The Slave Ship Rebellion

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Adams’ advocacy of the cause of the Amistad Negroes in Congress led directly to his retention to represent them, with Baldwin, in the appeal pending before the Supreme Court. Before the case came up on February 20, 1841, it had acquired a new dimension on the international scene, for Great Britain, angered by Dr. Madden’s reports on the continuance of the slave trade and the circumstances under which the Amistad Negroes had been kidnaped and sold, filed notes of protest with both Spain and the United States.

The argument before the Supreme Court followed the expected pattern. The government based its case almost entirely on legalistic rather than human concepts—on the contention that the Amistad’s papers had to be accepted at face value and that the Negroes must be returned to the Spanish courts. For the defense, Baldwin delivered a summation that Adams described in his diary as “a sound and eloquent, but exceedingly mild and modest argument.” This mildness Adams set out to rectify.

His beginning was eloquent and left no doubt that his audience was to be treated to the unprecedented spectacle of one President of the United States bitterly castigating the conduct of another before the bar of justice. Adams began by giving thanks that he stood in a court where each party would be protected “in his own right,” and then he added:

“When I say I derive consolation from the consideration that I stand before a Court of Justice, I am obliged to take this ground because, as I shall show, another Department of the Government of the United States had taken, with reference to this case, the ground of utter injustice, and these individuals for whom I appear, stand before this Court, awaiting their fate from its decision, under the array of the whole Executive power of this nation against them, in addition to that of a foreign nation ….”

Mincing no words, Adams read with scorn and sarcasm the “confidential” note containing Van Buren’s instructions that the slaves should be given no chance to appeal if the lower court decision went against them. And he asked with righteous indignation: “Was ever such a scene of Lilliputian trickery enacted by the rulers of a great, magnanimous, and Christian nation?”

Spain, he said, had demanded that the President of the United States first turn man-robber by removing the case from the courts, where the Africans would be protected in their rights; then Spain had demanded that the President turn jailer and keep the slaves in close custody to prevent their escape; and, lastly, Spain had induced the President to agree to turn catchpole and convey the slaves to Havana “to appease the public vengeance of the African slave-traders of the barracoons.”

Adams spoke for four and a half hours, as he noted in his diary, “with sufficient method and order to witness little flagging of attention by the Judges or the auditory.” There was a breathless hush as Adams finished his moving peroration, bowed humbly to the justices and sat down. Less than a month later, on March 9, 1841, the court denied the government’s appeal and ordered that the Amistad Negroes be set free immediately.

The sequel was almost as moving as the long and stirring drama. The liberated slaves were sent to school and given religious instruction for nearly a year in Farmington, Connecticut. Then they were taken back to Sierra Leone, accompanied by missionaries hoping to spread the gospel among Mendi tribesmen. This return to their homeland, so ardently desired, so long fought for, was laden with tragedy for many. Cinquè found that his father, his wife, and his children all had been captured by rival tribes and sold into slavery. He soon took to the bush, returning to native ways and setting himself up as a tribal chief. Others who found their families disbanded, lost to them forever, followed his lead, but several of the Amistad contingent remained for years, faithful workers at the mission.

In 1846, four societies that had been created originally to further the cause of the Amistad captives met in Syracuse, New York, and formed the American Missionary Association. With funds collected in the Amistad solicitation and other donations, the association began to work actively to educate the American Negro. In 1859 it founded Berea College, and before the close of the Civil War it had built the nucleus of what is now Hampton Institute. Throughout the next century the association continued to found schools, more than 500 in all. It was instrumental in establishing Howard University, Fisk University, Atlanta University, Talladega College, LeMoyne College, Tougaloo College, Dillard University, and Tillotson College—a legacy to an entire race from the small band of slaves who struggled so courageously for freedom more than 100 years ago.