The Amistad Rebellion

Read the story of the Amistad Rebellion onboard a slave ship.
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Updated on: September 20, 2006
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A Strange Northward Journey

On the March

The Amistad case was, before the Dred Scott case of 1857, the most important American news story involving the status of enslaved Africans. The controversies and passions it inspired were important previews of later national debates on questions such as the status of those enslaved, states' rights, and the morality of slavery.

When his attempt to be captured by the British had failed, the Amistad's white navi-gator steered an erratic course northward toward the United States, hoping to be intercepted by some official vessel there.

He had succeeded, for some time, in convincing the Africans who now controlled the ship that he was following their orders and heading for Africa. During the day, the ship's white navigators sailed east—toward the sun—as the Africans, led by a charismatic ringleader known as Cinque, demanded. At night, however, the ship changed course.


Were there other slave-ship mutinies? The Amistad was not the only slave ship of the era to bring about an international incident as the result of a mutiny. In 1841, captive Africans took over an American slave ship called the Creole and sailed it into the Bahamas. Representatives of the British government set the mutineers free, based on the royal government's emancipation laws.

Naval officers of the U.S. brig Washington found the ship anchored near Montauk Point, New York. There Cinque (who apparently had come to realize he was being played for a fool by the two whites he had spared) ordered the ship to a stop—and made an attempt to spend some of the ship's gold pieces on board for food and water.

While the ship—much the worse for wear and tear—stood anchored, Lieutenant Thomas Gedney boarded it and got the Spaniards' side of the story. After a brief period of confusion, he apprehended the Africans on board as well as those who had gone ashore. He then headed away from New York (a free state) and toward Connecticut (where slavery was, as of 1839, still legal). He attempted to claim the captive Africans as salvage property. Gedney's claim to take possession of the mutineers on the Amistad, however, failed, and they were eventually charged with piracy and murder.

The ensuing legal wrangle—and the question of whether the Africans, who had been illegally brought to Cuba, were slaves—would captivate America and the world.

Piracy and Murder—or Self-Defense?

The two Spaniards who had survived the mutiny on board the Amistad aimed to have their ship and its human cargo returned to them by the American courts. Eventually, the Spanish government joined in the demand; the Spanish wanted the Amistad mutineers tried for piracy and murder. Abolitionists, who saw the uprising as a clear case of self-defense (and who also knew a good news story when they saw one) fought Spanish efforts to win control of the mutineers and sought to find a way to return the captives from the Amistad to Africa.

At the center of the controversy was a critical question: Were the mutineers murderers, or had they acted in appropriate self-defense? To answer that question—from the point of view of the American courts, at least—one had to determine whether the captives on board the Amistad were slaves. (No slave, under the prevailing U.S. law, had a right of self-defense against a master.)

The entire wrangle became a major headache for the administration of President Martin Van Buren, who was trying to win reelection by maintaining the fragile balance between the northern and southern wings of the Democratic party. (This was, of course, a balancing act that many a future Democratic presidential candidate would be forced to undertake in the decades to come.)

Excerpted from

The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History
Melba J. Duncan
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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