Amistad: How it Began

Oil painting of the Amistad
Oil painting of the Amistad off the coast of Long Island.

New Haven Museum

The Amistad’s story began in 1839 when slave hunters captured large numbers of native Africans near Mendeland in present-day Sierre Leone. These captives were sent to Havana, Cuba to be sold into slavery. Two Spanish plantation owners, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez, bought 53 African captives in Havana. They then began preparations to transport the captives on the schooner La Amistad to their plantations near Porto Principe in Cuba.

Three days into the trek a 25-year old Mendi man, Sengbe Pieh (also known as Joseph Cinque), was able to unshackle himself and the others. They took control of the schooner by killing the captain and the cook, and ordered Ruiz and Montez to sail east to the rising sun - towards Africa. Rather than comply, Ruiz and Montez secretly changed course at night. They sailed the schooner around the Caribbean and eventually up the East Coast of the United States.

On August 24, 1839, the U.S. brig Washington seized the vessel off of Montauk Point in Long Island, New York. Pieh and his companions escaped the ship, but were caught onshore by private citizens. Pieh and the others were imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut on charges of murder and piracy. They were further claimed as salvage property by the men who captured them.

Then-President Martin Van Buren received a request from Spain that the African captives be returned to Cuba under international treaty. If Van Buren complied he could be seen as interfering with the judicial process and the Constitutional separation of powers. If he let the judicial process continue he risked a court decision that would free the captives. This decision would anger Southern, pro-slavery voters that Van Buren relied on for an upcoming election.

The judicial process moved forward.

At the heart of the battle was the legality of slavery in both Spain and the United States. At the time slavery and the slave trade was legal in Spain if those enslaved were Spanish or were from Spanish territories. Sengbe Pieh and the other captives were bought and sold in Cuba, which was then a Spanish territory. However, they were kidnapped from a non-Spanish territory in Africa. The importation of enslaved Africans was made illegal in the United States in 1807.

What followed would set off a 2 year-long legal battle that would reach the Supreme Court. Questions around the case centered on citizenship. Were the African captives Spanish citizens? If so, they would return to Ruiz and Montez in Cuba and be enslaved. Or were they kidnapped illegally from Africa? If so they would return to Africa as free men.

Learn more about how the legal battle unfolded →

This is just one story associated with the Amistad event. To learn more, please visit the main Stories page of this travel itinerary.


“John Quincy Adams and the Amistad Event” pamphlet produced by Adams National Historical Park.

Last updated: August 2, 2017