The ragged, battered black hulled schooner La Amistad was first encountered off the coast of Montauk Point, Long Island, New York, on August 26, 1839, by the surveying brig USS Washington. On board were the surviving 39 adult African males, 4 children, the Creole cook, and two bound Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez. The Mendians were arrested and the vessel was towed across the Thames River to New London, anchored offshore on August 27th. Dwight P. Janes, a New London grocer and outspoken abolitionist, boarded the captured schooner soon after it arrived in port; quickly determined that the "slaves" on board were not Spanish property but recent captives from Africa; and wrote abolitionist leader, Arthur Leavitt, asking him to obtain their freedom. Janes saw that the Africans could be freed in accordance with U.S. law and that their case would enlist sympathy for the abolitionist cause. If he had not made the firm, immediate demands for their release, the captives would have been handed back to their "owners" and never freed.
U.S. Federal district court judge Andrew T. Judson held an inquiry on board the Washington, and after hearing testimony decided to forward the case to a grand jury at the next session of the U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford, Connecticut. The Mendians were kept aboard the Amistad the next six days. In early September, they were transferred to an unnamed ship and transported to the New Haven Jail. At that point, the Amistad was moored at the former Lawrence Wharf (later rebuilt and now known as the Amistad Wharf), near the U.S. Customhouse, until it was sold 14 months later. The cargo of the Amistad was auctioned in the Customhouse on October 10, 1840, 14 months after the schooner's arrival.
The New London Customhouse was designed and built under the instructions of America's first Federal architect, Robert Mills, in 1833. Stately and stalwart, this Greek Revival style building fulfilled Andrew Jackson's demand for public buildings of that time to demonstrate democracy, strength, endurance and beauty to match the national spirit, faith and belief that the young Nation, as the United States, would last forever.
As the Amistad trial was a Federal case, and the Customhouse was the Federal building in New London, it may likely have been the scene of more Amistad events than have been recorded. The Customhouse currently displays documents of the ship's experience in New London, a scale model of the schooner Amistad, and official measurements, manifests and sales records of the ship and its cargo. Also displayed is a portrait of Admiral Lawyer Jirah Isham who attended all the trials and was responsible for the detention of the ship on the Thames River. A bronze plaque with the likeness of Cinque is attached to the exterior of the building to memorialize the Amistad Incident and the role New London played as the first step toward freedom on American shores for the Mende-Africans.
The New London Customhouse is located at 150 Bank St. in New London. It is now the Museum of American Maritime History, open May-December, Tuesday-Sunday from 1:00pm to 5:00pm, and by appointment January-April. There is a fee for admission. Call 860-447-2501 for further information
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