Last updated: September 14, 2017
The Amistad Committee (the Committee) was founded in 1839 by Lewis Tappan, Simeon Joceyln, and Joshua Leavitt. They organized the legal defense and raised money for the Mende Africans during their imprisonment.
Lewis Tappan was a fervent abolitionist and leader of the Amistad Committee. He was living in New York when he was contacted by a Connecticut abolitionist aware of the Amistad captives. Tappan was eager to intervene on behalf of the Mende, and he saw them and their story as a means to advance the abolitionist cause.
Tappan traveled to New Haven on September 6 to meet the Mende and investigate the legality under which they were held in Cuba. Roger Baldwin, Seth Staple, and Theodore Sedgwick were secured as legal counsel by the Committee. The legal team had determined that a successful defense hinged on a first-hand account of the Africans’ experience, and so they went about finding a Mende interpreter. After a few semi-successful attempts, they located James Covey.
Covey was Mende who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child. He was later found and captured by British soldiers and freed. He had learned to speak English, joined the British Navy, and he was in New York at the time of the Amistad.
The trial progressed through the District Court, then Circuit Court, and then finally to the Supreme Court. The Committee recognized the Supreme Court trial would require more experienced counsel, and they approached John Quincy Adams, who agreed to argue the case. Adams used the defense developed by Baldwin early in the case. On March 9, 1841 Justice Story delivered the court decision that the Mende were free men who had been illegally kidnapped from Africa. They were to return to Africa as soon as possible.
After the trial the Mende lived, learned, and worshiped with local members of the Committee while they raised money for the return voyage to Africa. By November 1841 the Committee had raised enough money for the voyage. On November 27 the Mende and a few members of the Committee boarded the Gentleman. They arrived in Sierra Leone in January, and the Committee members founded the Mende Mission to expand Christianity in Africa.
This is just one of many stories associated with the Amistad event. To learn more about others involved, please access the main People page of this itinerary.
The Amistad Revolt: A Historical Legacy of Sierra Leone and the United States.