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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Set Free

After nearly two years of abuse, delay, wrongful imprisonment, and frequent and humiliating public display, the Amistad captives finally received something remarkable: an approximation of justice from an American Supreme Court heavily dominated by Southern justices. The Court set them free.

Here is a summary of the main points of the Supreme Court's decision:

  • The Spaniards had not proved their claims to ownership of the Africans. (The importation of slaves into Cuba from Africa had been illegal for some years.)
  • Since the Africans were not and had never been slaves, they could not have been thieves or pirates. (On this line of argument, the court followed the defense's claim that the Africans had acted in self-defense; as a result, the court issued an implicit warning to those illegally trafficking in slaves that American courts would not protect them if their “cargo” mutinied.)
  • The court also decreed the U.S. Navy's seizure of the Amistad to be “highly meritorious.” (In this part of the decision, the court chose to ignore the documented fact that the ship had sailed to Connecticut, where slavery was still legal, in an attempt to claim a price for the Amistad's human cargo.)

For the African captives of the Amistad, the ruling was the long-delayed conclusion of a prolonged nightmare. After a few more logistical delays and strategy sessions, the Africans who had survived kidnapping, torture, and the vagaries of the American legal system sailed back home for Africa on November 27, 1841.

The Other Side of the Amistad Decision

For Africans in America, the picture was not quite so appealing.

On the positive side of the ledger, the abolitionist movement had definitely gained momentum, and the sympathies of the North had been awakened, at least for a time, to some of the injustices of the institution of slavery. Also on the positive side, the American legal system had upheld the right of freed Africans to defend themselves. (Many had feared that the court would be unable to bring itself to acknowledge that freed Africans had any rights whatsoever.)

And yet, despite the apparent triumph and the victorious headlines in abolitionist newspapers, there was an ominous side to the Supreme Court's ruling. In finding for the captives, the justices had based their reasoning on their own determination that the Spanish government had failed to prove that the Amistad captives were slaves. They had not embraced Adams's argument that the Africans were free by virtue of natural law.

By following this line of reasoning, the court had actually reinforced existing U.S. law on slavery. Those who were legally slaves could be retained in captivity indefinitely—and, presumably, starved, tortured, and abused as the Amistad captives had been.

Though some white northerners had begun to look a little more skeptically at the institution of slavery, the enslavement of Africans continued in the South. With the help of able counsel, the Amistad mutineers had simply maneuvered around the human travesty of American law as it stood in the 1840s; they had not reformed it in any way.

Prelude to a Bloodbath

The question of whether to honor a Spanish claim for financial compensation for losses in the Amistad affair was a political football that remained in play from 1841 (the year the captives left for Africa) until 1860 (the year before the American Civil War began). The Amistad dispute was, in fact, a prelude to a longer and bloodier dispute that had the issue of slavery at its heart: the American Civil War.

On its own terms, however, Amistad was a dispute about a basic human requirement: freedom.

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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