By 1839, the international slave trade was illegal in most countries, though the “peculiar institution” itself, was not. In April of that year, five or six hundred Africans were illegally purchased by a Portuguese slave trader, and shipped to Havana aboard the brig Tecora.
Fifty-three members of the Mende tribe, of the modern-day country of Sierra Leone, were sold to Joseph Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who planned to use them on their Cuban sugar plantation. The Mendians were given Spanish names and designated “black ladinos,” fraudulently documenting them to have always lived as slaves, in Cuba. In June, Ruiz and Montez placed the Africans on board the schooner la Amistad, (“Friendship”), and set sail down the Cuban coast to Puerto del Principe.
On the fourth night at sea, Joseph Cinqué, also known as Sengbe Pieh, led a number of captives in breaking free of their chains and seizing control of the ship. They killed two of their captors, losing two of their own in the struggle, while two others escaped in a boat. The cabin boy, who really was a black ladino, was spared and used as translator.
The Mendians forced the two remaining crew to return them to Africa, which they pretended to do by day. But they were betrayed, the two slavers would steer the ship north by night, when the position of the sun couldn’t be seen. Amistad was apprehended off Long Island by a U.S. Coastal Survey brig and taken to New London, Connecticut, where the Africans were put in prison. Connecticut was still a slave state at that time.
The Spanish Ambassador demanded that Ruiz’ and Montez’ “property” be returned and the matter settled under Spanish law. President Martin van Buren agreed, but the matter had already fallen under the jurisdiction of the courts.
The district court trial which followed in Hartford determined that the Mendians’ papers were forged, and they should be returned to Africa. The cabin boy was ruled to be a slave and ordered returned to the Cubans, however he fled to New York with the help of abolitionists. He would live out the rest of his life as a free man.
Fearing the loss of pro-slavery political support, President van Buren ordered government lawyers to appeal the case up to the United States Supreme Court. The government case depended on the anti-piracy provision of a treaty then in effect between Spain and the United States,
A former President and son of a Founding Father, John Quincy Adams, argued the case, in a trial beginning on George Washington’s birthday, 1841.
In United States v. Schooner Amistad, SCOTUS upheld the decision of the lower court 8-1, ruling that the Africans had been detained illegally, ordering them returned to their home. John Tyler, a pro slavery Whig, was President by this time. Tyler refused to provide a ship or fund the repatriation, so abolitionists and missionaries did so, returning 35 surviving Mendians to Africa on November 25, 1841.
In arguing the case, President Adams took the position that no man, woman, or child in the United States could ever be sure of the “blessing of freedom”, if the President could hand over free men on the demand of a foreign government.
152 years later, Bill Clinton, Eric Holder and Janet Reno kidnapped six-year-old Elian Gonzalez at gunpoint, sending him back to Cuba over the body of the mother who died bringing him to freedom.