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In 1839, a Spanish slave ship, La Amistad (“Friendship” in English), was travelling between Havana and Puerto Principe, Cuba, when the slaves in the hold found a file and were able to liberate themselves from their chains. They armed themselves and staged a rebellion. They killed one of the owners of the ship and took the other two, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, prisoner and tried to force them to sail back to Sierra Leone, where the Africans had been taken captive, but instead Ruiz and Montez sailed north, until the ship was intercepted by an American naval vessel off Long Island. That triggered an important legal battle and was ultimately the inspiration for Amistad, (1997, dir. Steven Spielberg).



The Legal Issues of the Amistad Case

The arrival of the liberated slaves caused an extremely complex legal problem. Lt. Gedney, who was captaining the ship that found the Amistad, took it to Connecticut rather than New York, because slavery was still technically legal in Connecticut, and that allowed him to present a claim for salvage that included the slaves as part of the cargo. Two other men  also claimed salvage rights over the ship because they had apprehended some of the slaves who came ashore in search of food and water. Ruiz and Montez filed a claim that the ship and the slaves were their rightful property. The Spanish government, acting through the Connecticut district attorney, claimed the ship and its slaves as Spanish property. Finally, the liberated slaves claimed that they were not property at all and that therefore none of these suits had authority over them.

The slaves were supported in their position by the British government, which had by this point taken the lead in opposing slavery, signing treaties with various countries to ban the international slave trade, which the United States did in 1808. As a result, the issues at play in the Amistad case were intimately connected to international law. Since Spain had not outlawed slavery, and since the US had a treaty with Spain (Pinckney’s Treaty) that required the return of Spanish property to its rightful owners, the question was whether the liberated slaves counted as property or people.

Just as important were questions of Admiralty Law (or Maritime Law), which deals with matters relating to maritime commerce, crimes at sea, and the like. The chief issue here was Gedney’s decision to take the Amistad to Connecticut instead of the closest harbor, which was in New York. Gedney’s claims for salvage rights over the liberated slaves would not have been admissible in New York, which was a free state rather than a slave state. So a key question was whether the Amistad had been found in New York waters or international waters.

Fortunately for the slaves, their case was taken up by Lewis Tappan, a Christian abolitionist from New York. He put together the legal team, led by Roger Sherman Baldwin, that represented the slaves, worked to improve their living conditions while they were in captivity, attended the trial on a daily basis and wrote newspaper reports on it for an abolitionist newspaper, and arranged to have the slaves tutored in English. After their release, he worked to raise money to return them to Africa.

Roger Baldwin

Roger Baldwin

The case made its way through three courts. It was initially heard in the Connecticut Circuit Court under Judge Smith Thompson where the charge was mutiny and murder. Thompson ruled that the court lacked jurisdiction because the acts in question had happened outside American waters on a Spanish ship. The case was simultaneously heard in District Court under Judge Andrew Judson (not Juttson, as the film spells it) to address the issues of Admiralty Law. The chief issue here was initially the question of salvage, which Judson was skeptical of, doubting that the liberated slaves could be regarded as property.

Despite the fact that the central issue was whether the case should be heard in New York or Connecticut, Baldwin made the origins of the liberated slaves an important element of the proceedings, even though it was readily conceded by almost everyone that the slaves were Africans and not Cubans. The centerpiece of this was the testimony of Joseph Cinqué, a leader of the liberated slaves, who told the story of his capture in Africa, his journey across the Atlantic, his purchase in the Cuban slave market, and his role in the mutiny. After that, Gedney’s lawyer dropped his claim for salvage rights over the slaves, saying that his client had only ever wanted salvage rights over the ship and its non-living cargo.

Judson ruled that Gedney and his crew had taken possession of the Amistad on the high seas, not in New York waters, and so Admiralty Law was relevant. Gedney was therefore entitled to 1/3 of the appraised value of the ship and its non-human cargo. The slaves, he ruled, were born free and therefore had been unlawfully enslaved in violation of a treaty that prohibited the Spanish from importing slaves, and ordered the Executive Branch to take possession of the liberated slaves until their return to Africa could be arranged.

The Van Buren administration decided to appeal the case to the Circuit Court, because the matter had begun to rile up the southern states and Van Buren was hoping to be re-elected. Rather than hearing lengthy arguments that he realized would result in an appeal regardless of which way he ruled, Judge Thompson affirmed Judson’s ruling and sent the case to the Supreme Court because it involved two major international powers and significant issues of American law.

Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States

Martin Van Buren, 8th President of the United States

When the case got to the Supreme Court, the US Attorney General, Henry Gilpin, argued that the Amistad’s records showed the slaves were Spanish property and that therefore the courts had no right to reject the documents’ validity. Therefore, the slaves must be turned over to the Spanish. It was a weak argument, but Gilpin spent two hours making it. Baldwin spent the next four hours repeating the same arguments he had already made; he added that the Spanish had failed to appeal Judson’s liberation of the slaves, and so were arguing the wrong issue.

Former President John Quincy Adams then delivered an 8-hour speech that took up the following two days. The centerpiece of his argument was an attack on the powers of the Executive. He argued that if the President had the power to return the liberated slaves to Havana, the President would also have the power to order American citizens sent to other countries to stand trial. He also argued that Pinckney’s Treaty did not cover the return of people, only property. He also invoked the Declaration of Independence and its statement that all men have an inalienable right to life and liberty.

John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States

John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States

Justice Joseph Story issued the Court’s ruling, which was that the Africans were unlawfully kidnapped and therefore entitled to their freedom. It rejected Gilpin’s argument that the Court had no right to rule over the legitimacy of the documents in the case, since the documents were elements of a fraud. Gedney was entitled to salvage rights. When the Amistad came into American waters, it was under the possession of the liberated slaves, and was therefore not Spanish property, so no treaty required its return to Spain.

As you can see from this very long summary (assuming you haven’t given up and gone somewhere else by now), the Amistad case was an extremely complex one that ranged across a variety of issues (and let me admit here, I’m certainly no expert on legal history; I relied heavily on a couple of good summaries of the case, and may well have made a few mistakes on the legal details). But the issues being debated in the case were not primarily the legitimacy of slavery as a legal institution in the United States; rather the chief issues were various international treaties, Admiralty Law, and ultimately the power of the Executive branch.

Spielberg’s Version of the Amistad Story

The Amistad case has long been acknowledged by historians as an important case in the history of American slavery. It has not, however, always been well-known to the American public, having been overshadowed in the public consciousness by the later Dred Scott case since the latter case was far more important for domestic law. Debbie Allen, the well-known black actress, director, and producer, learned about the Amistad case from a historical novel by William A. Owens, Slave Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad (1953, republished in 1968 under the title Black Mutiny), which she optioned for a film. She persuaded Steven Spielberg to make what he eventually called his “most important movie”. The subject is certainly worthy of a film, but it unfortunately didn’t get the film treatment it deserved.

Slave Mutiny, the book that inspired the film

Slave Mutiny, the book that inspired the film

The chief problem with adapting the Amistad case to film is obviously that American audiences were unlikely to go to a movie about the legal complexities of international treaties and Admiralty Law. So, in typical Hollywood fashion, a decision was taken to focus instead on an uplifting story of American freedom that would affirm viewers’ notions that America was a country of liberty and equality where the court system was ultimately opposed to slavery. Getting the Amistad case to speak to those ideas would require considerable torture of the facts.

Since law was so critically important to the case, Spielberg and screenwriter David Franzoni (one of the screenwriters on Gladiator) decided to fall back on cinematic conventions of trial movies, so they made the film into a story about the lawyer, Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) , and his client, Joseph Cinqué (whose African name was Sangbe Pieh, played by Djimon Hounsou). These characters were given strong story arcs that focus in Baldwin’s case on his journey from thinking about the slaves as property to thinking about the slaves as human beings and in Cinqué’s case on his journey from anger and despair to discovering the beauty and promise of American justice.

McConaughey as Baldwin and Hounsou as Cinqué

McConaughey as Baldwin and Hounsou as Cinqué

John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) undergoes a less central but still important arc in which he moves from not caring about abolitionism to being a passionate proponent of it, thanks to his meetings with Cinqué. In fact, it wasn’t necessary for him to be persuaded to take the case; Adams volunteered to represent the Africans.

This is an uplifting story that has little basis in fact. Far from being a poor struggling lawyer who has to chase after the case as the film seems to present him, Roger Sherman Baldwin was the grandson of one of the Founding Fathers and a highly respected lawyer who was also a member of the Connecticut legislature and a committed abolitionist. He was elected Governor of Connecticut just three years after the Amistad case. Nor did Baldwin approach Lewis Tappan about hiring him as a lawyer; Tappan recruited Baldwin because of his solid credentials as an abolitionist and the fact that he was prominent politician of Connecticut.

I’ll talk about the film’s treatment of Cinqué in a later post, because there’s a lot to say about it, but here I’ll just say that there’s no evidence that Cinqué went through a period of angry refusal to co-operate with Baldwin. That element of the story is entirely Hollywood’s trope of the hero who goes through a period of self-doubt before finding his confidence. That part of his story line meshes rather poorly with the film’s treatment of him as a ‘Magical Negro’ who helps white people become better human beings by being inspiring.

To give Baldwin his fictitious character arc, the film had to largely sideline Lewis Tappan, who in reality was central to the entire effort on behalf of the slaves. After having a couple meetings with Baldwin and the fictitious black abolitionist Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), Tappan essentially vanishes from the film, apart from watching some of the courtroom proceedings. Replacing Tappan, who was in many ways the driving force for the case, with the fictitious Joadson is a serious disservice to Tappan.

The Joadson character is a particular problem. Joadson has neither back story (other than a few hints that he was a former slave) and no motive for being an abolitionist apart from the presumed motive that a black man would obviously care about the legal rights of blacks. Freeman is given no real character development and, apart from one scene where he helps Baldwin search the Amistad for evidence, has very little to actually do except occasionally talk to Adams. The character seems to have been added to increase black audience interest, since in 1997, Freeman was already a solidly established actor while Hounsou, playing the other major black character, was a relative unknown at the time. It’s unfortunate that a film that purports to be about the humanity of blacks resorted to this sort of tokenism in casting Freeman as a made-up person.

Freeman as Joadson

Freeman as Joadson


The Legal Elements

Despite the character arcs that Franzoni made up, the film is still at its heart a courtroom drama. But the case was far too complex, and turned on legal issues that were unlikely to captivate American audiences, so the legal details required considerable massaging. As I noted, the main legal issues in the actual case were the question of where the Amistad was taken by Gedney and whether various treaties applied. The film shifts the issue considerably, to the question of whether the slaves were African or Cuban in origin.

That choice is not an unreasonable one. It focuses the audience’s attention on the easy-to-understand issue of whether the liberated slaves were legally or illegally enslaved, and allows the central issue of the film to be the well-loved issue of ‘freedom’, in this case understood as literal freedom from slavery. It allowed Spielberg to use chains as a recurring symbol of the issue weighing on Cinqué, so that after the Supreme Court decision, Cinqué’s handcuffs can be removed right there in the courtroom as a symbol of his triumph, despite being entirely invented since Cinqué was not present at the Supreme Court portion of the case. This choice also allows the film to get away from the much thornier issue of where Gedney found the ship.

But this choice does distort the case considerably. There seems to have been relatively little real debate in the courtroom over whether the slaves came from Africa or Cuba, despite Baldwin’s emphasis on this issue in the trial. Ruiz and Montez said they were Cuban slaves, but witnesses were presented that Ruiz had admitted they were African. A Yale linguist testified that the slaves spoke Mende, and two interpreters were found so that the slaves could provide their own testimony. (The film actually gets almost right the way the translators were found. The linguist learned to count to ten in Mende and then walked around the docks counting loudly until someone recognized what he was doing and approached him. But it wasn’t Joadson and Baldwin who did that.) But Cinqué actually did tell his harrowing story of enslavement in court, so the film is not just shoehorning that in for drama.

More problematically, if the main issue is where the slaves came from, it means that by Hollywood convention, there needs to be a stock scene in which the lawyer personally searches for evidence to prove his case. We’ve seen a scene like this in just about every courtroom drama ever filmed, and in this case it takes the form of Baldwin and Joadson searching the Amistad. Joadson finds a lion’s tooth, which allows the film to introduce what is supposed to be an inspirational story about how Cinqué killed a lion in Africa. The film later keeps returning to the metaphor of ‘slaying the lion’ (slavery, in case you needed to be hit over the head with it, which the film thinks you do) as a way to show how inspiring Cinqué is, but it all feels very contrived and it is entirely made-up.

On-board the Amistad, Joadson panics when confronted with the sight of slave chains, drops his lantern, and has to be helped by Baldwin, who then conveniently discovers the log-book of the Tecora, the slave ship that brought the Africans to Cuba. It’s used to prove that the liberated slaves were actually Africans, although it’s never explained why the Tecora’s log-book was on the Amistad in the first place.

The film also significantly changes the details of the courts and the judges involved. As I noted, the case was first brought into the Circuit Court under Judge Thompson, but was heard simultaneously in the District Court by Judge Judson as a bench trial (in which there is no jury, only a judge making a ruling). After Judson’s ruling, it briefly returned to Thompson and then was sent to the Supreme Court after Van Buren ordered an appeal.

In the film the case starts under Judge Judson, apparently in the District Court. But Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) somehow contrives to have the jury and the judge dismissed and replaced by a bench trial in front of a young ambitious judge who will do what Van Buren wants, which is to find against the Africans so he can be re-elected. But Cinqué’s cause is so obviously righteous that the judge has a crisis of conscience and does the right thing and frees the Africans. He also rules against Gedney. Then the case gets appealed straight to the Supreme Court.

The removal of the Circuit Court from the storyline makes sense; it smoothes out a complex detail that would only confuse the viewers. But the fabrication of Van Buren manipulating the court system is both unfair to Van Buren and rather nonsensical. It’s not explained how Van Buren does this, and since the film has decided to remove Adams’ attack on the power of the Presidency, it doesn’t really go anywhere in terms of the narrative arc. All it does is introduce some extra tension that could more easily have been introduced by making Judson less sympathetic to the case. It also turns Van Buren into a villain for the film, but he’s a villain who is given very little to do other than fret about the how the South will react to the case. From a script perspective, it just feels clumsy.

As they prepare for the Supreme Court trial, Cinqué suddenly develops a keen legal mind, pestering Adams with legal questions about Admiralty Law and international treaties. This is just silly, because throughout the rest of the film, Cinqué’s understanding of the American system is limited to referring to Adams as a ‘chief’ and not understanding how he can be a former chief.

At the Supreme Court level, Adams delivers a fairly brief speech (compared to the actual 8 hour oration) that acts as the film’s climax. Instead of arguing against the powers of the Executive branch, he makes an impassioned plea for liberty that, apart from a mention of the Declaration of Independence, bears no resemblance to Adams’ actual speech because it mostly turns on what a hero Cinqué is. He declares liberty to be the natural state of mankind. The film also tries to heighten the tension by claiming that 7 out of the 9 Supreme Court justices were southerners; that’s false; while I didn’t look up all the justices in 1841, at least four of them were northerners. (On a side note, the film does have a nifty piece of casting here; Justice Story is played by actual Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun.)

(Ignore the opening and jump to about 1:45)

As a result of these changes, the audience is led to think that the Amistad case basically put the whole system of American slavery on trial, and it essentially provoked the American Civil War two decades later. In fact the closing scenes of the film show the Civil War and the epilogue text mentions it. In reality, the case was about international law and the international slave trade and while its outcome certainly didn’t please supporters of slavery, it had no direct impact on American slavery. In fact, in 1841, American slaves traveling on the Creole mutinied and escaped to the Bahamas; the American government, despite the Amistad precedent, badgered the British government into paying compensation for the slaves. So rather than being sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, the American courts were generally hostile to it.


Why is the Amistad Case Important?

The film situates the Amistad case as a cause of the Civil War. Several characters mention how the southern states are ready to fight over the issue. That’s a considerable exaggeration. The Civil War wouldn’t come for another twenty years. It played a role in raising tensions over slavery, but the states were a long way from being willing to fight militarily over the issue.

Nor did the case lead to the political defeat of Martin Van Buren in his bid for a second term as president as the film says. The case started in 1839, but it didn’t reach the Supreme Court until 1841, by which time Van Buren had already been defeated by William Henry Harrison. Harrison died less than two months into his term, and was succeeded by his vice president, John Tyler, a pro-slavery southerner who refused to assist in returning the Africans to Sierra Leone.

Nor did it lead to the destruction of the Lomboko Slave Fortress in Sierra Leone. The film shows the British navy liberating the slaves and blowing down the walls of the fortress with a naval bombardment. But the Lomboko fortress was destroyed in 1840, before the Supreme Court had rendered its verdict. It’s hard to see how the case would have influenced the British to do this, since the British were already very active in opposing the slave trade.

So if the Amistad case didn’t accomplish any of the things the film attributes to it, why is the case important? What does it matter in the larger scope of history?

The Amistad case was a turning point in the abolitionist movement. Prior to 1839, abolitionists had sought to overthrow the American slave system primarily through persuasion. They had emphasized the immorality of slavery and sought to win converts to their cause that way. The House of Representatives had imposed a gag rule that automatically tabled all petitions against slavery, so that it was impossible for the issue to be addressed legislatively. What Tappan did in 1839 was open a new front in the struggle; he went to the courts and began to fight slavery legally. In that regard, the Amistad case was a significant victory for the abolitionists, even though it did not set a very strong legal precedent as far as domestic law was concerned. The case also helped rally support for abolitionism because Cinqué’s testimony dramatically illustrated the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, and Van Buren’s efforts to get the Judson’s ruling overturned seemed to suggest that the Federal government was complicit in the slave system. The case is also important in the history of international law and American diplomacy; it resolved questions about the treaties the US had with Spain.

About the only thing the film gets right about the impact of the case is that it ultimately led to the return of the Africans to Sierra Leone, but that gets to issues of how the film depicts the liberated slaves, and that’s something I’ll save for next time.

Want to Know More?

Amistadis available in different formats on Amazon. As I noted, it’s based on William Owens’ Slave Mutiny, later reprinted as Black Mutiny: Revolt on the Schooner Amistad.

Unless you’re a legal scholar, I suspect that the legal issues are going to make dry reading, but Amistad: The Federal Courts and the Challenge to Slaveryis a short, cheap Kindle book that surveys the whole case and all the people involved.