The Captives of the Amistad/Section 7

Footnotes are from the original text.

The decision was announced early in the following week. It declared that the ship’s papers of the Amistad were only prima facie evidence that the negroes were slaves, and had been amply overborne by testimony to the contrary. It also held that the Spanish treaty did not affect citizens of other governments, nor prevent kidnapped Africans from asserting and defending their liberty in any court. They were not, it was held, within the meaning of the statute of 1819, as to transporting negroes illegally brought here back to Africa, and must therefore “be declared free, and be dismissed from the custody of the court, and go without day.”

A brief note, written from the Court room to Mr. Baldwin, on Friday noon, March 9th, announced that “The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of the Amistad has this moment been delivered by Judge Story. The captives are free,” and was signed:

Yours in great haste and great joy.
J. Q. Adams.

Three years now were still to elapse before the first telegraph line was established, and the New York newspapers outran the mails, bringing the glad news to New Haven on March 11th.

The negroes had by this time, on account of the demolition of the old jail, been taken to more roomy quarters in Westville, and the Marshal without waiting for the official mandate, drove out immediately to tell them of the result. “The big Court,” he said, “say you all are free: no slaves. Here it is in this paper—read it.” Cinquè replied for the rest, “Me glad; me thank the American men,” and told Ka-le to read it out aloud, but still looked as if he were in rather a doubting mind, saying “Paper lie sometimes.”

Very soon, however, all misgivings were dispelled by the arrival of Mr. Ludlow and another faithful friend, Amos Townsend, and they all knelt down together to thank God for their final deliverance.

Freedom had come, but it was a barren gift. They were separated from their homes by the distance of half the globe, and in a State where they might be pitied, but were certainly not wanted. Two of the party had died in our jail. The Amistad, in which they had sailed to our shores, as masters, had been taken from them and sold with her cargo, pending the appeal, for the benefit of her original owners, and to pay the salvage claims. “Tell the American people,” one of them said, “that we very, very, very much want to go home.”[1]

Mr. Baldwin wrote to Mr. Adams in regard to the uncertainties of their future, and the following was his reply.

Roger S. Baldwin, Esqr., New Haven
Washington, 17 March, 1841.

My dear Sir:
Your obliging and very acceptable favour of the 12th inst. is before me. You observe that the inquiry is frequently made, what shall be done with the late captives of the Amistad, now that by the Supreme tribunal of the land they have been declared free?

Doubtless the benevolent friends of human nature and supporters of human rights who with a spirit worthy of guardian angels, messengers from the throne of God, at the moment of their deepest calamity came to their aid and rescued them from the hand of lawless power, will yet not desert them in their mitigated but still distressed and helpless condition. They will still feel it to be their duty to cause them to be conveyed to their native land. But should the costs and charges necessarily incidental to that operation be borne by them? Certainly not. Is not the Government of the United States bound in honor and in justice to perform it? The Decree of the District and Circuit Courts so ordained. The Decree of the Supreme Court pronounces them free, and if free now, surely free when found by Lieutenant Gedney in possession of their vessel and cargo, the lawful spoils of their vanquished enemies and oppressors, and affording them ample means of completing the lawful voyage upon which they were then bound to their homes.

The Supreme Court of the United States has pronounced them free—but the executive and judicial authorities of this country have forcibly seized their persons and their property, have kept their persons eighteen months in prison, have taken from them their property, including the vessel, without which they could not accomplish their voyage, and now turn them adrift in a strange land, where they cannot subsist without assistance, and whence they cannot depart for their own country but by aid of the same charitable hands which first were extended for their relief.

I suppose with their freedom they may in this country earn their subsistence by their labor, but their desire to return to their own homes is reasonable and just, and the Government of the United States having by its military, executive and judicial authorities deprived them of the means of accomplishing that purpose, is bound in the forum of conscience to send them home at it own charge. I am not sure that it would not be bound in the same forum to indemnify them liberally for eighteen months of false imprisonment.

I also suggest to their friends, the propriety of addressing a memorial to the President of the United States, representing the facts, and requesting that a vessel of the United States may be authorized to take and convey them to Sierra Leone or to some point on the coast of Africa whence they may be safely conducted to their own native soil. And if the President should think this would transcend his authority, a memorial to Congress might call upon the Legislative Department to confer the authority and provide the means of accomplishing this act of justice.

It would be a suitable and proper atonement for the desecration of our navy, in the projected expedition of the Grampus.

Immediately after the opinion and decree of the Supreme Court were delivered, I applied for a mandate to the Marshal of the District of Connecticut to discharge forthwith all his prisoners of the Amistad.

Judge Thompson, who was about returning immediately to New York, assured me that he would issue himself the order, and have it executed himself with delay.

I have caused the opinion and decree of the Supreme Court to be published in the National Intelligencer.

I am, with great respect, dear Sir,

Your friend and serv’t,

J. Q. Adams

The “Amistad Committee” wrote to Mr. Baldwin, on April 15th, to congratulate him on the successful termination of the cause. “The complete and final victory,” they said, “which has crowned the case, in the face of so many taunting predictions of enemies, and desponding fears of friends, is the best attestation to the wisdom and fidelity with which it has been conducted. And as the laboring oar has been chiefly in your hands, and the main responsibility of the case has rested on your shoulders, and we doubt not has weighed heavily on your mind for many long months, we feel that the happy issue is to be ascribed, under favor of a kind Providence, in a very great degree to your skillful and able efforts.”

The committee resolved not to relinquish their labors until the Africans had been safely restored to their native land. New appeals for subscriptions were made, and a party of the captives was taken about the country for exhibition, accompanied by some one who was able to tell their story for them, and urge their cause upon the sympathies of the public. The rest were sent up to Farmington for employment and instruction.

In a few months the necessary funds were secured, and in 1842 the survivors found themselves again in their own country, accompanied by two Christian missionaries. The first suggestion was that they should be sent back in this way under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and the Amistad committee offered what funds they had collected to the Board for this purpose, provided they would make it an anti-slavery mission. The offer was not made with the approbation of the extreme abolitionists, who would have nothing to do with a society which accepted contributions from slaveholders.

“How,” said the Emancipator,[2] “would the people of Mendi receive a mission supported by the sale of negroes in Virginia—provided the whole story were told? The very idea of such a mission would make fiends laugh.”

The Board declined the proposition[3] and the Amistad committee thereupon went forward on its own responsibility in establishing the “Mendi Mission,” which still exists as an important center of Christian civilization. In 1846, its maintenance was assumed by the American Missionary Association, a society formed by the union of four prior missionary organizations, of which the Amistad committee was one.


  1. American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter, Extra, Dec. 1840, p. 12
  2. Issue of April 15, 1841.
  3. Life of Arthur Tappan, p. 821.