United States v. The Amistad,
40 U.S. 518 (1841)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 15 Pet. 518 518 (1841)

United States v. The Amistad

40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 518




The Spanish schooner Amistad, on the 27th day of June, 1839, cleared out from Havana, in Cuba, for Puerto Principe, in the same island, having on board Captain Ferrer, and Ruiz and Montez, Spanish subjects. Captain Ferrer had on board Antonio, a slave; Ruiz had forty-nine negroes; Montez had four negroes, which were claimed by them as slaves, and stated to be their property in passports or documents signed by the Governor General of Cuba. In fact, these African negroes had been, a very short time before they were put on board the Amistad, brought into Cuba by Spanish slave traders in direct contravention of the treaties between Spain and Great Britain and in violation of the laws of Spain. On the voyage of the Amistad, the negroes rose, killed the captain, and took possession of the vessel. They spared the lives of Ruiz and Montez on condition that they would aid in steering the Amistad for the coast of Africa, or to some place where negro slavery was not permitted by the laws of the country. Ruiz and Montez deceived the negroes, who were totally ignorant of navigation, and steered the Amistad for the United States, and she arrived off Long Island, in the state of New York, on the 26th of August, and anchored within half a mile of the shore. Some of the negroes went on shore to procure supplies of water and provisions, and the vessel was then discovered by the United States brig Washington. Lieutenant Gedney, commanding the Washington, assisted by his officers and crew, took possession of the Amistad, and of the negroes on shore and in the vessel, brought them into the District of Connecticut, and there libelled the vessel, the cargo, and the negroes for salvage. Libels for salvage were also presented in the District Court of the United States for the District of Connecticut by persons who had aided, as they alleged, in capturing the negroes on shore on Long Island, and contributed to the vessel, cargo, and negroes being taken into possession by the brig Washington. Ruiz and Montez filed claims to the negroes as their slaves, and prayed that they, and parts of the cargo of the Amistad, might be delivered to them, or to the representatives of the crown of Spain. The attorney of the District of Connecticut filed an information stating that the Minister of Spain had claimed of the government of the United States that the vessel, cargo, and slaves should be restored, under the provisions of the treaty between the United States and Spain, the same having arrived within the limits and jurisdiction of the United States, and had been taken possession of by a public armed vessel of the United States, under such circumstances as made it the duty of the United States to cause them to be restored to the true owners thereof. The information asked that the Court would make such order as would enable the United States to comply with the treaty, or, if it should appear that the negroes had been �40 U.S. 519� brought from Africa in violation of the laws of the United States, that the Court would make an order for the removal of the negroes to Africa according to the laws of the United States. A claim for Antonio was filed by the Spanish consul on behalf of the representatives of Captain Ferrer, and claims are also filed by merchants of Cuba for parts of the cargo of the vessel, denying salvage and asserting their right to have the same delivered to them under the treaty. The negroes, Antonio excepted, filed an answer denying that they were slaves, or the property of Ruiz or Montez, and denying the right of the Court, under the Constitution and laws of the United States, to exercise any jurisdiction over their persons. They asserted that they were native free-born Africans, and ought of right to be free; that they had been, in April, 1839, kidnapped in Africa, and had been carried in a vessel engaged in the slave trade from the coast of Africa to Cuba for the purpose of being sold, and that Ruiz and Montez, knowing these facts, had purchased them, put them on board the Amistad, intending to carry them to be held as slaves for life, to another part of Cuba, and that, on the voyage, they rose on the master, took possession of the vessel, and were intending to proceed to Africa or to some free state, when they were taken possession of by the United States armed vessel, the Washington. After evidence had been given by the parties, and all the documents of the vessel and cargo, with the alleged passports and the clearance from Havana, had been produced, the District Court made a decree by which all claims to salvage of the negroes were rejected and salvage amounting to one-third of the vessel and cargo was allowed to Lieutenant Gedney and the officers and crew of the Washington. The claim of the representatives of Captain Ferrer to Antonio was allowed; the claims of Ruiz and Montez, being included in the claim of the Spanish minister, and of the minister of Spain, to the negroes as slaves, or to have them delivered to the Spanish minister, under the treaty, to be sent to Cuba, were rejected, and the Court decreed that the negroes should be delivered to the President of the United States, to be sent to Africa pursuant to the act of Congress of 3d March, 1819. From this decree the District Attorney of the United States appealed to the Circuit Court except so far as the same related to Antonio. The owners of the cargo of the Amistad also appealed from that part of the decree which allowed salvage on their goods. Ruiz or Montez did not appeal, nor did the representatives of the owner of the Amistad. The Circuit Court of Connecticut, by a pro forma decree, affirmed the decree of the District Court, reserving the question of salvage on the merchandise on board the Amistad. The United States appealed from this decree. The decree of the Circuit Court was affirmed, saving that part of the same which directed the negroes to be delivered to the President of the United States to be sent to Africa, which was reversed, and the negroes were declared to be free.

The sixth article of the treaty with Spain of 1795, continued in full force in this particular by the treaty ratified in 1821, seems to have had principally in view cases where the property of the subjects of either state, had been taken possession of within the territorial jurisdiction of the other during war. The eighth article provides for cases where the shipping of the inhabitants of either state are forced, through stress of weather, pursuit of pirates, or enemies, or any other urgent necessity, to seek shelter in the ports of the other. There may well be some doubts entertained whether the case of the Amistad, in its actual circumstances, falls within the purview of this article.

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