Legal History: The Case of the Amistad

The Amistad Case is one of the most important to ever come before US courts, helping to influence the abolitionist movement and bring an end to slavery.


This February marks the 172nd anniversary of the United States Supreme Court hearing the case of the Amistad.  Many of us from Rhode Island are familiar with the story, thanks to Steven Spielberg’s film by the same name that was largely shot in Newport

In July 1839, a group of over 50 Africans, aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad en route to Cuba, revolted and seized control of the ship.  They forced members of the ship's crew to steer the vessel back towards their homeland in Africa.  During the day the crew did just that, however at night they would turn the boat around and sailed west towards the Americas.  After 2 months, the ship was eventually anchored off Long Island and the Africans were detailed by officers aboard the Washington, a U.S. surveying brig.

What ensued was a riveting and intense legal battle which helped to change the face of the United States.

The Africans were up against steep odds.  They were claimed as cargo by the Cubans, as salvage by the crew of the Washington, and as property by the Spanish government.    The Africans, however, behind their leader, Cinque, argued that they were free persons who had been wrongfully kidnapped from their homes. 

They were aided by abolitionist lawyer Roger Baldwin, who elected to have Cinque testify during the trial before the United States District Court.  Although the trial court ruled in favor of the Africans and ordered their return home, President Martin Van Buren sided with the Spanish position and appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.  Van Buren expected a victory, as the majority of the Justices were from southern slaveholding states. 

Arguments before the Supreme Court began February 22, 1841, with an aging John Quincy Adams assisting Baldwin in representing the Africans.  On March 9th, the Court returned a verdict in favor of the Africans.  The following fall the Africans were transported back to their home, in what is now Sierra Leone.

The Amistad Case is widely considered one of the most important to ever come before US courts. It influenced the abolitionist movement and proved that many influential people in the United States were in favor of abolishing slavery on the whole.


Got any legal question?  Email me at AThayer@srt-law.com


This article contains general information and is not intended to give legal advice.  If you have specific questions, you are encouraged to contact an attorney.  If you chose to contact Sayer Regan &Thayer, LLP, or to inquire concerning legal services or legal advice, please be advised that such inquiry does not create an attorney-client relationship.  An attorney-client relationship may only be established by separate agreement.  You should not send any confidential or time-sensitive information to us unless authorized by one of our attorneys.  Information sent before an attorney-client relationship is established may be determined not to be confidential.

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