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The Amistad revolt

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 at auction 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 schooler 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.

During the day, the ship sailed due east, using the sun to navigate. However, at night Montez and Ruiz would change course, attempting to return to Cuba. The zig-zag journey continued for 63 days.

The ship finally grounded near Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York State. The United States federal government seized the ship and its African occupants -- who under U.S. law were "property" and therefore cargo of the ship. On August 29, 1839, the Amistad was towed into New London, Connecticut.

The government charged the slaves with piracy and murder, and classified them as salvage property. The 53 Africans were sent to prison, pending hearing of their case before the U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut.

The stage was set for an important, controversial, and highly politicized case. Local abolitionist groups rallied around the Africans' cause, organizing a legal defense, hiring a translator for the Africans, and providing material support. Meanwhile, the Spanish government pressured the U.S. President, Martin Van Buren, to return the slaves to Spain without trial.

[Next page: The First Amistad case]