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Amistad: Mutiny On A Slave Ship

African slaves occasionally revolted against their masters, and the result was usually severe punishment for the slaves. The mutiny of fifty-four slaves on the Spanish ship Amistad in 1839 proved an exception, however, as the U.S. Supreme Court granted the slaves their freedom and allowed them to return to Africa.

The fifty-four Africans were KIDNAPPED in West Africa, near modern-day Sierra Leone, and illegally sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were transported to Cuba, fraudulently classified as native Cuban slaves, and sold to two Spaniards. The slaves were then loaded on the schooner Amistad, which set sail for Haiti.

Three days into the journey, the slaves mutinied. Led by Sengbe Pieh, known to the Spanish crew as Cinque, the slaves unshackled themselves, killed the captain and the cook, and forced all but two of the crew to leave the ship. The Africans demanded to be returned to their homeland, but the crew tricked them and sailed toward the United States. In August 1839 the ship was towed into Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York.

Cinque and the others were charged with murder and PIRACY. A group of abolitionists formed the Amistad Committee, which organized a legal defense that sought the slaves' freedom. U.S. President MARTIN VAN BUREN, pressed by Spain to return the slaves without trial, hoped the court would find the slaves guilty and order them returned to Cuba. The federal circuit court dismissed the murder and piracy charges because the acts had occurred outside the jurisdiction of the United States. It referred the case to the federal district court for trial to determine if the slaves must be returned to Cuba.

At the trial the slaves argued that there was no legal basis for returning them to Cuba because the importation of slaves from Africa was illegal under Spanish law. The district court agreed, ruling that the Africans were free and should be transported home. Van Buren ordered an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court.

Former president JOHN QUINCY ADAMS represented the slaves before the Supreme Court, making an impassioned argument for their freedom. The Court, in United States v. Libellants of Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (15 Pet. 518), 10 L. Ed. 826, affirmed the district court and agreed that the Africans were free persons. By the end of 1841, thirty-five of the Amistad survivors had sailed for Sierra Leone; the rest remained in the United States.


Wood, Gary V. 2004. Heir to the Fathers: John Quincy Adams and the Spirit of Constitutional Government. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

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