of Cuban slave-traders or of Spain as Queen Isabella are free. (www. archives. gov). At the end of 1841 , the 25 survivors of the Amistad and five American missionaries sailed to modern day Sierra Leone. La Amistad was not a huge battle ship or an infamous pirate ship. It was Just a plain old, run of the mill cargo schooner. Nothing special, but luck, fate or both changed that. It ended up being a considerable symbol for anti-slavery. It now represents one of the first legal battles won to abolish slavery and a change the way we viewed and treated Africans.

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