The Captives of the Amistad/Section 2

Footnotes are from the original text.

The anti-slavery men in New York moved first, and within three days of their landing at this port.

Rev. Simeon S. Jocelyn (formerly pastor of one of our churches for colored people), Rev. Joshua Leavitt and Lewis Tappan, volunteered to act as a committee to receive funds for the defense of the Africans, and for providing them with clothing and other necessaries. They issued a public appeal, which was printed in the Emancipator, secured counsel, and endeavored to find an interpreter through whom their story could be fully learned. In this they were ably seconded by the late Professor Gibbs of the Yale Divinity School. He visited the Africans in jail repeatedly, and got from each of them the sounds which represented to him each of the first ten numerals. There was a general correspondence in the sounds given, with some dialectic variations, and Professor Gibbs then went about among the vessels in our harbor, and in that of New York, seeking to find some African sailor who was familiar with the language to which the words thus framed belonged. At last he found a boy of eighteen from Sierra Leone, James Covey, who recognized the numerals, as they were thus named to him, and had some acquaintance with English also. He was immediately brought up to New Haven, and on Sept. 9th, for the first time since their arrival on our shores, the captives were enabled to communicate freely with those about them. Covey could speak in a tongue which the captives understood—that of the Gallinas country, and they manifested the utmost joy at hearing the sound of familiar words from a friendly voice. Professor Gibbs, with his aid, at once set out to make a vocabulary of their language, which was that of the Mendi country, lying north of Liberia, and he was soon able to converse with most of them.

The government provided all the prisoners with clothing, and the men struggled as best they could into their pantaloons, laughing good-humoredly at each other as the new dress was assumed. Shawls were given to the girls, which they at once wound up into turbans for their heads.

In a few days they were put on the canal-boat for Farmington, and then driven over to Hartford, where, on Sept. 19th, the salvage case came on for a hearing.

Ruiz and Montez appeared at the same time and asked that the prisoners be delivered to them, or to the Spanish government as their lawful slaves; and Henry Green and the other citizens of Long Island, with whom the negroes had first fallen in, also filed a claim for salvage, similar to that of the officers of the Washington. In behalf of the United States a further libel was filed on the same day, stating that the Spanish minister had presented to the State Department a claim for the delivery of the Amistad and her cargo and the slaves found on board, pursuant to the treaty of 1795 between the two governments and asking either for such delivery or for their transportation to Africa, according as the law might be found to require. These suits were all in the District Court. The Circuit Court came in at the same time, to take up the indictments for piracy and murder, and writs of habeas corpus were applied for there on behalf of the Africans.

These proceedings attracted the greatest public interest. Among the counsel who appeared before the courts were Ralph I. Ingersoll and William Hungerford for the Spanish crown, Gov. Ellsworth for the Long Island claimants, Seth P. Staples and Theodore Sedgwick of New York, and Roger S. Baldwin for the Africans.

Three days were occupied in considering the various questions involved, and the first result was that the grand jury were instructed by Judge Thompson of the Circuit Court that no criminal proceedings could be maintained, inasmuch as the acts complained of were done on a Spanish vessel, and were therefore cognizable only in the courts of Spain.

Judge Judson also announced to the counsel of the salvage claimants that whatever right of that nature they might have as to the goods seized, the court had no power to sell men, women and children for their benefit.

The great question remaining was that raised by the habeas corpus petitions, and it was argued with the great fulness and vigor on both sides. “How came these negroes,” said Mr. Baldwin, “to be slaves or property? Were they born owing allegiance to the Spanish government? Not at all. They are natives of Africa. How came they so far subject to the Spanish laws as to be judged by them? How is it, when these persons come before our courts asserting their liberty, that they are to be judged by Spanish laws? Have these children” (the three little girls, the oldest not ten, had been brought into court, crying with fright, and clinging to the jailer for protection) “ever been domiciled in Spain? They were torn from their parents in Africa; forcibly landed in the island of Cuba, late at night, and cruelly sold to these men. Are they to be judged by Spanish laws, or by our own laws, or by the law of Nature? By this law, our own Supreme Court have decided that they are free.”

Mr. Staples denied that the Spanish treaty reached the case of free-born Africans, wrongfully enslaved. “Let such a claim,” he said, “be set up by the President, Senate, or Spanish minister, and let the government of this nation avow that they will surrender these victims of oppression, and I will abandon such a country, and seek my fortunes in some British island.”

There was less opportunity for rhetoric on the other side, but the legal questions involved were discussed with great learning and ability by Mr. Ingersoll and Mr. Hungerford. Mr. Holabird, the District Attorney, said that he believed the negroes could maintain their right to liberty, but that the place to prove it was in the District Court, in answer to the papers which he had filed in behalf of the government, and that they must be held till this was done. On the same day, he wrote to the State Department of the decision that the court had no jurisdiction of the criminal proceedings, and that the habeas corpus petitions remained undecided, adding:

“I should regret extremely that the rascally blacks should fall into the hands of the abolitionists, with whom Hartford is filled.”

In copies of the Amistad correspondence soon after furnished to the House of Representatives, at its request, this sentence was omitted, and also the word no before jurisdiction.[1]

On September 23rd, Judge Thompson announced the decision of the Circuit Court. “Because,” he said, “slavery is not tolerated in Connecticut, it does not follow that the right of these Spanish claimants to these negroes cannot be investigated there in the proper court of the United States. Our constitution and laws recognize the right on one man to have control of the labor of another man. The laws of the land must be construed by this court in Connecticut precisely as they would be, if it were sitting in Virginia. It is its province to determine what the laws are, not what it might be desired they should be. The question whether these men are slaves or free is rightfully before the District Court, and must be decided there in the ordinary course of law.”

The discharge of the prisoners was therefore refused, and they were brought back to the New Haven jail; but as Judge Thompson had decided that they had committed no crime against our laws, they were now give much more freedom.

Cinquè, who had been confined separately, as the ringleader in killing the captain of the Amistad, was now put with the others. His firm, though open countenance, and manly form are well preserved to us in the spirited sketch by our late honored townsman, Nathaniel Jocelyn, and the engraving made from it by Sartain, of which many copies still exist in the city.

On pleasant days the captives were taken out to the Green, in front of the jail, for exercise, and performed many wild feats of agility to the delight of crowds of spectators. Inside the jail they had plenty of visitors from curiosity or charity, so that at last the jailer came to charge an entrance fee of a shilling a head, which went to supply them with additional comforts.

Ruiz and Montez were, at about this time, arrested in New York on suits brought in the names of Cinquè and another of the captives, in an action for damages for false imprisonment. The Spanish minister appealed to the State Department for their release, and the United States District Attorney of New York was directed to lend them his assistance. Both were afterwards released on giving bail in small amount, but Ruiz lay in jail for six weeks before procuring a bondsman. Repeated applications for his relief were made meanwhile by the Spanish legation to our government, but the Secretary of State replied that the only remedy was before the courts of New York, and that the United States had done everything that Spain could properly ask. In his dispatch of Dec. 12, 1839, he used these words:

Messrs. Ruiz and Montez were first found near the coast of the United States, deprived of their property and their freedom, suffering from lawless violence in their persons, and in imminent and constant danger of being deprived of their lives also. They were found in this distressing and perilous situation by officers of the United States, who, moved towards them by sympathetic feeling, which subsequently became, as it were, national, immediately rescued them from personal danger, restored them to freedom, secured their oppressors, that they might abide the consequences of the acts of violence perpetrated upon them, and placed under the safeguard of the laws all the property which they claimed as their own, to remain in safety until the competent authority could examine their title to it, and pronounce question of ownership, agreeably to the provisions of the 9th article of the treaty of 1795.

The tone of this dispatch indicates clearly the feeling of the administration. Martin Van Buren was President, and was not yet the Martin Van Buren who headed the Free Soil ticket for the Presidency in 1848. The Secretary of State, Mr. Forsyth, was a Georgian, and had been our minister at the Court of Madrid.


  1. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, x., 398.