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Postmarked 1841

March 2023
3min read

An old but fascinating letter was recently brought to our attention by Mrs. Robert A. Dahl, of North Haven, Connecticut. It was written nearly one hundred and thirty years ago to former President John Quincy Adams by Ka-le, one of forty-four tribesmen from Mendi, south of Sierra Leone in Africa, who were imprisoned in Connecticut after seizing control of the slave ship Amistad . The Africans had been kidnapped by slave traders and taken to Havana, where they were sold to two Spaniards, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez. As the new owners were shipping them to another coastal port in Cuba, the Africans, led by Cinqué, broke their chains. They killed the ship’s captain, who had had two of their number severely flogged for stealing water, and also slew the cook, who had threatened to cut them up and eat them. Both Ruiz and Montez were spared, apparently to help in navigating the ship back to Africa. By day a native named Ceci steered the ship eastward, guided by the sun; at night the Spaniards set the course. After two months at sea the Amistad foundered off Long Island. The Africans went ashore for provisions and were assured they were in a free land. Within a day, however, they were arrested and, after a hearing in New London, Connecticut, were imprisoned. Although the Connecticut courts decided they were free men, the Spanish government appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court, insisting that the blacks were Cuban residents and subject to slavery. While awaiting trial the Africans were imprisoned for seventeen months, first in an old jail on New Haven’s green, then in a new prison in the Westville part of the city. Curiosity seekers paid a shilling each to see them. The money was used by the jailor, Pendleton, to supply them with additional comforts. Their plight also attracted students from the Yale Theological Seminary, who taught them how to read and write. Ka-le wrote from the Westville prison on January 4, 1841, to Adams, who was to plead their case before the “Great Court.” His touching letter is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Adams Papers and the Massachusetts Historical Society:

Dear Friend Mr. Adams

I want to write a letter to you because you love Mendi people and you talk to the Great Court we want to tell you one thing Jose Ruiz say we born in Havanna he tell lie We stay in havanna ten days and ten nights we stay no more we all born in Mendi we no understand Spanish language Mendi people been in American 17 moons we talk America language a little no very good. We write every day we write plenty letters. We read most all time we read all Matthew Mark Luke and plenty of little books. We love books very much. We want you to ask the Court what we have done wrong what for Americans keep us in prison. Some people say Mendi people crazy dolts because we no talk American language Americans no talk Mendi. American people crazy dolts? They tell bad things about Mendi people and we no understand. Some men say Mendi people happy because they laugh and have plenty to eat. Mr. Pendleton come and Mendi people all look sorry because they think about Mendi land and friends we no see now. Mr. Pendleton say we feel anger and white men afraid of us then we no look sorry again. That’s why we laugh. But Mendi feel bad O we can’t tell how bad. Every day and night we think about our country. Bad men say Mendi people have no souls. Why we feel bad we have no souls We want to be free very much. Dear Friend Mr. Adams you have children and friends. You love them you feel very sorry if Mendi people come and take all to Africa. We feel bad for our friends and our friends feel very bad for us. Americans not take us in ship we were on shore and Americans tell us slave ship catch us. They say we make you free if they make us free they tell truth if they not make us free they tell lie If America give us free we glad—if they no give us free we sorry—we sorry for Mendi people little—we sorry for America people great deal because God punish liars. We want you to tell Court that Mendi people no want to go back to Havanna we not want to be killed Dear friend we want you to know how we feel … Mendi people have got souls. We think we know God punish if we tell lie we never tell lie we speak truth. What for Mendi people afraid because they have got souls Cook say he kill he eat Mendi people we afraid we kill Cook then Captain kill one man with knife and cut Mendi people plenty we never kill Captain if he no kill us If Court ask who bring Mendi people we bring ourselves Ceci hold the rudder. All we want is make us free not send us to Havanna Send us home Give us Missionary We tell Mendi people Americans spake truth we give them good tidings we tell them there is one God you must worship him make us free and we will bless you and all Mendi people will bless you …

Your friend Ka-le

On March 9,1841, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, pronouncing them free men and entitled to return to their homeland. A public subscription raised enough money to charter a ship to sail to Mendi. Eight had died during two cruel winters spent in New Haven. Except for a cabin boy, the other thirty-five chose to return home.

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