Federal Court Records Relating to the Spanish Schooner "Amistad"

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These records contain correspondence and court documents of the Supreme Court case related to the Amistad. Claims of salvage of the ship, cargo, and slaves on board were decided by the Supreme Court in 1841. There were treaties involved, and the case was a flash point for the abolitionist movement of the time. Handwritten records of this landmark case illuminate the conflict over slavery at that time, and are good examples of the operation of the US judicial system. NARA M1753.

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Background

In June 1839, the Amistad, a Spanish schooner, departed Havana, Cuba, with Puerto Principe, Cuba, as its destination. Its cargo included blacks illegally imported from Africa as slaves in April 1839. (Spanish laws had outlawed slave trading about 1820, although illegal importation of slaves to Cuba continued, and slavery in Cuba itself had not yet been abolished). En route to Puerto Principe, the Africans revolted, killed the captain (Raymon Ferrer) and another crew member, and forced two remaining Spaniards aboard (Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez) to agree to steer the schooner for Africa. Instead, they deceived the Africans and steered the vessel to the vicinity of Long Island Sound, where it was seized on August 26, 1839, by the US brig Washington. The brig’s commander, Lt. Thomas R. Gedney, conveyed the Africans to New London, CT, and had the schooner taken to New Haven, CT, where District Court Judge A.J. Judson adjudicated Lt. Gedney's salvage claim and other libels filed against the Amistad, its material cargo, and its human cargo. Pursuant to the Treaty of 1795, the U.S. Government filed a libel on behalf of the Spanish Government, asking restoration of the schooner, its cargo, and the slaves as property of Spanish subjects.

The US District Court for the District of Connecticut allowed Lt. Gedney's salvage claim for the vessel and its material cargo and allowed the claims of the representatives of Captain Ferrer to his slave, Antonio, but rejected claims that the other slaves were the property of Ruiz or Montez, or that they should be delivered to the Spanish Government. Instead, the District Court decreed that they should be returned to Africa by the US Government, pursuant to an Act of Congress of March 3, 1819 (3 Stat. 532-534).

The US Attorney appealed the court's decision, except for the disposition of Antonio, to the US Circuit Court for the District of Connecticut. Owners of the material cargo also appealed, but Ruiz, Montez, and owners of the Amistad did not appeal. The Circuit Court affirmed by a pro forma decree (an appealable decree or judgment rendered, not on the conviction that it is right, but rather to facilitate further proceedings) but reserved the question of salvage of the material cargo.

The US Attorney then appealed to the US Supreme Court. In that court former President John Quincy Adams joined counsel for the Africans. The Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of the lower courts but reversed that part directing that the slaves to be returned to Africa. The Court analyzed in detail the provisions of the Treaties of 1795 and 1821 and determined that they did not apply to the facts presented in this case. The Court further decided that the Africans should be considered free, since they had arrived in the US not as slaves, but as free men in possession of the Amistad.

During these legal proceedings, the Africans had been incarcerated at New London, CT. After the Supreme Court ruled that they were free, the American Board of Missions and abolitionists raised funds to pay for their return to Africa. Their ship, the Gentleman, departed New York City on November 26, 1841, and arrived at Freetown, Sierra Leone, in January 1842.

"Amistad" rebuilt

The Mystic Seaport in Connecticut constructed a replica of the original Amistad schooner. See photos, videos, and read more about it on the Mystic Seaport Amistad page.

Related Records

More extensive records relating to the Amistad have also been reproduced in National Archives Microfilm Publication M2012, Appellate Case File No. 2161, United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (15 Peters 518), Decided March 9, 1941, and Related Lower Court and Department of Justice Records.

This publication is also available at Fold3.

Source and citation

Records Relating to the Various Cases Involving the Spanish Schooner AMISTAD, 1815-1858. Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, Publication Number M1753; National Archives, Washington.

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