Newspaper Accounts

The following account appeared in the New London Gazette of August 26,1839:

While this vessel was sounding this day between Gardner’s and Montauk Points, a schooner was seen lying in shore off Culloden Point, under circumstances so suspicious as to authorize Lt. Com. Gedney to stand in to see what was her character--seeing a number of people on the beach with carts and horses, and a boat passing to and fro a boat was armed and dispached with an officer to board her.
On coming along side a number of negroes were discovered on her deck, and twenty or thirty more were on the beach--two white men came forward and claimed the protection of the officer. The schooner proved to be the “Amistad,” Capt. Ramonflues, from the Havana bound to Guanaja, Port Principe, with 54 blacks and two passengers on board ; the former, four nights after they were out, rose and murdered the captain and three of the crew ; they then took possession of the vessel with the intention of returning to the coast of Africa. Pedro Montes, passenger, and Jose Rues owner of the slaves and part of the cargo, were only saved to navigate the vessel.
After boxing about for four days in the Bahama Channel the vessel was steered for the Island of St. Andrews, near New Providence ; from thence she went to Green Key, where the blacks laid in a supply of water. After leaving this place the vessel was steered by Pedro Montes for New Providence, the negroes being under the impression that she was steering for the coast of Africa--they would not, however, permit her to enter the port but anchored every night off the coast.
The situation of the two whites was all this time truly deplorable, being treated with the greatest severity, and Pedro Montes, who had charge of the navigation, was suffering from two severe wounds, one in the head and one in the arm, their lives threatened every instant. He was ordered to change the course again for the coast of Africa, the negroes themselves steering by the sun in the day time, while at night he would alter their course so as to bring them back to their original place of destination.--They remained three days off Long Island, to the Eastward of Providence, after which time they were two months on the ocean, sometimes steering to the Eastward, and whenever an occasson [sic] would permit the whites would alter the course to the Northward and Westward, always in hopes of falling in with some vessel of war, or being enabled to run into some port, when they would be relieved from their horrid situation.
Several times they were boarded by vessels; once by an American schooner from Kingston. On these occasions the whites were ordered below, while the negroes communicated and traded with the vessel; the schooner from Kingston supplied them with a demijohn of water, for the moderate sum of one doubloon--this schooner, whose name was not ascertained, finding that the negroes had plenty of money, remained lashed alongside the “Amistad” for twenty-four hours, though they must have been aware that all was not right on board, and probably suspected the character of the vessel--that was on the 18th of the present month; the vessel was steered to the northward and westward, and on the 20th instant, distant from N.Y. 25 miles, the pilot boat No. 3 came alongside and gave the negroes some apples. She was also hailed by No. 4; when the latter boat came near, the negroes armed themselves and would not permit her to board them; they were so exasperated with the two whites for bringing them so much out of their way that they expected every moment to be murdered.
On the 24th they made Montauk Light and steered for it in the hope of running the vessel ashore, but the tide drifted them up the bay and they anchored where they were found by the brig Washington, off Culloden point. The negroes were found in communication with shore, where they laid in a fresh supply of water, and were on the point of sailing again for the coast of Africa. They had a god supply of money with them, some of which it is likely was taken by the people on the beach.--After they were disarmed, and sent on board from the beach, the ringleader jumped overboard with three hundred doubloons about him, the property of the captain, all of which he succeeded in loosing from his person and then permitted himself to be captured. The schooner was taken in tow by the brig and carried into New London.

TUESDAY, 12 o’clock, M.
We have just returned from a visit to the Washington and her prize, which are riding at anchor in the bay, near the fort. On board the former we saw and conversed with the two Spanish gentlemen who were passengers on board the schooner, as well as owners of the negroes and most of the cargo.

One of them, Jose Rues, is very gentlemanly and intelligent young man, and speaks English fluently. He was the owner of most of the slaves and cargo, which he was conveying to his estate on the Island of Cuba.

he other, Pedro Montes, is about fifty years of age, and is the owner of three slaves. He was formerly a ship-master, and has navigated the vessel since her seizure by the blacks. Both of them, as may be naturally supposed are most unfeignedly thankful for their deliverance. Signor Pedro is the most striking instance of complacency and unalloyed delight we ever have seen, and it is not strange, since only yesterday his sentence was pronounced by the chief of the buccaniers, and his death song chanted by the grim crew, who gathered with uplifted sabres around his devoted head, which, as well as his arms, bear the scars of several wounds inflicted at the time of the murder of the ill-fated captain and crew. 

He sat smoking his Havana on the deck, and, to junge [sic] from the martyr-like serenity of his countenance, his emotions are such as rarely stir the heart of man. When Mr. Porter, the prize-master, assured him of his safety, he threw his arms around his neck, while gushing tears coursing down his furrowed cheek, bespoke the overflowing transport of his soul Every now and then he clasps his hands, and with uplifted eyes gives thanks to “the Holy Virgin” who had led him out of all his troubles. 

Senor Rues has given us two letters for his agents. Messrs, Shelton, Brothers & Co., of Boston, and Peter A. Harmony & Co., of New York. It appears that the slaves, the greater portion of whom were his, were very much attached to him, and had determined, after reaching the coast of Africa, to allow him to seek his home what way he could, while his poor companion was to be sacrificed. 

On board the brig we also saw Cingues, the master-spirit and hero of this bloody tragedy, in irons. He is about five feet eight inches in height, 25 or 26 years of age, of erect figure, well built, and very active. He is said to be a match for any two men on board the schooner. His countenance, for a native African, is unusually intelligent, evincing uncommon decision and coolness, with a composure characteristic of true courage and nothing to mark him as a malicious man. He is a negro who would command, in New Orleans, under the hammer, at least $1,500. 

He is said to have killed the captain and crew with his own hand, by cutting their throats. He also has several times attempted to take the life of Senor Montes, and the backs of several poor negroes are scored with the scars of blows inflicted by his lash to keep them in submission. He expects to be executed, but nevertheless manifests a sang froid worthy of a Sto[ne] under similar circumstances. 

With Capt. Gedney, the surgeon of the port, and others, we visited the schooner, which is anchored within musket shot of the Washington, and there we saw such a sight as we never saw before, and never wish to see again. The bottom and sides of this vessel are covered with barnacles and sea-grass, while her rigging and sales [sic] present a scene worthy of the Flying Dutchman, after her fabled cruise. She is a Baltimore built vessel of matchless model for speed, about 120 tons burthen and about six years old. 

On her deck were grouped, amid various goods and arms, the remnant of her Ethiop crew, some decked in the most fantastic manner in the silks and finery pilfered from the cargo while others, in a state of nudity, emaciated to mere skeletons, lay coiled upon the decks. Here could be seen a negro with white pantaloons and the sable shirt which nature gave him, and a planter’s broad-brimmed hat upon his head, with a string of gewgaws around his neck ; and another with a linen cambric shirt, whose bosom was worked by the hand of some dark-eyed daughter of Spain, while his nether proportions were enveloped in a shawl of gauze and Canton crape. Around the windlass were gathered the three little girls, from eight to thirteen years of age, the very images of health and gladness. 

Over the deck were scattered, in the most wanton and disorderly profusion, raisins, vermicelli, bread, rice, silk, and cotton goods. In the cabin and hold were the marks of the same wasteful destruction --Her cargo appears to consist of silks, crapes, calicoes, cotton and fancy goods of various descriptions, glass and hardware, bridles, saddles, holsters, pictures, looking-glasses, books, fruits, olives, and olive oil, and “other things too numerous to mention,” which are now all mixed up in a strange and fantastic medldy [sic].
On the forward hatch we unconsciously rested our hand on a cold object, which we soon discovered to be a naked corpse enveloped in a pall of black bombazine. On removing its folds we beheld the rigid countenance and glazed eye of a poor negro who died last night. His mouth was unclosed, and still wore the ghastly expression of his last struggle. Near by him, like some watching fiend, sat the most horrible creature we ever saw in human shape, an object of terror to the very blacks, who said that he was a cannibal. His teeth projected at almost right angles from his mouth, while his eyes had a most savage and demoniac expression.

We were glad to leave this vessel, as the exhalations from her hold and deck were like anything but “gales wafted over the gardens of Gul.” Capt. Gedney has dispatched an express to the U. S. marshal, at New Haven, while he has made the most humane arrangements for the health and comfort of the prisoners, and the purification of the prize. There are now alive 44 negroes, three of whom are girls ; about 10 have died. They have been at sea 63 days.

The vessel and cargo were worth $40,000 when they let Havana, exclusive of the negroes, which cost from 20 to $30,000. Vessel and cargo were insured in Havana. 

Capt. Gedney, when he first espied the Amistad, was running a line of sounding toward Montauk Point. He had heard nothing of this vessel being on the coast till after his arrival in this port.

As the Amistad sailed along the eastern coast of the United States several pilot boats began running across it. The Columbian Centinel reported this description of the encounter between the Amistad and the pilot boat, Gratitude, as reported by Captain Seaman of the Gratitude:

She spoke the long, low, black schooner twenty-five miles East of Fire Island and about eighteen miles from the land, standing E.N.E. The Gratitude ran within a few yards of her with the intention of putting a pilot aboard. Two or three of the blacks, who appeared to be the ringleaders and kept the others in awe, made signs to the pilot not to come. One had a pistol in one hand and a cutlass in the other, which he flourished over his head to keep the others down. These appeared to be very anxious to receive a pilot and when the eye of the fellow who had the pistol was aft of them, they would beckon the pilot to come aboard. The schooner held a name on her stern which they took to be Almeda. She had a small gilt eaglehead. The latest news from the suspicious vessel is that on Saturday at sunset she was off the end of Long Island, Montauk Point, North by East, twenty miles distant. She was standing east with sail she was able to make.

After the capture of the Amistad by the crew of the Washington, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes wrote a letter addressed to the newspaper subscribers of the New London, Connecticut which was published in local newspapers:

The subscribers, Don Jose Ruiz and Don Pedro Montes, in gratitude for their most unhoped for and most providential rescue from the hands of a ruthless gang of African buccaneers, and an awful death, would take this means of expressing, in some slight degree, their thankfulness and obligations to Lieutenant Commander T.R. Gedney, and the officers and crew of the U.S. surveying brig Washington, for their decision in seizing the Amistad, and their unremitting kindness and hospitality in providing for their comfort on board their vessel, as well as the means they have taken for the protection of their property.

We also must express our indebtedness to that nation whose flag they so worthily bear, with an assurance that this act will be duly appreciated by our most gracious sovereign, Her Majesty the Queen of Spain.

The Hartford Courant published an article expressing the opinion that no legal grounds for action against the Amistad Africans existed:

By the laws of the United States, the African slave trade is declared to be piracy and the persons engaged in it are liable to be punished as pirates. It would be very extraordinary then if these men, who had been stolen from their own country, and brought away for the purpose of being reduced to slavery, should be punished in the United States for using such means as they possessed to extricate themselves from the power and custody of men who gained that custody by the perpetration of a crime which by our laws would cost them their lives. It would be a singular case if both parties in the same transaction should be held guilty of a capital offense and suffer the same penalty of the law for their crimes.

The description of conditions on the slave ship during the journey from Africa given by Gilabaru, as translated by James Covey, to reporters and published in the New York Journal of Commerce:

On board the vessel there was a large number of men, but the women and children were by far the most numerous. They were fastened together by couples by the wrists and legs and kept in that situation day and night. By day it was no better. The space between the decks was so small - according to their account not exceeding four feet - that they were obliged, if they attempted to stand, to keep a crouching posture. The decks, fore and aft, were crowded to overflowing. They suffered terribly. They had rice enough to eat but they had very little to drink. If they left any of the rice that was given to them uneaten, either from sickness or any other cause, they were whipped. It was a common thing for them to be forced to eat so much as to vomit. Many of the men, women and children died on the passage.

John Quincy Adams expressed the following in a letter dated November 19, 1839 written to and published in the New York Journal of Commerce:

The Africans of the Amistad were cast upon our coast in a condition perhaps as calamitous as could befall human beings, not by their own will - not with any intention hostile or predatory on their part, not even by the act of God as in the case of shipwreck, but by their own ignorance of navigation and the deception of one of their oppressors whom they had overpowered, and whose life they had spared to enable them by his knowledge of navigation to reach their native land.

They were victims of the African slave trade, recently imported into the island of Cuba, in gross violation of the laws of the Island and of Spain; and by acts which our own laws have made piracy - punishable with death. They had indicated their natural right to liberty, by conspiracy, insurrection, homicide and capture and they were accused by the two Cuban Spaniards embarked with them in the ship, of murder and piracy - and they were claimed by the same two Cuban Spaniards, accessories after the fact to the slave-trade piracy, by which they had been brought from Africa to Cuba, as their property, because they had bought them from slave-trade pirates.

They knew nothing of the Constitution, laws or language of the country upon which they were thus thrown, and accused as pirates and murderers, claimed as slaves of the very men who were their captives, they were deprived even of the faculty of speech in their own defense. This condition was sorely calamitous; it claimed from the humanity of a civilized nation compassion; - it claimed from brotherly love of a Christian land sympathy; - it claimed from a Republic professing reverence for the rights of man justice - and what have we done?

A naval officer of the United States seizes them, their ship and cargo, with themselves; tramples on the territorial jurisdiction of the state of New York, by seizing, disarming and sending on board their ship, without warrant of arrest, several of them whom he found on shore; releases their captives; admits the claim of the two captives to fifty masters as their slaves; and claims salvage for restoring them to servitude. They are then brought before a court of the United States, at once upon the charge of piracy and murder, upon a claim to them as slaves, and upon a claim against their pretended masters for salvage, by kidnapping them again into slavery. The Circuit Judge decides that the United States do not exercise the right of all other civilized nations to try piracies committed in foreign vessels; that he thereupon cannot try them for piracy or murder, but that the District Court may try whether they are slaves or not; as it is doubtful whether this trial will be held in Connecticut or New York, and it must take time to ascertain in which, they shall in the mean time be held as slaves to abide the issue.

Is this compassion? Is it sympathy? Is it justice? But here the case now stands.

On February 10, 1840 the Hartford Courant published an article attacking President Martin Van Buren for his stand on the Amistad case.

We are informed by a gentleman from New Haven that a short time previous to the trial of the Africans of the Amistad, before the U.S. District Court at New Haven, Judge Judson presiding, Martin Van Buren addressed a letter to the Judge recommending and urging him to order the Africans to be taken back to Havana in a government vessel, to be sold there as slaves - and that about the same time the U.S. schooner Grampus was ordered to New Haven for the purpose of receiving them. The schooner, we learned from several sources, arrived at New Haven about the time of the trial under "sealed orders" and, after learning the decision of the court again, "made off." The letter of the President, recommending that these poor unfortunate Africans be sent into perpetual bondage, is said to contain statements disgraceful to the high station of its author, and which, were they published, would excite the indignation of every Republican freeman in the land. What will the friends of liberty say to this? Surely Martin Van Buren is playing the part of a tyrant with a high hand - else why this tampering with our courts of justice, this Executive usurpation, and this heartless violation of the inalienable rights of man? Of the truth of the above there is no doubt, and we leave the unprincipled author of such a proceeding in the hands of a just and high-minded People.

A letter to the New London Gazette from an unidentified writer provided additional information regarding the arrival of the Grampus in New Haven at the time of the trial.

Now, sir it appears to me to be of little consequence to know whether instructions came from Washington or whether the case was decided before trial and its decision transmitted thither - if either supposition be true (and the facts have a strong squinting that way) the people should know it. The stride which the President has made towards universal power in other branches of the government render it by no means improbable that he has at length assumed the duties of the Judiciary, and that the case was decided at Washington long before the trial, and the Grampus held in readiness to remove the Negroes the moment the court completes the forms of the trial.

I cannot hope, sir, that this view of the subject is a mistaken one; for if it be true, our Federal Courts have become the mere instruments of the President, and if this case was prejudged without hearing either of the testimony or argument, what security is left us for our property or liberties?

Until the movements of the Grampus are explained there will remain in the minds of many, even of those who are friends of the Administration, a painful suspicion of foul play.

A reporter for the Boston Recorder described the Amistad Africans after visiting them in Westville as follows:

With one or two exceptions, they all have active minds and are quick, shrewd and intelligent. They possess deep and warm affections. Their love of Africa and home is very strong; in reply to a question put to two of the most intelligent of their number, the instant and deep-feeling answer was, "Tell the American people that we very, very much want to go home." Poor fellows! Who can doubt it?