Skip to main content

Mutiny On The Amistad

March 2023
1min read

by Howard Jones; Oxford University Press; 271 pages; $22.95.

That the story of the slave ship Amistad has been told more than once, both as fact and in fiction, is not surprising, because it is the only instance in American history in which blacks, captured in Africa to be sold into slavery, managed to fight back, win, and eventually get back home. The story is dramatic and complex, involving a handsome, forceful young black leader named Cinque, diplomatic and legal squabbling, the mounting emotional fury between abolitionists and Southern slave owners, and a former as well as the incumbent President of the United States.

The story starts in 1839, when a ship loaded with captured blacks sailed from Lomboko on the west coast of Africa to Cuba, after the importation of humans to be sold as slaves had been declared illegal by Spain. Slavers evaded the law by sneaking their cargoes ashore at night to avoid the Cuban patrols, but once on shore—where slavery itself was legal —the new arrivals could be passed off as native-born “ladinos” and then moved anywhere among the Spanish-ruled islands without much fear of detection. This was the situation when Cinquè led a mutiny aboard the coastal schooner Amistad , which was carrying fifty-three of the blacks from Lomboko between Cuba and Puerto Principe. The mutineers spared the lives of three of their Spanish captors as none of them were sailors and they needed pilots to get them back to Africa. It wasn’t hard for the Spaniards to deceive them, and when the ship was finally picked up by an American naval vessel, it was off the coast of New York.

The Africans were sent to a prison in Connecticut, and it was weeks before anyone who spoke any language they understood could be found. The controversy about whether they were or were not slaves started mounting before they were even able to tell their story. Four were children, obviously too young to have been born before the importation ban in Cuba, and they knew no Spanish and didn’t recognize the names they had been assigned in the ship’s ledger.

The Van Buren administration wanted to get the matter out of the way and return the ship and cargo to the Spainards so as not to agitate the South before an upcoming election. But interest in the case swelled. The Amistad blacks, in their prison cells, became a tourist attraction. Abolitionists determined to extract every possible advantage from the case for their overall cause. It was finally settled in the Supreme Court, where former President John Quincy Adams, who hadn’t been in a courtroom for more than thirty years, successfully defended the “helpless blacks from what he considered to be the machinations of the White House.…”

In spite of an abundance of rhetoric about “natural law,” virtue, and the Bible, Howard Jones feels that the Amistad victims won simply because the American legal system worked; the Supreme Court made a proper legal decision. It is a rousing and satisfying tale, and it is well worth hearing it again in this careful and thoughtful telling.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "May/June 1987"

Authored by: Andrew Wyeth

The distinguished artist talks intimately about the art, the emotions, and the unique talent of his illustrator father, Newell Convers Wyeth

Authored by: Donald Jackson

She lived only six years, but it was a history-packed career

Authored by: Alan D. Wiener

To this day nobody will take responsibility for the orphan dead of the 741st Tank Battalion.

Authored by: Richard B. Morris

The framers of the Constitution were proud of what they had done but might be astonished that their words still carry so much weight. A distinguished scholar tells us how the great charter has survived and flourished.

Authored by: John Lukacs

A fond, canny, and surprising tour of the town where the Constitution was born

Authored by: Garry Wills

James Wilson was an important but now obscure draftsman of the Constitution. Carry Wills is a journalist and historian fascinated by what went on in the minds of our founders. The two men meet in an imaginary dialogue across the centuries.

Authored by: Oliver Wright

A recent British ambassador to Washington takes a generous-spirited but clear-eyed look at the document that, as he points out, owes its existence to King George III

Featured Articles

Famous writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts turned Sleepy Hollow Cemetery into our country’s first conservation project.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.

Roast pig, boiled rockfish, and apple pie were among the dishes George and Martha enjoyed during the holiday in 1797. Here are some actual recipes.

Born during Jim Crow, Belle da Costa Greene perfected the art of "passing" while working for one of the most powerful men in America.