The Amistad Mutiny

Revolutionary Worker #937, December 21, 1997

Singbe-pieh was a young man of West Africa's Mende people. He was born in the early 1800s upriver--in the backcountry far from the ocean, where the Mende built their large family compounds and raised crops. He married, and was raising young children.

Mendeland, like all of western Africa, had been haunted by a living nightmare for over 300 years: sinister ships from Europe and the Americas cruised this coast seeking slaves. Tens of millions of people--from the Mende, Ashanti, Ibo, Yoruba, Krumen, Awikam, Mandingo and all the other peoples of Africa--had been stolen, sold and carried off by the white traders. Millions more were killed in the wars and raids organized and inflamed by the slave trade. The exact numbers of those killed and stolen will never be known.

The people of Africa did not know for sure what the slavers did with their captives--What could possibly explain the insatiable craving these Europeans had for more and more human beings? Were they eaten? Were they worked in some vast system of forced labor? There were rumors. But no one returned, so no one knew for sure.

One day, Singbe-pieh disappeared without a trace. His village mourned him--fearing he was dead or kidnapped into slavery. But his story is different from millions of others. He returned.

Over 30 Africans led by Singbe-pieh successfully fought their way back to freedom and their homes. The slave ship they seized, the Amistad, is now known throughout the world as a symbol of slave revolt. And Singbe-pieh is known to the world by the name given him by his captors, Joseph Cinqué.

Part 1: Freedom

The following story was told by the Africans of the ship Amistad to Kawwa-li ("James Covey,") an 18-year-old, Mende-speaking sailor from the British warship, the Buzzard.

Cinqué was seized in Mendeland, probably during January 1839, by a raiding party sent by a neighboring African people. He and other captives were force-marched for 10 days, down the valley of the Gallinas River toward the sea. There Cinqué found himself "warehoused" with people from all over the region in the crude "slave factories" of Pedro Blanco on the fortified island of Lomboko. Some prisoners had been seized in war, some had been captured by raiding parties, some had been sold by their own people for crimes like unpaid debt and adultery.

Blanco gathered over 600 Africans and loaded them onto a notorious Portuguese slave ship, Teçora--the people were packed in, chained two-by-two, in decks without room to stand. And in April 1839 they sailed. This Middle Passage was torture--the people were naked, and often forced to lie in their own excrement. They were handed rotten food and whipped if they refused to eat. Vinegar and gunpowder were rubbed into their wounds as extra punishment. A third of the prisoners died at sea.

After the Teçora arrived in Havana, Cuba, the captives were marched to a large open barracoon, a corral for human beings, where they were sold off to various Spanish-Cuban slaveowners. Forty-nine adults were sold to Don José Ruize and four children were sold to Don Pedro Montes. The two slaveowners purchased false papers from the local authorities, stating that these captives were slaves born in Cuba. On June 28, the 53 Africans were transferred to a smaller ship waiting in the harbor, the Amistad, for a 300-mile voyage along Cuba's coast to Puerto Príncipe.

The Mutiny

"If we must die--let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs
Making their mock at our accused lot."

Claude McKay, 1919

"It is right to rebel."

Mao Tsetung

On the Amistad, the Africans were chained to each other by the neck and attached to a wall in the dank cargo hold. They were given starvation rations--one plantain, a little bread and one cup of water a day. As he fed them, the ship's cook mocked them. The Africans later reported that, "talking with his fingers," this cook told them that they would be killed, cooked and salted down as meat as soon as the voyage ended.

Cingué found a nail on the upper deck, and hid it in his armpit. That evening, the slaves spoke among themselves in the darkness of the hold. One of them, Kin-na, later described the meeting. The captives felt despair and desperation over their future. They turned to Cinqué asking what they should do. He replied that he would work up a plan: "If we do nothing we will be killed," he said. "We may as well die trying to be free as to be killed and eaten."

It was the third day of the Amistad's voyage. Cinqué used the nail to break the chain free from the wall. Each adult armed himself with machetes found in the hold.

The night was pitch-dark--moonless and raining--as they crept up on the upper deck. Cinqué killed the cook with one blow. The captain resisted--killing an African and wounding others--before he was brought down. The ship's two sailors slipped over the side and escaped in a small boat. Ruiz and Montes were captured.

The Africans drank and ate their fill, for the first time in many, many days. They were free--but adrift 20 miles off the coast of Cuba, thousands of miles from their homeland.

The Long Low Black Schooner

At first, the Africans put chains on Ruiz and Montes--saying they wanted these cruel men to know how it felt. But then the rebels felt it was wrong to keep them chained up, and let the two Spaniards roam the ship freely--giving them plenty of water and food.

The plan of the Amistad rebels was simple: to sail home to the coast of Sierra Leone. But they did not know the science of navigating a large sailing vessel across an ocean. They ordered Montes to navigate their return to Africa. They stopped in the Bahamas and loaded up with water for the long voyage.

But Montes decided to deceive the Africans: by day he sailed for the east, into the rising sun toward Africa, by night he turned the ship around and sailed west and north--hoping to bring the Amistad to the east coast of North America.

Cinqué and the Africans suspected the treachery but could do little more than threaten Montes with death. The Amistad sailed this back-and-forth path into the Northern Atlantic. Food and water ran out, and the Amistad rebels started stopping ships they passed asking for supplies.

Articles started appearing in the U.S. press about a "long low black schooner," displaying no flag, that had appeared in the Atlantic manned by dozens of armed black men. A pirate ship, perhaps! "The crew had a very savage appearance," one captain reported.

After 63 days at sea, as the Amistad rebels were weakening from hunger and thirst, they sighted land--a low coast covered with sand dunes. It was a bright, warm summer morning, August 26, 1839, when some of the rebels went ashore in the ship's boat to find water, food and information.

Suddenly, in the dunes, they came across two white sea captains who were bird-hunting. With sign language they asked two simple questions: "Where are we? And is this a slave-owning country?"

Part 2:
The Cause
and the Courts

The two sea captains, Henry Green and Peletiah Fordham, startled at first to meet four armed and almost naked Black men, quickly explained that the Amistad had landed on New York's Long Island, near Montauk Point--and said that there were no slaveowners in New York State.

The Amistad had sailed past a thousand miles of coastline--past Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware--where slavery was intense and entrenched. In 1839, the economy of those southern states was based in a network of plantations--highly militarized, forced labor camps--where millions of captured Africans and their descendents were held in slavery. From the beginning of the 19th century, the slaveowners of the South had promoted an aggressive policy of extending slavery into new lands. They had just brutally driven the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole peoples from all their lands east of the Mississippi and were starting to carve huge new slave plantations out of the forests in the new states of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Florida. Further south, Anglo slave traders and ranchers had invaded northern Mexico, and had seized by force land for a new, independent, slave republic that they called Texas.

In one sense, the Amistad rebels were lucky they had landed in New York, where the sale or "importation" of slaves had been abolished in 1779. But at the same time, the Africans would quickly discover that the United States was indeed a "slaveowning country."

Many of the "founding fathers" of the United States had been wealthy slaveowners--and the core documents of the U.S. recognized slavery as legal. At the same time, there was a bitter and historic struggle brewing, in the U.S. and throughout the world, aimed at abolishing slavery. The rebels of the Amistad immediately found themselves at the center of a huge international power struggle over whether one human should own another as property.

News of the Amistad's landing covered the front pages of the Northern press. In the South, the whole story was suppressed and unreported--because of acute fears that such news might give slaves "dangerous ideas."

The Spanish representatives in Washington and New York quickly insisted that the Amistad, including the Africans, were property and should be immediately returned to its owners. Moreover, the Spanish representatives said the Amistad rebels should be considered "murderers" and "assassins," adding that it was extremely important that they be returned to Cuba for public trial and execution--so that their example would help suppress future slave rebellions there. All this, they added, was in the interests of the U.S., since Cuba was a place "where the citizens of the United States not only carry on a considerable trade, but where they possess territorial properties which they cultivate with the labor of African slaves."

The President of the United States, Martin Van Buren, was sympathetic to the Spanish request. Ruiz and Montes had official papers documenting their ownership of the Africans and the ship. The case seemed simple.

But this case did not remain simple: First, the U.S. coast guard officers, Gedney and Meade, who had towed the Amistad into port, filed a court suit demanding the traditional reward for "salvage" of property lost at sea. The two other captains, Green and Fordham, who had met the Africans in the dunes, filed their own suit, insisting that they had discovered the lost property and deserved the "salvage" percentage. The Amistad was worth $40,000, and the Africans about $20-30,000 on the Havana slave market.

The logic here was typical: Four captains insisted they had "salvaged" a ship that was, in fact, well-manned--just like Columbus had insisted he "discovered" a New World that was, in fact, well-inhabited.

On August 29, 1839 the Amistad was towed into New London, Connecticut. The Amistad Africans, who had risked everything to free themselves, were again placed in chains--this time in a U.S. prison. Their future was placed before the federal court system. A representative of the federal U.S. government presented the Spanish claims in court.

Meanwhile the anti-slavery movement mobilized their resources to come to the aid of the Africans. The abolitionist movement was small and highly controversial in the 1830s--it was just starting to emerge as a visible alliance of free Blacks and radical elements of the white middle classes. Frederick Douglass, the great revolutionary leader of abolitionists and free Blacks in the U.S., had himself only escaped from slavery the year before, in 1838, and was just embarking on his life's work.

In a country where the issue in national politics had long been the extension of slavery to new lands, the abolitionists fought for the freeing of all slaves. They were widely denounced as "fanatics" and "madmen."

In 1831 the country was rocked by news of a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virgina. In the South, the most radical abolitionists worked to organize slave revolts--to defeat the slaveowners by force of arms. In 1835 President Jackson himself demanded a federal law forbidding "incendiary publications" from being distributed in the South.

Meanwhile, in the North, abolitionists focused on agitational meetings and the organized protection of runaway slaves. The activists faced threats and violent attacks for their stand.

Here, into this mix, came a shipload of Africans demanding freedom themselves--into Northern waters--where significant political forces and sympathies could potentially be mobilized on their behalf. It was a major opportunity for the freedom movement. Lewis Tappan, a well-known abolitionist, called a meeting in New York as soon as he heard of the Amistad. The "Committee for the Defense of the Africans of the Amistad" was formed to raise funds and provide lawyers.

Even the idea that these Africans should have a right to speak was controversial. When early papers were filed on their behalf in court, the New Haven Register mockingly asked if lawyers would now also be soliciting legal complaints in hen houses and pigsties.

In a previous case, involving the slave ship Antelope in Savannah, Georgia, no one in the court proceedings had consulted the captive Africans involved--their stories, testimony and desires had been considered completely irrelevant. Now, the abolitionists fought to have the Amistad Africans speak in their own behalf--and radicals scoured the waterfronts to find Mende-speakers who could act as translators.

The Amistaders (as the captive Africans were soon known) had landed in the United States--where New England merchants and southern slaveowners had grown rich off the trade in human beings. But even in this hostile land they had found allies.

Led by Cinqué, the Amistad rebels organized themselves to pursue every hopeful avenue. They worked energetically to learn the languages and customs of this new place. They studied the various peoples and groupings that came to gawk at them. At one point, a contingent of clergy arrived to see the prisoners. The Africans were agitated by the grim faces and black clothes--convinced that their executioners had arrived. Secretly, the Africans made a pact amongst themselves to tightly control what the Americans, including the abolitionists, learned about the mutiny and their lives back in Africa. They quickly became aware that seemingly arcane details might have an impact on the outcome of their case. And they were also aware that even their abolitionist allies were extremely judgmental about African customs and extremely arrogant about the supposed "superiority of Christian civilization." Cinqué cautioned the other prisoners to say little, and only after careful group discussion--so that they could wage the battles for legal victory and public opinion as effectively as possible. Once they identified him as the leader of the mutineers, the authorities separated Cinqué from the others--imprisoning him in a solitary cell.

Divided States:
The Class Conflict Over Slavery

The struggle to free the Amistaders was waged on two closely connected fronts:

First, there were sharp legal issues: Were these Amistaders free human beings or property? Had they committed murderous "servile rebellion" or a righteous act of self defense? Should they be brutally punished as an example to others, or sent home to resume their lives in Africa?

This legal battle was closely connected to a far more sweeping political struggle--a class struggle--over slavery itself. On one hand were the supporters of slavery who considered it outrageous that anyone would defend slaves who openly admitted killing white men and taking their owners captive. At the other pole were the radical forces who believed it was criminal for one human being to own and brutalize another.

The United States at that time was a country where two ruling classes coexisted in an uneasy alliance--the Southern slaveowners and the Northern merchant-capitalist class. In the North, most states had ended slavery. In the South, slavery remained the basis for the local ruling class and its governments. The merchant-capitalists and the slaveowners had collaborated in two wars against Britain and in the brutal removal of Native Peoples east of the Mississippi. They had both profited from the early traffic in African slaves, and from trade in the cotton, tobacco and indigo raised by slaves.

Now changes were taking place in the capitalist economy of the Northern states that brought sections of the Northern capitalists into conflict with the slaveowners. They clashed sharply over tariffs--capitalists wanting imports taxed to protect new domestic industries, while the slaveowners wanted manufactured goods to be as cheap as possible. They clashed over how to consolidate their new country--whether to forge a single unified national capitalist market or to continue as scattered and semi-independent states. After centuries of being nurtured by the slave trade, capitalism was slowly, haltingly, turning against slavery--in favor of other forms of exploitation.

Meanwhile, the struggle of the slaves themselves was striking terror into the hearts of the ruling classes. In the 1790s, a slave revolution led by Toussaint L'Ouverture had seized power in the French colony of Haiti. This republic of liberated Africans inspired slaves everywhere. Powerful forces in the U.S. believed that it was important to stop the import of Africans before slaves became an overwhelming majority in large parts of the country, as they had been in Haiti.

A particular and uneasy compromise had been worked out on the question of slave trade. When the U.S. was first founded, it was agreed that the international trade in slaves could continue, but only for one generation. Starting in 1807, it became illegal to "import" new slaves into the United States. Spain and Britain made similar declarations.

While the transatlantic trade in slaves became illegal, slavery itself remained legal and deeply entrenched in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the Southern U.S. states. This arrangement was inherently unstable. Slave traders like Pedro Blanco kept selling millions of kidnapped Africans to the Americas--with the quiet support of local governments.

The Battle in Court

In an earlier time, the Amistad mutineers might just have been handed over to Spain without protest or attention. But in 1839, their situation became a focal point of the growing struggle over slavery itself.

The federal government, representing the status quo, insisted in court that the Amistad mutineers were both property and murderers--and that they should be turned over to Spanish authorities. President Van Buren personally sent a naval ship to New Haven to carry the prisoners to their executions in Cuba as soon as the trial was over.

In reply, the abolitionist lawyers of the Africans argued that these Amistaders had "liberated themselves from illegal restraint"--that they were free men who had righteously defended themselves and deserved safe conduct home.

To the surprise of everyone, Judge Judson ruled in favor of the Africans--saying that they had never legally been slaves or Spanish subjects. Judge Judson added, "Bloody as may be their hands, they shall yet embrace their kindred." The federal government appealed--after a series of court hearings, the case arrived at the Supreme Court in February 1841.

The abolitionists fought an energetic public battle to bring out the humanity of these Africans and the brutality of the slave trade.

Meanwhile the abolitionists approached former President John Quincy Adams--a long-standing representative of the U.S. merchant capitalist ruling class--to take their case to the high court. Adams epitomized the politics of his class: he was an energetic supporter of U.S. expansion and of building a new unifying infrastructure of canals and roads. He opposed slavery but also forcefully rejected abolition saying it would cause the break up of "the Union," and of its emerging national market.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Amistaders and set them free. They said: "Cinqué, the master-spirit who guided them, had a single object in view. That object was--not piracy or robbery--but the deliverance of himself and his companions in suffering, from unlawful bondage. They owed no allegiance to Spain. They were on board of the Amistad, by constraint. Their object was to free themselves from the fetters that bound them, in order that they might return to their kindred and their home. In so doing, they were guilty of no crime, for which they could be held responsible as pirates."

This was a startling victory for the anti-slavery forces that reflected growing divisions between the two ruling classes. It was the first time Black people had ever had a case heard, as free people, before the U.S. Supreme Court. The verdict stirred deep hatreds and secessionist sentiments among the Southern slaveowners. Adams received a portrait of himself from the South, with a bullet hole shot through his forehead.

Politically, the victory and the role of a prominent bourgeois like Adams in the case signaled the fact that this rising capitalist exploiting class might politically be moved to join (and even lead) a fight to abolish slavery. On March 9, 1842, the captives were at last free.

A Victory and an
Approaching War

Funds were raised throughout the North to finance the return of the Africans to Sierra Leone. This was done largely by organizing a tour of the Amistaders to New England churches where they told their story and were portrayed as future Christian missionaries to "the heathen."

Thirty-five survivors returned to Sierra Leone three years after they had been taken. Some Amistaders chose to remain in the U.S. One of the African children of the Amistad enrolled in Oberlin College--which at the time was a hotbed of revolutionary abolitionist activity--and later she returned to West Africa.

Meanwhile, the struggle against slavery continued. In 1841 there was another mutiny on the slave ship Creole, and Africans successfully escaped to the Bahamas.

It is important to point out that the Amistad decision did not legally undermine, or even condemn, slavery within the United States--it freed the Amistad Africans but recognized that slavery as an "existing" institution was legalized by various state laws. Seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices were themselves wealthy slaveowners.

The Supreme Court's Chief Justice Taney would soon rule, in the famous case of Dred Scott, that no Black person, whether free or slave, could be considered a U.S. citizen. Taney argued that many of the signers of the Declaration were slaveowners, and he said that for them to regard Black people as potential citizens was "utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted." Taney said that when the Declaration had said "All men are created equal" this had not been intended to include Black people. He spoke his famous conclusion that, at the time of the Constitution's signing, Black people were considered "so far inferior, that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect."

Slaves in the U.S. would never get freedom from the U.S. legal system or its Supreme Court. It would take a revolutionary war, the U.S. Civil War of 1860-65, to end slavery. It took long, bloody years of armed struggle to defeat the gray-coated armies of the Confederate slaveowners.


The struggles of the 1800s abolished slavery, but established a new exploiting capitalist system. For that reason, the final liberation of Black people is still a task facing us today.

And that, of course, is why the story of Amistad remains so stirring to us today. This is the story of a victory won with great daring and thought. The African mutineers freed themselves during a dark night aboard a slave ship. Their story is about the justice of revolutionary violence--and about the way the oppressed can find allies in strange and unfamiliar places.

Liberation is never given. It must be fought for and won--not once, but over and over--on all the complex battlegrounds where we face our oppressors.

See also:Movie review: Amistad--It's Right to Rebel!

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