On the 9th March 1841, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that captive Africans who had seized control of the Amistad ship had been taken into slavery illegally and were therefore free under American law. The United States vs. The Amistad case was a landmark legal battle in the struggle against slavery and provided the abolitionist movement with huge publicity.
Early in 1839 a number of Africans, including Joseph Cinqué from Sierra Leone, had been kidnapped by Portuguese slavers and transported to Cuba. This was in clear violation of international laws that prohibited the African slave trade. However, once smuggled into Cuba – where slavery remained legal – they were sold on as slaves and transported along the coast on the Spanish-owned Amistad. It was while on this journey that Cinqué led the slaves in a revolt against the crew that resulted in the deaths of the ship’s captain and cook.
The Africans demanded the remaining crew return them to Africa, but instead they sailed north for 60 days, where the ship was taken into US custody off the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. A long legal battle then ensued, with Cuba demanding the return of the apparent ‘slaves’, Spain demanding them go on trial for piracy and murder, and abolitionists pushing for their return to Africa.
A key argument in the case was that, since the Africans had been illegally captured, they were free rather than slaves. The long case eventually went before the Supreme Court who ruled that they had been unlawfully held as slaves, and thus rebelled in a natural right to self-defense. The court set them free.