The Slave Ship Rebellion

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Here it was that the American public first learned of the case that, for months to come, was to agitate the entire nation and to involve even the presidency in acrimony. The eyes through which America learned of the mutiny and the tragedy of the Amistad were those of John J. Hyde, editor of the New London Gazette. He boarded the slave ship on Tuesday and found aboard the three little girls and 41 surviving males, one more having died shortly before the Amistad was captured.

The Connecticut editor described Cinquè and the Amistad. He wrote:

On board the brig [Washington] we also saw Cingue, the master spirit of this bloody tragedy, in irons …. He is said to be a match for any two men on board the schooner. His countenance, for a native African, is unusually intelligent, evincing uncommon decision and coolness, with a composure characteristic of true courage and nothing to mark him as a malicious man. … we saw such a sight [on the schooner] as we never saw before and never wish to see again. The bottom and sides of this vessel are covered with barnacles and sea-grass, while her rigging and sails presented an appearance worthy of the Flying Dutchman, after her fabled cruise …. On her deck were grouped amid various goods and arms, the remnant of her Ethiop crew, some decked in the most fantastic manner, in silks and finery, pilfered from the cargo, while others, in a state of nudity, emaciated to mere skeletons, lay coiled upon the decks ….

Hyde’s story and a rough sketch of Cinquè drawn aboard the Washington were picked up by the New York papers, and within three days abolitionists began to rally to the cause. Lewis Tappan, a merchant and a dedicated foe of slavery, read the story in the Sun, and with the Reverend Simeon S. Jocelyn and the Reverend Joshua Leavitt organized the Committee of Friends of the Amistad Africans.

The Africans quickly grasped the popular imagination. Cinquè and his comrades were transferred from New London to New Haven, where they were jailed awaiting trial. They aroused so much interest that the jailer began charging an entrance fee, like the proprietor of a side show, to those who wished to see them. On pleasant days, the Negroes were taken to the village green under guard, and there they performed such feats of strength and agility that they drew crowds of spectators and showers of small coins.

Despite all this public attention, the Africans were virtually cut off from the world. Banna’s isolated words of English and the untrustworthy interpretations of Antonio formed their only links of communication. It was impossible to get their version of what had happened on the Amistad, and unless this could be obtained, they would be defenseless, unable to testify to save themselves when they were brought into court.

One determined man had already devoted himself to the task of breaking down this language barrier. He was Professor Josiah Willard Gibbs of the Yale Divinity School, a linguistic expert. Gibbs spent hours with the Africans in their cramped prison quarters, making them repeat their sounds for the numerals up to ten. Then he began to tour the water fronts. In New London he found no one who recognized the sounds he kept repeating. He went on to New York. Here he visited ship after ship, but though he found many Negroes who spoke African dialects, none understood Mendi. Finally, almost in despair, the Professor came to the British brig-of-war Buzzard. She had put into port after a cruise hunting slavers off the coast of Sierra Leone, and she had aboard a native boy, James Covey, eighteen, who spoke the Mendi language. At last a reliable interpreter had been found.

In the meantime, the legal entanglements had become infinitely complex, with salvage claims and charges of murder and piracy cluttering the issue. Most of these were quickly swept away, leaving as the crux of the case two international treaties. The first was a reciprocal agreement between Spain and the United States in 1795, under which each pledged to return any ships or goods of the other it might find on the high seas. The second was an 1817 treaty between Spain and Great Britain, under which Spain had outlawed the importation of slaves into her colonies after December 30, 1820.

This non-slave pact had become an international farce. Spanish governors in the West Indies closed their eyes, for a price, and slavers continued to run cargoes of kidnapped black contraband across the ocean to Havana. There, at a fixed bribe of $15 a head, the Negroes were supplied with official papers asserting that they were “Ladinos.” This was a term indicating a slave had learned Spanish or a Spanish dialect besides his native tongue, and was used to differentiate generations of Negroes born in the Americas from Bozals, or slaves just imported from Africa.

The Amistad’s papers showed, of course, that all the slaves were Ladinos, and the Spaniards used these documents to claim the slaves were their legitimate property and should be turned over to them automatically. The Spanish Embassy in Washington argued strongly with President Martin Van Buren that the courts had no jurisdiction; that under the 1795 treaty the Chief Executive should give the slaves back to Montez and Ruiz, their rightful owners.