Amistad Conflict Essay, Research Paper
The Amistad Conflict
In January 1839, fifty-three African natives were kidnapped from eastern Africa and sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were then placed aboard a Spanish slave ship bound for Havana, Cuba. Once in Havana, the Africans were classified as native Cuban slaves and purchased at auction by two Spaniards, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez. The two planned to move the slaves to another part of Cuba. The slaves were shackled and loaded aboard the cargo ship Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) for the brief coastal voyage. However, three days into the journey, a 25-year-old slave named Sengbe Pieh (or “Cinque” to his Spanish captors) broke out of his shackles and released the other Africans. The slaves then revolted, killing most of the crew of the Amistad, including the cook and captain. The Africans then forced Montez and Ruiz to return the ship to Africa. During the day, the ship sailed due east, using the sun to navigate. However, at night Montez and Ruiz would change course, attempting to return to Cuba. The zigzag journey continued for 63 days. The ship finally grounded near Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York State. The United States federal government seized the ship and its African occupants — who under U.S. law were “property” and therefore cargo of the ship. On August 29, 1839, the Amistad was towed into New London, Connecticut. The government charged the slaves with piracy and murder, and classified them as salvage property. The fifty-three Africans were sent to prison, pending hearing of their case before the U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut. The stage was set for an important, controversial, and highly politicized case. Local abolitionist groups rallied around the Africans’ cause, organizing a legal defense, hiring a translator for the Africans, and providing material support. Meanwhile, the Spanish government pressured the U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, to return the slaves to Spain without trial. (http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/library/misc/barber.1840.amis.capt.html#initial.investigation),1. The trials and arguments revealed much about contemporary attitudes toward slavery. The ultimate decision made by the courts had many implications and created conflicts within the United States over slavery.
The conflict at hand was that the Africans said ” that they are not natives of Africa, and were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are and ought to be free and not slaves; that they were domiciled in the island of Cuba, or in the dominions of the Queen of Spain, or subject to the laws thereof.”(http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/library/court/supreme/1841.01.decision.2.htm) The United States argued that its treaty with Spain required it to return ships and property seized by U.S. government vessels to their Spanish owners. The Supreme Court called the case “peculiar and embarrassing.” It ruled for the Africans, accepting the argument that they were never citizens of Spain, and were illegally taken from Africa, where they were free men under the law. The Supreme Court accepted that the United States had obligations to Spain under the treaty, but said that that treaty “never could have been intended to take away the equal rights of [the Africans].”(http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/library/court/supreme/1841.01.decision.2.html) The Supreme Court also rejected a fairly novel argument by the United States. The U.S. argued that the Africans should not be freed because, in commanding a slave ship and piloting it into the United States, the Africans violated the laws of the United States forbidding slave trade. The Supreme Court stated that the slaves could not “possibly intend to import themselves into the United States as slaves, or for sale as slaves.” (http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/library/court/supreme/1841.01.decision.2.html) Senior Justice Joseph Story wrote and read the decision of the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the Africans on board the Amistad were free individuals. Kidnapped and transported illegally, they had never been slaves. Although Justice Story had written earlier that “?it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice,” the opinion in this case more narrowly asserted the Africans right to resist “unlawful” slavery. The Court ordered the immediate release of the Amistad African.
Following its decision, the Supreme Court submitted its statement to the lower court where the case originated. The statement indicated that the decision of the circuit court was in part upheld and in part reversed. The part that was upheld related to the freedom of the Africans. The part that was reversed related to Judge Andrew T. Judson’s application of the Congressional Act of March 3, 1819. Judson’s decision authorized the President to return the Africans to Africa. Ultimately, the abolitionists arrange for their return in early 1842.
The case sparked many disputes. The United States was already torn, divided in into two parts, the North and the South. The North promoted abolitionism and emancipation, while the South endorsed slavery particularly because of its agrarian economy. The South needed the labor of the slaves for production. During the American colonial period, slavery was legal and practiced in all the commercial nations of Europe. The practice of trading in and using African slaves was introduced to the United States by the colonial powers, and when the American colonies received their common law from the United Kingdom, the legality of slavery was part of that law. Trade in slaves was abolished shortly after the formation of the United States, by act of Congress. Many states took steps to abolish slavery within their borders even before the formation of the federal government, and several states even routinely emancipated slaves who came within their borders. At the time of the Amistad case, then, slave trade was illegal throughout the United States, but the legality of slave ownership varied from state to state. In New York and Connecticut, the primary states involved in the Amistad case, slavery was illegal.
Another issue at hand was salvage. Who lawfully had the right to claim the property of the ship? Salvage is the reward given to persons who voluntarily assist a ship or recover its cargo from impending or actual peril or loss. To make a valid claim of salvage, a claimant must prove: the event involved a ship and its cargo, or things committed to and lost at sea or other public, navigable waterways; the ship or its cargo have been found or rescued; the service performed by claimant must have been of benefit to the property involved in the rescue. A salvor (one who salvages) must have the intent and capacity of committing a salvage, but does not need have the intention of keeping the property. The salvor need not have even given physical assistance to the rescue of the ship or property. Various types of “peril” are allowed. The most common cases involve abandoned ships or ships in danger of sinking. However, as argued by claimants in the Amistad case, the death or disability of the crew, or the seizing of the ship by pirates, can also support a claim for salvage. Typically, a salvage must occur on the seas. As such, the salvage claim by Green and Fordham is peculiar, in that it involved activity committed entirely inland.
This leads to the most important point of all. Does the salvaged property include the Africans? In other words, should the Africans be considered slaves and therefore someone’s property? In the following quotation from the Supreme Court decision, Justice Story explains why it is not within his jurisdiction to decide whether or not it is moral or ethical to keep people are property. He insists that in the eyes of the law, it is his duty to merely judge whether or not the “act has been done, and whether it is an act within the scope of authority.” (http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/library/court/supreme/1841.01.decision.2.html), 14.
It is not denied, that under the laws of Spain, negroes may be held as slaves, as completely as they are in any of the states of this Union; nor will it be denied, if duly proved such, they are subject to restoration, as much as other property, when coming under the provisions of this treaty. Now, these negroes are declared, by the certificates of the governor-general, to be slaves, and the property of the Spanish subjects therein named. That officer is the highest functionary of the government in Cuba; his public acts are the highest evidence of any facts stated by him, within the scope of his authority. It is within the scope of his authority, to declare what is property, and what are the rights of the subjects of Spain, within his jurisdiction, in regard to property. Now, in the intercourse of nations, there is no rule better established than this, that full faith is to be given to such acts to the authentic evidence of such acts. The question is not, whether the act is right or wrong; it is whether the act has been done, and whether it is an act within the scope of authority. We are to inquire only whether the power existed, and whether it was rightly or wrongly exercised. (http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/library/court/supreme/1841.0.decision.2.html),14.
However, Justice Story stipulated that the outcome of this case could not only affect the Africans in question but the whole nation and the foundation of freedom that it was built upon.
This case is not only one of deep interest in itself, as affecting the destiny of the unfortunate Africans, but it involves considerations deeply affecting our national character in the eyes of the whole civilized world, as well as questions of power on the part of the government of the United States, which are regarded with anxiety and alarm by a large portion of our citizens. It presents, for the first time, the question, whether the government, which was established for the promotion of justice, which was founded on the great principles of the revolution, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, can, consistently with the genius of our institutions, become a party to proceedings for the enslavement of human beings cast upon our shored, and found, in the condition of freemen, within the territorial limits of a free and sovereign state? (http://amistad.mysticseaport.org/library/court/supreme/1841.01decision.2.html), 34.
The Amistad case gave the nation a wake up call. The United States realized that there is an evident conflict on the issue of slavery. This conflict escalated years later into the bloodiest war in American history, the Civil War. The result of the war was the most significant legal development since the first Amistad case. It was, of course, the abolition of slavery. With the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, the U.S. Constitution guaranteed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”( http://www.nps.gov/malu/frames/amend13.htm),1.