On this dayJul 01, 1839

Kidnapped Africans Seize Control of La Amistad Ship From Enslavers

Image | Talladega College via Smithsonian

On July 1, 1839, Cinque, a leader of the Mende tribe was kidnapped from Sierra Leone and taken aboard the ship La Amistad by slave traders. On the ship, Cinque used a file to free himself and others from their chains. The captives then revolted, killing the ship’s captain and cook and taking control of the ship. The Africans demanded that the remaining crew return them to their homeland, but the crew deceived the revolters and instead sailed toward the Northeastern United States.

After nearly 200 years of participating in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the United States Congress passed legislation in 1807 banning the further importation of enslaved persons. Traders continued to transport Black kidnapped victims into the country, however, and made great profit meeting the continued demand for enslaved African people.

During the early 1800s, many European countries also placed prohibitions on the trafficking of enslaved Africans. In January 1839, a group of African women, men and children from the Mende tribe who had been kidnapped in Sierra Leone by Portuguese traders were sold to Spanish traders Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro. Ruiz and Pedro then transported the Africans to Havana, Cuba, on the ship La Amistad. In Cuba, the traders falsely classified the Africans as native Cubans. In late June 1839, the ship departed for another Cuban city, still carrying 49 of the Africans on board. Days later, Cinque and the other Africans took control of the ship. 

When the ship arrived in the Northeastern United States in August 1839, New York authorities seized the ship and arrested the Africans on board for murder. Those charges were eventually dropped, but a debate soon developed regarding the kidnapped victims' legal status: were they free human beings or enslaved property?

In litigation to decide their fates, future President John Quincy Adams represented the Africans and eventually won their release in the United States Supreme Court. Tragically, several of the Africans died from disease while awaiting the Court's acknowledgment of their freedom and humanity. In 1841, 35 of the survivors - including Cinque - were returned to their homeland.

Amistad Trial

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