After sixty days at sea, the Amistad came aground at Montauk Point, on New York's Long Island; several of the slaves left the ship to get fresh water. The Spanish owners of the ship, Pedro Montez and Jose Ruiz, asked the officers of the United States survey ship Washington to help them recover control of the ship from the slaves.
Thomas Gedney and Richard Meade, the Washington's officers, assisted Montez and Ruiz and re-captured the ship. Meanwhile, Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham -- who had nothing to do with the Washington, separately captured the Africans who had come ashore for water.
The ship was piloted to New London, Connecticut, for a trial concerning the rights and ownership of the ship and its cargo. The African slaves were placed in the custody of the U.S. marshalls until the end of the trial.
A brief discussion of the law of salvage
Admiralty law, which is the body of law that governs ships on the high seas, has a doctrine of salvage. Under the salvage doctrine, persons who secure ships which are sinking or out of control are entitled to a portion of the goods on that ship. (This rule was created to give people incentives to save sinking ships and other vessels in trouble.)
Typically, a salvager sues in court to have his rights as a salvager declared. If he is successful, the court sets the dollar amount to which he is entitled, and orders a sale of the ship and its cargo.
In 1841, both slavery and slave trade were legal in Spain, provided the slaves were of Spanish origin (or originated in Spanish overseas territories). Both Montez and Ruiz were Spanish citizens, the Amistad was a Spanish ship, and the slaves were bought and sold in Cuba, which was then a Spanish territory.
However, under the law of the United States, slave trade was illegal in 1841. Accordingly, one important legal question was whether the Africans were Spanish citizens -- and therefore susceptible of "slave" status -- or of African or some other status, and therefore not slaves under U.S. or Spanish law.
If the slaves were property, the law of salvage would apply to them, and they would be sold along with the cargo.
Gedney and Meade sued in U.S. District Court, stating that since they had helped Ruiz and Montez, they were entitled to a portion of the value of the Amistad's cargo.
Green and Fordham filed a response to Gedney and Meade's claim, stating that they (Green and Fordham) had helped rescue the cargo of the ship by capturing the Africans who had come ashore. Green and Fordham therefore claimed a portion of the value of the cargo as well.
Ruiz and Montez sued separately in U.S. District Court, stating that the slaves were their private property. Under a U.S. treaty with Spain Ruiz and Montez claimed that the slaves could not be included in the salvage sale of the ship.
The Spanish government also made a request. Spain argued that, since the Amistad was rescued by a U.S. government-owned armed ship, the United States was obligated under international treaty to return the ship and its cargo to the Spanish owners. An attorney for the United States government appeared before the court and presented this request. This attorney also argued that, if the Africans could not legally be returned to Ruiz and Montez, the court should order them sent back to Africa.
The Africans also responded to the claim. They argued that, since they were free men in their native Africa, and since they had been kidnapped from Africa by the Spanish slave traders, and since slave trade was illegal in New York (where the Amistad had landed), they should be released from custody and set free.
The district court rules for the Africans
The district court judge ruled that the slaves were free men, and ordered them released from prison. He also ordered that the United States government transport them back to Africa. He then ordered that the salvage claims of Gedney and Meade be taken from the remaining cargo of the Amistad, and rejected all other salvage claims.
The United States attorney appealed the court's decision, demanding that the United States be free to return the slaves to Spain, under its treaty obligations. The Circuit Court -- the next highest court -- affirmed the district court's decision and rejected the United States arguments. The United States then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court hears the case
The United States argued that its treaty with Spain required it to return ships and property seized by U.S. government vessels to their Spanish owners.
The Supreme Court called the case "peculiar and embarrassing." It ruled for the Africans, accepting the argument that they were never citizens of Spain, and were illegally taken from Africa, where they were free men under the law.