Amistad The Criminal Trial
The Criminal Trial
On August 29, 1839, three days after the schooner’s discovery, Judge Judson opened a hearing on complaints of murder and piracy filed by Montes and Ruiz. Thirty-nine Africans (of the forty-three who had survived the weeks at sea) were present, including Cinque, who appeared wearing a red flannel shirt, white duck pants, and manacles. He appeared calm and mute, occasionally making a motion with his hand to his throat to suggest a hanging.
The three principal witnesses at the hearing were the first mate of the Washington and Montes and Ruiz. The first mate described what happened when the Amistad was first boarded. Montes and Ruiz described the mutiny and subsequent weeks at sea. Ruiz testified:
“I took an oar and tried to quell the mutiny. I cried ‘No! No!.’ I then heard one of the crew cry murder. I then heard the captain order the cabin boy to go below and get some bread to throw among the negroes, hoping to pacify them. I did not see the captain killed.”
Montes added his description of events on the fourth night at sea:
“Between three and four was awakened by a noise which was caused by blows to the mulatto cook. I went on deck and they attacked me. I seized a stick and a knife with a view to defend myself….At this time [Cinque] wounded me on the head severely with one of the sugar knives, also on the arm. I then ran below and stowed myself between two barrels, wrapped up in a sail. [Cinque] rushed after me and attempted to kill me, but was prevented by the interference of another man….I was then taken on deck and tied to the hand of Ruiz.”
After listening to the testimony, Judge Judson referred the case for trial in Circuit Court, where in 1839 all federal criminal trials were held, and ordered the Africans put into custody at the county jail in New Haven. The Amistads became a huge attraction. As many as 5,000 people a day visited the jail. The jailer charged “one New York shilling” (about twelve cents) for close looks at the captives. The Africans also attracted scientific interest. A phrenologist examined the captives and took “life masks” which were later put on public display. The New Haven jail was relatively loose. Jailers took the children, “robust” and “full of hilarity,” on wagon rides. The adults were allowed daily exercise on New Haven’s green, where their cavorting, somersaults, and acrobatic leaps surprised residents unaccustomed to such public displays of exuberance.
For most New Englanders the Amistads were a curiosity. For a small, but growing, group of abolitionists, however, they were a cause and an opportunity. Abolitionist leader Lewis Tappandescribed the capture of the Africans as a “providential occurrence” that might allow “the heart of the nation” to be touched “through the power of sympathy.” The “Amistad Committee” was quickly formed and soon the group had enlisted legal help, including that of Roger Baldwin, who would later become the governor of Connecticut.
Spain, meanwhile, pressed the United States to return the schooner to its Cuban owners, concede that the U. S. courts had no jurisdiction over Spanish subjects, and return the Amistads to Havana. The Van Buren Administration was anxious to comply with the Spanish demands, but there was this matter of due process of law. The Administration, through District Attorney Holabird, crafted legal arguments that it hoped would produce the results sought by Spain.
On September 14, 1839, the Amistads were sent by canal boat and stage to Hartford for their trial in the Circuit courtroom of Judge Smith Thompson, who also served (as was then the custom for Circuit Court judges) as a justice on the United States Supreme Court. Holabird asked the court to turn all the prisoners over to the President and to let him decide this matter that bore heavily on the relations between great powers. Baldwin, for the defense, argued that “no power on earth has the right to reduce [the Africans] to slavery” and the United States should never stoop so low as to become a “slave-catcher for foreign slave-holders.” Judge Thompson preferred to evade the larger debate over abolition and rested his decision on jurisdictional grounds. He decided after three days of argument that because the alleged mutiny and murders occurred in international waters and did not involve U.. S. citizens, the court had no jurisdiction to consider the criminal charges.
Were the slaves “property”? That was a matter, Judge Thompson ruled, that had to be decided first in the district court. Thompson ruled that the Africans, although no longer considered prisoners, should be detained until the district court could decide whether they were property and–if they were property–who owned them.