Today, July 2, is the 175th anniversary of the mutiny by enslaved Africans against the officers and crew of La Amistad, a Cuban-owned schooner that was transporting them to a life of servitude on a Cuban sugar plantation. The mutineers took control of the ship, but their attempt to return to Africa was thwarted by the Cuban sailors. On August 26, the Amistad was captured by a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Washington, and taken to New London, Connecticut.
The case attracted widespread attention. The Spanish authorities — Cuba was a Spanish possession — demanded that the mutineers be returned to Cuba to stand trial for piracy and murder: the captain and a crew member had been killed in the revolt. The Cuban owners wanted their “property” back, claiming that the slaves had been born in Cuba. U.S. abolitionists insisted that the enslaved Africans be returned to their homelands.
In 1807, the United States had joined with Great Britain in declaring the slave trade illegal, but slaves were still being imported into Brazil in the 1850s and Cuba in the 1860s.
On January 13, 1840, after a trial in a federal district court in Connecticut, the judge ruled that the mutineers had been illegally enslaved, that they would not be returned to Cuba, and that they should be granted free passage back to Africa. The Spanish authorities and U.S. president Martin Van Buren appealed the decision. A second federal district court judge upheld the first. President Van Buren appealed again, to the disgust of abolitionists. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Former president John Quincy Adams, by that time a member of Congress, played a key role in the Africans’ defense. On March 9, 1841, the Court ruled, with only one dissent, that the Africans had been enslaved illegally and had been exercising their natural right to fight for their freedom. In November, with financial support from their abolitionist allies, the Africans sailed for home.
In 1999 a replica of the Amistad was built at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. She was launched the following year. Ever since, whether on day sails, on longer voyages, or in port, her mission has been “to foster unity among people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, and to promote the legacies of leadership, cooperation, perseverance and social justice inherent
the Amistad Incident of 1839.”
The Spirituals Choir sang at Vineyard Haven harbor when the new Amistad came to visit in 2006.