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Although the importation of Africans to the United States was officially outlawed in 1808, the slave trade was still going on in the Caribbean and South America for many years.

In April 1839, some Portuguese men abducted a group of Africans, and shipped them to Havana, Cuba. In June of that same year the Africans were purchased by two Spanish men and put about ship Amistad for a voyage to Principe. A revolt occurred onboard the ship and the Africans seized the ship. In the process, two of the crew were killed. The Africans ordered the remaining crew to steer the ship towards the coast of Africa but they altered their course and headed towards the American shore. The Amistad was recaptured by the brig, Washington, and the slaves were brought to court.

Abolitionists used this situation to put forth their case against slavery in the United States. The landmark decision put forth in 1841, ruled that the defendants were kidnapped and transported illegally and henceforth should go free. For the first time, the Supreme Court ruled that people of color had the same rights as everyone else and that the courts must enforce them.