175 years later, the Amistad affair lives on in the Yale Library’s collections

William H. Townsend’s pencil sketches of the Amistad captives portray people full of character, who when robbed of their freedom, fought to regain it.

The 43 captives’ arrival in New Haven in September 1839 caused a sensation. Townspeople lined the streets as the Africans were marched from the Long Wharf to the jail. Colonel Stanton Pendleton, the jailer, charged curiosity seekers a shilling each to view his unusual prisoners. Phrenologists visited the jail to measure the captives’ skulls.

Townsend captured their humanity. His drawings depict distinct individuals: Margru, a young girl, hints at a smile. Kimbo seems suspicious. Pona is handsome. Saby smokes a pipe.

Townsend had difficulty persuading the Africans to sit for him and bribed them with candy, according to an article published in the Yale Library Gazette in January 1935. 

Wednesday, March 9 marks the 175th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that granted the Amistad captives their freedom and enabled their return to Africa.

The Yale University Library houses a wealth of Amistad material, including the papers of Roger Sherman Baldwin, the captives’ attorney; the notes of author Washington Irving, who was minister to Spain when the Supreme Court issued its decision; letters from Lewis Tappan, the abolitionist leader who rallied support for the captives; and contemporary published accounts of the affair. Twenty-two of Townsend’s sketches reside at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Edward Rugemer, Yale associate professor of African American studies and history, says that the Amistad affair is an important chapter in the history of American slavery and abolitionism.

“It is a dramatic story that underscores the federal government’s support for slavery,” Rugemer said. “But it also shows the resiliency of people to resist their oppression and the determination of the abolitionist movement to change society and convince people that slavery was an abomination.”  

‘I am sure they are native Africans’

The Amistad, a Spanish schooner, sailed from Havana on June 28, 1839 bound for Puerto Principe with 53 Africans on board. The captives, who had been kidnapped and illegally imported to Cuba as slaves, revolted days after the ship set sail, killing the captain and a crew member.

The captives spared the two white men, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, who had purchased them. Knowing nothing of navigation, they attempted to force Montez and Ruiz to sail them to Africa, but the Spaniards had other plans. They steered toward the United States coast at night. The vessel zigzagged at sea for two months before the Washington, an American patrol ship, seized it off of Culloden Point in eastern Long Island Sound on Aug. 26, 1839.  The Amistad was towed to New London, Connecticut.

Legal proceedings began immediately. The captives, including three young girls, were detained in four rooms in the county jail in New Haven, near the city green, as the courts determined their fates.

Abolitionists, recognizing an opportunity to advance their cause, mobilized to help the Africans secure their freedom.

“Abolitionism was a growing movement when the Amistad case took place,” says Rugemer. “There was a growing network of activists who were devoting a significant amount of their time to the cause. The Amistad event happens, and they see it as a way to draw attention to the movement.”

Tappan, a New York City merchant and a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, joined other prominent abolitionists in forming the Amistad Committee to organize the captives’ legal defense.

The committee enlisted Roger Sherman Baldwin, 1811 B.A, a New Haven attorney and future governor of Connecticut, to lead the captives’ legal team, which also included attorneys Seth Staples, 1797 B.A., and Theodore Sedgwick, 1798 B.A., of New York City.

The Baldwin Family Papers at the Yale Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department contains Baldwin’s notes, correspondence, and other legal papers concerning the case.

In a Sept. 4, 1839 letter, Staples informs Baldwin that they will be colleagues on the case. He addresses a major obstacle confronting the defense team: They did not understand their clients’ language.

Staples also expressed concerns about the Africans’ physical comfort.

“I think it all-important that the marshal shall procure flannel clothing for these miserable beings immediately or he will find them all down soon with probably the inflammatory rheumatism or some other disease,” wrote Staples, adding that the Africans should be taken outside in fair weather and “made to walk some distance.”

Josiah Willard Gibbs, a clergyman and Yale professor of ancient languages, attempted to break the language barrier between the Africans and their American allies. Gibbs, 1809 B.A., learned the captives’ words for the first 10 numerals and walked along the wharves of New Haven and New York City counting aloud in the African tongue hoping someone would understand the numbers.

During one of these waterfront forays on Staten Island, Gibbs encountered James Covey, a young sailor on the H.M.S. Buzzard, a British cruiser that recently seized two slave ships. An 18-year-old native African, Covey could speak Mende, the captives’ language. The Buzzard’s captain let Covey travel to New Haven for as long as the case required.

Baldwin’s papers include Covey’s Oct. 4, 1839 deposition in which the young sailor describes his conversations with the Africans. He reports that they speak of Lomboko, an infamous slave fortress on the west coast of Africa where the captives had been held before embarking on the Middle Passage.

Covey asserts that based on the captives’ “language and manner and appearance, I am sure they are native Africans.”

Most of the captives were from Mende country in Sierra Leone.

“I have conversed with these Africans separately in the presence of Dr. Gibbs, and they are consistent in their history of the place from which they sailed in Africa, and of their voyage to Havana, the events which happened there, and their voyage to the United States,” Covey states in the deposition, which is written in another’s hand.

‘Why weren’t the poor negroes hanged?’

The Amistad case raised issues about jurisdiction, salvage rights, and whether the captives should be tried for murder and piracy. Ultimately, the case boiled down to whether the Amistad captives were slaves or free.

Ruiz and Montez presented papers purportedly showing that the captives were legally enslaved. In truth, they had been imported to Cuba in contravention of an 1817 treaty between Great Britain and Spain banning the importation of slaves into Spanish colonies.

According to the Spaniards, the captives were “ladino,” or slaves long-settled in Cuba. The abolitionists argued that the captives were “bozale,” meaning blacks recently imported from Africa.

The Spanish government pressed the pro-slavery administration of President Martin Van Buren to ensure that Montez and Ruiz recovered all of their property, the captives included, in accordance with treaties of 1795 and 1819 between the two nations.

Van Buren, an architect of the Democratic Party, worried that the case would antagonize his Southern allies.

“Van Buren’s position was to send the captives back to Cuba where they would have been executed for mutiny and murder,” says Rugemer.

An annotation in the notes of Washington Irving, who was U.S. minister to Spain shortly after the Amistad affair, illustrates the federal government’s disposition toward the captives and their abolitionist defenders.

“The negroes are called bozales. How would such ignorant beings bring forward an accusation and know all the subtletie (sic) of the law — Mr. Tapman (sic) that mad fanatic of abolitionism did it and nobody else,” reads the annotation. “And why were the poor negroes not hanged for murder, having murdered the captain and part of the crew[?]”

It is unclear who wrote these words. Irving’s notes on the case, included in his papers at the Beinecke Library, appear to be a compilation of memoranda summarizing the facts of the case and the Spanish demands.

The civil trial in Amistad case began in U.S District Court in Hartford on Nov. 19, 1839 with U.S. District Judge Andrew Judson presiding. Six years earlier, Judson, as a state attorney, had prosecuted Prudence Crandall for opening a school for black girls in Canterbury, Connecticut.

In a decision issued on Jan. 13, 1840, Judson ruled that the captives had been sold into slavery in violation of international law.  He ordered the Van Buren administration to return them to Africa.

Anticipating a different outcome, Van Buren had stationed the naval schooner Grampus in New Haven harbor to take the Africans to Cuba. 

The federal government appealed Judson’s ruling. The circuit court affirmed Judson’s decision and the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

‘He does not think of God’

The captives were not idle as their case played out in court. Yale students provided them daily instruction in English and the Christian faith.

A contemporary account of the Amistad affair by John W. Barber includes an essay by Benjamin Griswold, a student at the Divinity School, who describes efforts to “improve” the captives’ “hearts and minds.”

“From two to five hours each day have been spent in imparting instruction,” he wrote. “At first their progress was slow and attended with some difficulties. They had been accustomed neither to the requisite effort of mind nor fixedness of attention.”

The captives were enthusiastic students, wrote Griswold, 1841 Div..

“Not unfrequently (sic) in their desire to retain their teacher through the day, they attempt even to hold him, grasping his hands and clinging to his person, and individuals offer to give him their own dinner on condition of his remaining,” he wrote.

He reported slow but perceptible progress.

“Some of them can read in the New Testament,” he wrote. “Their situation has been peculiarly unfavorable to progress in speaking the English language. They have been confined exclusively by themselves, and intercourse with each other has been in their native tongue.”

Griswold also described the captives’ religious instruction. The teachers composed a Christian prayer that was translated into Mende. After prayers, a half-hour was spent each day “in attempting to impress religious truth upon the heart.”

Griswold suggested that the captives’ uncertain futures led them to embrace Christianity.

“Many of them in their troubles and fears are driven to the throne of grace,” he wrote. “A lady in the family of the jailer informs me that the little girls even are mindful of their hours for devotion, and that too when the duty is not pressed upon them by the example of others.”

The captives were not entirely content with the conditions of their confinement.

Baldwin’s papers include a Feb 9, 1841 letter from Cinque, the captives’ de facto leader, complaining about Pendleton’s mistreatment of them in their new quarters in the Westville section of New Haven.

“When we in New Haven he whip Mendi people too hard,” wrote Cinque in halting English. “I was sorry for him and he does not think of God. He do bad and when he came to Westville and came and whip plenty of them and it is not better for us and he do bad to the Mendi people.”

“You tell our judges let us free," wrote Cinque.

Victory and voyage home

Arguments before the Supreme Court began on Feb. 22, 1841. The abolitionists enlisted former President John Quincy Adams, then a member of Congress, to join Baldwin in oral arguments before the court. Five of the nine justices either owned or had owned slaves.

The court delivered its decision on March 9, 1841. Writing for the majority, Justice Joseph Story concluded that the captives were “kidnapped Africans, who, by the laws of Spain itself, are entitled to their freedom.”

The captives learned of the decision days later via a letter from Adams.

The Supreme Court did not require the federal government to transport the captives to Africa. They could stay or go as they pleased.

After the decision, the Africans were moved to Farmington, Connecticut, where the local abolitionist community arranged for them to live on a farm. Cinque and others were taken to various cities to help raise money for their voyage home. Sadly, one of the captives drowned in a pond during this period.

In late November 1841, 35 of the original 53 captives and four American missionaries boarded the Gentleman, a chartered ship, and set sail for Africa joined by American missionaries.   

Tappan delivered this news in a Dec. 1, 1841 letter to Gibbs, which is housed at the Beinecke Library.

“Our Mendian friends sailed Saturday morning at dawn of day with a stiff breeze, and had 40 hours’ sail before the snow storm began here,” Tappan wrote.

The letter concludes with this postscript: ““Mr. Adams called on me yesterday, on his way to Washington, [he] listened with much satisfaction to the account of their seeing his letter — their leaving, etc.”

Six of the Amistad captives are buried in the Grove Street Cemetery, as is Townsend, Baldwin, Gibbs, Pendleton, and several other figures associated with the case.

The New Haven Museum will commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Amistad case on Thursday, March 10, with a first-person interpretation of Sarah Margru, a captive who attended Oberlin College, by Tammy Denease of Historical Firsts. The performance begins at 5:30 p.m.