In January 1839, 53 African natives were kidnapped from eastern Africa and sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were then placed aboard a Spanish slave ship bound for Havana, Cuba
Once in Havana, the Africans were classified as native Cuban slaves and purchased; 49 males for $450 each by two Spaniards, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez. The two planned to move the slaves to another part of Cuba. The slaves were shackled and loaded aboard the cargo schooner Amistad (Spanish for “friendship”) for the brief coastal voyage.
However, three days into the journey, a 25-year-old slave named Sengbe Pieh (or “Cinque” to his Spanish captors) broke out of his shackles and released the other Africans. The slaves then revolted, killing most of the crew of the Amistad, including her cook and captain. The Africans then forced Montez and Ruiz to return the ship to Africa.
On August 26, 1839, the ship anchored off Long Island and was discovered by the U.S. brig Washington. The vessel, the cargo, and the Africans were taken into the District of Connecticut.
Montes and Ruiz filed suit in federal court to recover some of the cargo and the Africans, asserting ownership of the Africans as their slaves. The U.S. district attorney for the District of Connecticut appeared on behalf of the Spanish government and demanded that the Africans be handed over for trial in Cuba on murder and Piracy charges.
Rallying on behalf of the Africans, New York abolitionists hired attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin. Baldwin argued that because Spain had outlawed the African slave trade, the Africans could use whatever means possible to attain freedom after their illegal kidnapping and enslavement. The abolitionists sought a writ of Habeas Corpus relief to free the Africans pending charges of piracy or murder that might be brought. The writ was denied and the Africans remained in custody but were not indicted on any criminal charges.
The trial proceeded in the U.S. district court of New Haven, Connecticut, with the litigants disputing what should be done with the Africans, the cargo, and the ship. Anticipating that U.S. District Judge Andrew Judson would order the Africans turned over for criminal proceedings in Cuba, President Martin Van Buren ordered that the U.S.S. Grampus wait in the New Haven harbor to transport the Africans to Cuba immediately upon such a ruling.
The U.S.S. Grampus waited in vain. Judge Judson ordered that the kidnapping and enslavement had been illegal and that the United States must return the Africans to their homeland. The United States, now acting on behalf of the Spanish government and the claims of Montes and Ruiz, appealed to the U.S. circuit court, where Judge Judson’s ruling was upheld. The United States appealed again, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
John Quincy Adams, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of Massachusetts, former U.S. president, and sympathetic to the abolitionist movement, joined Baldwin in representing the Africans before the Supreme Court. Adams and Baldwin contended that the Africans should be granted their freedom because they had exercised their natural rights in fighting to escape illegal enslavement. The U.S. Supreme Court opinion, delivered by Justice Joseph Story, affirmed the rulings by the lower courts, but instead of ordering the United States to return the Africans to Africa, declared them to be free and ordered them to be immediately discharged from custody (United States v. Amistad, 40 U.S. [15 Pet.] 518, 10 L. Ed. 826 ).