Amistad’s amazing story rooted in Valley history
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
This article was first published in the September edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication — this Today Online version has been updated slightly
By Nishant Gopalachar — Special to Today Magazine
• Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert contributed to this story
The Farmington Historical Society features the remarkable case of the Amistad. From March to November 1841, Farmington was the temporary home for the African captives — mostly Mendi from current-day Sierra Leone — who commandeered the slave ship Amistad.
While they were in Farmington, “abolitionists provided housing, schooling and the fundraising necessary for the Mendis’ passage back to their homeland,” per the FHS website.
In February 1839, Portuguese slave hunters kidnapped free Africans in eastern Africa and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a major hub for the slave trade — “this abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence,” according to the U.S. National Archives website.
In Havana, “the Africans were classified as native Cuban slaves and purchased at auction by two Spaniards, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez,” per the Law.Cornell.edu website.
These two plantation owners originally planned to move the African men to a different part of Cuba, so they were chained and placed on the cargo schooner Amistad — Spanish for “Friendship” — for the coastal voyage.
Three days into this journey, Sengbe Pieh — a 25-year-old known as “Cinque” to his captors — broke out of his chains and released the other captives. The African men took the ship, and in the ensuing struggle they killed most of the Amistad’s crew, including the captain. Ruiz and Montez survived.
Using the sun to navigate by day, the Africans steered the ship east for a return trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa. But at night the two Spaniards changed course unbeknownst and tried to return to Cuba, per the Law.Cornell.edu site. The zig-zag journey continued for multiple months, and Ruiz and Montez ultimately steered the ship north.
The Amistad was captured by the U.S. brig Washington near the coast of New York's Long Island on Aug. 24, 1839 — and the African men were imprisoned and charged with murder.
The U.S. government seized the ship, and on Aug. 29 the Amistad was brought to New London, CT.
Local abolitionists hired three lawyers — Roger S. Baldwin of New Haven and Seth Staples and Theodore Sedgwick of New York — to defend the African men.
According to court documents as reported by the National Archives, their defense was based on the fact that the Africans were “born free, and ever since have been and still of right are and ought to be free and not slaves.”
The African men faced trials in Hartford and Washington, D.C., that lasted 18 months, per the Farmington Historical Society.
In February 1841, lawyer and former President John Quincy Adams began to argue the Amistad case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Joseph Story, the Supreme Court's senior associate justice, wrote the court’s decision — affirming ... “the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice"
While enduring “great cruelty and oppression” aboard the Amistad, they were “incited by the love of liberty natural to all men” to forcibly take the ship and seek asylum.
On March 9, 1841, the high court rendered its decision, declaring the Africans to be free people who had been kidnapped illegally and granting them permission to return to their homeland. Nine days later, they arrived in Farmington.
Joseph Story, the Supreme Court's senior associate justice, wrote the court’s decision — affirming the Africans’ right to resist unlawful slavery and noting that it is “the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice.” +
• Farmington Historical Society website — click here
• This story first appeared in the September 2021 edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication