Survivors of Amistad Mutiny Released

The Supreme Court issued a ruling on March 9, 1841, freeing the remaining thirty-five survivors of the Amistad mutiny. Although seven of the nine justices on the court hailed from Southern states, only one dissented from Justice Joseph Story’s majority opinion. Private donations ensured the Africans’ safe return to Sierra Leone in January 1842.

Brothers, we have done that which we proposed…I am resolved it is better to die than be a white man’s slave.

Joseph Cinqué, leader of the Amistad mutiny, quoted in the New York Sun, 1839.

Joseph Cinquez, the Brave Congolese Chief… [Drawn by James or Isaac Sheffield]; Moses Yale Beach, lith.; Boston: Joseph A. Arnold, c1839. Print commissioned by publisher of New York Sun; advertised for sale in the August 31, 1839 issue. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division

The events leading up to the decision began on July 2, 1839, when Joseph Cinqué led fifty-two fellow captive Africans, recently abducted from the British protectorate of Sierra Leone by Portuguese slave traders, in a revolt aboard the Spanish schooner Amistad. The ship’s navigator, who was spared in order to direct the ship back to western Africa, managed, instead, to steer it northward. When the Amistad was discovered off the coast of Long Island, New York, it was hauled into New London, Connecticut by the U.S. Navy.

President Martin Van Buren, guided in part by his desire to woo pro-slavery votes in his upcoming bid for reelection, wanted the prisoners returned to Spanish authorities in Cuba to stand trial for mutiny. A Connecticut judge, however, issued a ruling recognizing the defendants’ rights as free citizens and ordering the U.S. government to escort them back to Africa.

J.Q. Adams. G.P.A. Healy, artist; J.C. Tichenor, c1898. Chronological List of Presidents, First Ladies, and Vice Presidents of the United States. Prints & Photographs Division

The U.S. government eventually appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Former president John Quincy Adams, who represented the Amistad Africans in the Supreme Court case, argued in his defense that it was the illegally enslaved Africans, rather than the Cubans, who “were entitled to all the kindness and good offices due from a humane and Christian nation.” Adams’s victory in the Amistad case was a significant success for the abolition movement.

The Amistad survivors were aided, in their defense, by the American Missionary Association, an organization affiliated with the effort to colonize freed slaves overseas. The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History & Culture includes information about the history of the colonization movement, the colonization of slaves in Liberia, and personal stories of former slaves who chose to move overseas.

Learn More

  • The online exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship features more information on the history of slavery and abolition in the United States, as well as the experience of free blacks in the antebellum period.
  • Slaves did not accept their fate willingly and there were many rebellions, mutinies and insurrections in the course of American history.
  • Maps of Liberia, 1830 to 1870 includes twenty examples from another organization, the American Colonization Society (ACS), organized in 1817 to resettle free black Americans in West Africa. These maps show early settlements in Liberia, indigenous political subdivisions, and some of the building lots that were assigned to settlers.
  • To read and hear stories of what the lives of the Amistad mutineers might have been like had they remained in the U.S. as slaves, see the Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938 collection which contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery. Hear interviews of ex-slaves in the Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories collection with almost seven hours of recorded interviews presented that took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states. Also, search all digital collections on the term slave narratives. Items such as the Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Wonderful Eventful Life of Rev. Thomas James are available.
  • Search using keywords mutiny, mutinies, colonization and Amistad in the Slaves and the Courts, 1740 to 1860 collection for more information and related topics. This collection contains over a hundred pamphlets and books (published between 1772 and 1889) concerning the difficult and troubling experiences of African and African-American slaves in the American colonies and the United States.
  • Sketches of the Amistad captives were made by William H. Townsend, a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, at the time of their trial. Yale University Library has provided access to these through the World Digital Library.
  • Visit The Amistad Case from the National Archives and Records Administration for access to more primary documents as well as teaching activities related to the case. Also, see the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law’s website Famous TrialsExternal for more information on judicial events including the Amistad Trials (1839-1840)External. Finally, visit the Amistad Research CenterExternal at Tulane University for a detailed narrative account of the event as well as collections focused on civil rights and race relations, along with the cultural and social contributions of underrepresented peoples.