This Day in History 3/9: The Supreme Court frees the Amistad Africans

I’m preparing a response to a statement by Sean Penn in yesterday’s Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, in which he stated that certain reported should be jailed for criticizing Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

In the meantime, today we celebrate a moment in American history where people sacrificed for the very freedom that Penn exploits with his anti-democratic venom.

In 1839, a group of enslaved Africans rebelled against the crew of the schooner Amistad, which had left the port of Havana.  They were later captured near Long Island by a naval officer that immediately sent the prisoners to Connecticut.  His intentions were as bold as they were barbaric: Connecticut had not yet officially abolished slavery, and the captain hoped to make a profit from the rebellious Africans.

The ensuing case of the Amistad Africans caused a sensation.  It energized the abolitionist movement in America, and reinforced opposition to the slave trade in other countries.  The main argument was that the initial passage of the Africans across the Atlantic (which did not involve the Amistad) had been illegal, because the international slave trade had been abolished, first in the British Empire in 1807, then in the US in 1808, and internationally in 1840.  Therefore, they were obtained illegally, thus never legally enslaved to begin with. Furthermore, given they were illegally confined, the Africans were entitled to take what legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force.

The case eventually came before the Supreme Court, and it rendered its ruling on March 9, 1841.  The Court, in a 7-1 decision, upheld the lower court’s findings that the Africans were captured illegally and were entitled to fight for their freedom, since they could not be enslaved.  The Amistad Africans returned to their place of origin, the Mende region in present-day Sierra Leone, in 1842.

The Amistad rebellion was one of only two successful slave ship uprisings in American history, and one of only three successful slave rebellions in North America–the others being the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1804 and the rebellion abord the slaver Creole in 1841. 

Attached are clips from the 1997 film Amistad, directed by Stephen Spielberg.  It has its problems with historical accuracy, but it shows the time period and the spirit of the events very well.  The first clip is tough to watch, as it depicts the “Middle Passage” of the Africans from their kidnapping in Africa to their voyage onboard the slave ship Tecora towards Cuba.  The second is John Quincy Adams’ speech before the Supreme Court.  It isn’t the exact speech given by Adams, but Anthony Hopkins does a great job conveying the spirit and ethos of the case.

Anything to say about that, Sean?

1 Comment

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One response to “This Day in History 3/9: The Supreme Court frees the Amistad Africans

  1. Karl

    I found the Court’s opinion, as well as some other materials online. I’m just assuming their veracity:

    http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/FTrials/amistad/AMI_SCT2.htm

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