The story of the Amistad begins in 1839. By 1839 The slave trade is illegal in many parts of the world — but some slave traders pay no attention to the laws. In western Africa, Africans often kidnap their own to sell as slaves in other parts of the world
So it was, early in 1839 — in a place called Mendeland (in the area that is known today as Sierra Leone) — that a group of Mende Africans were kidnapped and transported to the African slave port of Lomboko. There a Portuguese slave trader purchased about 500 of the Africans and illegally transported them on the slave ship
Tecora to Havana, Cuba. Nearly a third of the slaves died during the long trip — some from malnutrition, others from beatings.
Upon arrival in Cuba in late June the slaves were separated and sold. Two plantation owners, Spaniards named Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, bought 53 of the slaves — 49 men, one boy, and three girls. Ruiz and Montes packed their cargo and their slaves on board the schooner Amistad
and set sail for their plantation at Port Principe, Cuba.
Just a few days out to sea — on July 2 — one of the Africans Cinque
used sign language to ask the Spanish cook what lay in store for the captured slaves on board. The cook jokingly replied in sign language that the Africans would be killed and eaten!
That night — frightened by the tale of the ship’s cook — one of the slaves, whom the Spaniards called Cinque, used a nail he found to pick the padlocks that kept him chained to another at the legs and wrists. Then he worked to unchain the others. Soon the Africans found on board some sugar cane knives with two-foot-long blades — the perfect tools for their takeover of theAmistad. Two Africans and two Spaniards were killed in the ensuing struggle.
The African slaves, now in control of the boat, demanded that Ruiz and Montes sail east, toward the rising sun — back to their African homeland.
But Ruiz and Montes hoped to be rescued from their captors. The crafty Spaniards tried to trick the Africans by heading east into the sun all day. But then, at night, the sailors slowly turned the boat back toward the Americas. The next morning they sailed east. And at night back they turned back again. This went on for nearly two months as the Amistad made a zig-zag trip up the Atlantic, off the coast of the United States. During the long trip from Cuba, ten of the Africans died.
Then, on August 26, the Africans beached at
Long Island, New York. There they hoped to trade for badly needed supplies. Instead, sailors on the U.S. Navy brig Washington spotted the Amistad. The Navy sailors, after hearing the Spaniards’ version of the story, took captive the boat, its cargo, and the Africans. The sailors thought they might receive a reward for capturing the Amistad. If not, they might be able to make money by selling some of the slaves.
The Washington towed the Amistad to New London, Connecticut. The sailors could have towed the Spanish ship to a nearby port in New York, but slavery was illegal in New York. There the sailors wouldn’t have any chance of selling the slaves. In Connecticut, slavery was still legal (though, by most accounts, only about 20 slaves lived in the entire state at that time).
On August 29 in New London, based on the hair-raising tale told by Ruiz and Montes, the Africans were ordered to stand trial for mutiny and murder. They were transported to a jail in New Haven, Connecticut, to await trail.
But, so far, the Africans had been unable to tell their side of the story. They couldn’t tell their story because they didn’t speak English or Spanish. No one understood the language that the Mende Africans spoke. Soon the first of the trials would begin