What were the major legal issues in the Amistad Court Case?

The Amistad is an amazing story of the slave trade, human rights, and the United States court system. In 1839, although slavery was still legal in some states, the slave trade, (kidnapping of Africans and transporting them to the Americas) was against the law. This, however, did not stop some slave owners in central or Southern America from paying sailors or slave catchers to sail to East Africa, illegally kidnap Africans and sail them back to slave owners. The Amistad Africans were victims of this heinous crime. In 1839, a shipful of African people was kidnapped from their town in Sierra Leone and sailed to Cuba aboard the Teçora. Once in Havana, 53 of the Africans were sold to plantation owners in Puerto Príncipe. They were to be sailed there on a ship called La Amistad. This cruise, however, did not go as planned. Halfway through the cruise, in the open ocean, the Africans rebelled. Using machetes they had found in a closet below decks, the Africans killed the entire crew except for two sailors, which they ordered to sail them back to Africa. The sailors, however, did not sail to Africa but took advantage of the Africans little knowledge of sailing, and cleverly sailed them north instead. They eventually arrived in New York harbor where they were taken into custody by the U.S. Navy and sailed to Connecticut, and that’s when the court case began. The Amistad was a complicated and important legal case in the United States Supreme Court because the court was forced to first decide whether the Africans of the Amistad were to be considered people or property.

The biggest unknown that the courts had to decipher, was whether the Amistad Africans were legally property or free people. If the Amistad had been transporting coffee or sugar cane from Africa, then it would, of course, be a property case about who owns it. But the Amistad was carrying people who might not legally be slaves. The only trustworthy way for the court to hear the true story, was for the Africans to testify, this created a translation problem. Fortunately, the Abolitionists, an anti-slavery political movement, were very involved in the case and were able to find a translator for the Africans. The man they found, James Covey, had himself been kidnapped from Africa, Seized by a British warship, and was now a free man working as a sailor. He was able to converse with the Africans easily and translate everything for the courts. Meanwhile, the Amistad case had developed lots of public interest and international attention. The Spanish government claimed that the Africans were born in Cuba, that they had been slaves their whole life and were merely being transported by sea when the slaves rebelled and murdered most of the crew. They wanted the U.S. to turn the case over to them, as they felt that the U.S. should stay out of a Spanish case about Spanish slaves

If the courts decided that the Africans were slaves, and therefore property, then the legal question was, who owned them? A ship full of slaves was worth a huge amount of money. That meant that people would go to great lengths to acquire them. The courts had to decide which of the three parties, who all claimed that the slaves were theirs, would be granted property of the slaves. The owners of the Amistad (the Spanish government), the salvagers (lieutenant Gedney of the U.S. Navy), or the buyers (people in Cuba who funded the kidnapping)—each believed the human cargo belonged to them.

If the Africans were proved to be free people than the courts would have to decipher whether the Africans had committed a crime by instigating a mutiny and killing the crew or if they acted in self-defense after being kidnapped from their home. Although slavery was still legal in about half of the states, the international slave trade had been outlawed by the time of the Amistad. If the Africans had been born in Cuba, or South Carolina, as the Spanish were claiming, the court would have to recognize them as property and return them to their owners. But once the court understood that they had been illegally kidnapped to be sold into slavery, then the Africans murder of the Amistad crew, was an act of self-defense by free men.

Works Cited

“Amistad.” Britannica Student Encyclopedia, pp. 1-3. Kids InfoBits, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/KBZLSZ183142022/ITKE?u=maine&sid=ITKE&xid=3964eaaf. Accessed 28 Mar. 2019.

Grayson, Robert. The Amistad. Edina, Minnesota, ABDO Publishing Company, 2011.

—. The Amistad. Edina, Minnesota, ABDO Publishing Company, 2011.—. The Amistad. Edina, Minnesota, ABDO Publishing Company, 2011.