Summary of the Amistad Case
Summary of the Amistad Case

The Spanish schooner Amisted, 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 to 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, under such circumstances as made it the duty of the 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 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.

Summary of Decision

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.

The ninth article of the treaty provides, that all ships and merchandise, which shall be rescued out of the hands of any pirates and robbers, on the high seas, which shall be brought into some port of either state, shall be delivered to the officers of the port in order to be taken care of, and "restored entire to the proprietary, as soon as due and sufficient proof shall be made concerning the property thereof." To bring the case of the Amistad within this article, it is essential to establish: First, that the negroes, under all the circumstances, fall within the description of merchandise, in the sense of the treaty. Secondly, That there has been a rescue of them on the high seas, out of the hands of pirates and robbers. Thirdly, That Ruiz and Montez are the true proprietors of the negroes, and have established their title by competent proofs. If those negroes were, at the time, lawfully held as slaves under the laws of Spain, and recognised by those laws as property capable of being bought and sold, no reason is seen why this may not be deemed, within the intent of the treaty, to be included under the denomination of merchandise, and ought, as such, to be restored to the claimants; for upon that point the laws of Spain would seem to furnish the proper rule of interpretation. But, admitting that to be the construction of the treaty, it is clear in the opinion of the Court, that neither of the other essential facts and requisites has been established by proof and the onus probandi of both lies upon the claimants, to give rise to the casus foederis.

The negroes were never the lawful slaves of Ruiz, or Montez, or of any other Spanish subject. They are natives of Africa; and were kidnapped there, and were unlawfully transported to Cuba, in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain, and of the most solemn edicts and declarations of that government.

By the laws, treaties, and edicts of Spain, the African slave trade is utterly abolished; the dealing in that trade is deemed a heinous crime; and the negroes thereby introduced into the dominions of Spain, are declared to be free.

There is no pretence to say the negroes of the Amisted are "pirates" and "robbers;" as they were kidnapped Africans, who, by the laws of Spain itself were entitled to their freedom.

Although public documents of the government accompanying property found on board of the private ships of a foreign nation, are to be deemed prima facie evidence of the facts which they state, yet they are always open to be impugned for fraud; and whether that fraud be in the original obtaining of those documents, or in the subsequent fraudulent and illegal use of them, where once it is satisfactorily established, it over-throws all their sanctity, and destroys them as proof.

Fraud will vitiate any, even the most solemn transactions; and any asserted title founded upon it, is utterly void.

The language of the treaty with Spain of 1795, requires the proprietor "to make due and sufficient proof" of his property; and that proof cannot be deemed either due or sufficient, which is stained with fraud.

Nothing is more clear in the laws of nations as an established rule to regulate their rights and duties, and intercourse, than the doctrine that the ship's papers are prima facie evidence of what they state; and that if they are shown to be fraudulent, they are not to be held proof of any valid title whatever.This rule is applied in prize cases; and is just as applicable to the transactions of civil intercourse between nations in times of peace.

In the solemn treaties between nations it never can be presumed that either state intends to provide the means of perpetrating or protecting frauds; but all the provisions are to be construed as intended to be applied to bona fide transactions.

The seventeenth article of the treaty with Spain which provides for certain passports and certificates as evidence of property on board of the ships of both states, is, in its terms, applicable only to cases where either of the parties is engaged in war. This article required a certain form of passport to be agreed upon by the parties and annexed to the treaty. It never was annexed: and, therefore, in the case of The Amiable Isabella, 6 Wheaton, 1, it is held inoperative.

Supposing the African negroes on board the Amisted not to be slaves, but kidnapped, and free negroes, the treaty with Spain cannot be obligatory upon them; and the United States are bound to respect their rights, as much as those of Spanish subjects. The conflict of rights between the parties, under such circumstances, becomes positive and inevitable, and must be decided upon the invariable principles of justice and international law.

The treaty with Spain never could have been intended to take away the equal rights of all foreigners who should assert their claims to equal justice before the Courts of the United States; or to deprive such foreigners of the protection given to them by other treaties, or by the general laws of nations.

There is no ground to assert that the case of the negroes who were on board of the Amistad comes within the provisions of the act of Congress of 1799, or of any other of the prohibitory slave-trade acts. These negroes were never taken from Africa, or brought to the United States in contravention of these acts. When the Amistad arrived she was in possession of the negroes, asserting their freedom; and in no sense could possibly intend to import themselves into the United States as slaves, or for sale as slaves.

The carrying of the Amistad and her cargo into Connecticut by Lieutenant Gedney, and the officers and crew of the Washington, was a highly meritorious and useful service to the proprietors of the ship and cargo, and such, as by the general principles of the maritime law, is always deemed a just foundation for salvage. The rate allowed by the Court, (one-third,) does not seem beyond the exercise of a sound discretion, under the very peculiar and embarrassing circumstances of the case.