TRIAL HISTORY of the Amistad Case

NOTE: There were two Amistad trials, one criminal and one civil. In 1839, federal criminal trials were heard by the Circuit Court, presided over by a justice of the U. S. Supreme Court. Civil trials, with rare exceptions, were heard by the District Court.

The first Amistad trial concerned the criminal charges of murder, mutiny, and piracy against the Africans of the Amistad. Judge Smith Thompson presided as the criminal trial began on September 19, 1839. After three days of arguments, Judge Thompson ruled that the court had no jurisdiction over the charges, because the alleged crimes had been committed on a Spanish ship in Spanish waters and were therefore not crimes punishable under U. S. law.

The Amistad civil case was tried before District Judge Andrew Judson. The trial began on November 19, 1839 in Hartford.  After testimony was taken on November 20, the trial adjourned until January 7, 1840.  On January 13, 1840, Judge Judson announced his decision.

Warrant for Habeas Corpus, September 21, 1839

United States v. Cinque and the Africans (National Archives, Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21 (ARC ID 2641484))














On the 23d day of January, 1840, Thomas R. Gedney, and Richard W. Meade, officers of the United States surveying brig Washington, on behalf of themselves and the officers and crew of the brig Washington, and of others interested and entitled, filed a libel in the District Court of the United States, for the District of Connecticut, stating that off Culloden Point, near Montauck Point, they took possession of a vessel which proved to be a Spanish schooner called the Amistad, of Havana, in the island of Cuba, of about 120 tons burden; and the said libellants found said schooner was manned by forty-five negroes, some of whom had landed near the said point for water; and there were also on board, two Spanish gentlemen, who represented themselves to be, and, as the libellants verily believe were part owners of the cargo, and of the negroes on board, who were slaves, belonging to said Spanish gentlemen; that the schooner Amistad sailed on the 28th day of June, A.D. 1839 from the port of Havana, bound to a port in the province of Principe, both in the island of Cuba, under the command of Raymon Ferrer as master thereof: that the schooner had on board and was laden with a large and valuable cargo, and provisions, to the amount, in all, of forty thousand dollars, and also money to the sum and amount of about two hundred and fifty dollars; and also fifty-four slaves, to wit, fifty-one male slaves, and three young female slaves, who were worth twenty-five thousand dollars; and while on the voyage from Havana to Principe, the slaves rose upon the captain and crew of the schooner, and killed and murdered the captain and one of the crew, and two more of the crew escaped and got away from the schooner; that the two Spaniards on board, to wit, Pedro Montez, and Jose Ruiz, remained alive on board the schooner after the murder of the captain, and after the negroes had taken possession of the vessel and cargo; that their lives were spared to assist in the sailing of the vessel; and it was directed by the negroes, that the schooner should be navigated for the coast of Africa; and Pedro Montez, and Jose Ruiz did, accordingly, steer as thus directed and compelled by the negroes, at the peril of their lives, in the daytime, and in the night altered their course and steered for the American shore; but after two months on the ocean, they succeeded in coming round Montauck Point, then they were discovered in coming by the libellants, and the two Spanish gentlemen begged for and claimed the aid and protection of the libellants. That the schooner was accordingly taken possession of, and recaptured from the hands and possession of the negroes who had taken the same; that the schooner was brought into the port of New London, where she now is; and the schooner would with great difficulty, exposure, and danger have been taken by the libellants, but for the surprise upon the blacks who had possession thereof, a part of whom were on shore; and but for the aid and assistance and services of the libellants, the vessel and cargo would have been wholly lost to the respective owners thereof. That the cargo belongs to divers Spanish merchants and others, resident in the island of Cuba, and to Pedro Montez and Jose Ruiz, the latter owning most of the slaves.

The libellants stated, that having saved the schooner Amistad and cargo, and the slaves, with considerable danger, they prayed that process should be issued against the same, and that the usual proceedings might be had by the Court, by which a reasonable salvage should be decreed out of the property so saved.

Afterwards, Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham, and others, filed a petition and answer to the libel, claiming salvage out of the property proceeded against by Thomas R. Gedney and others, and stating that before the Amistad was seen or boarded by the officers and crew of the Washington, they had secured a portion of the negroes who had come on shore, and had thus aided on saving the vessel and cargo.


On the 29th of August, 1839, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, of Cuba, filed claims to all the negroes on board of the Amistad, except Antonio, as their slaves. A part of the merchandise on board the vessel was also claimed by them. They alleged that the negroes had risen on the captain of the schooner, and had murdered him; and that afterwards they, Ruiz and Montez, had brought her into the United States. They claimed that the negroes and merchandise ought to be restored to them, under the treaty with Spain; and denied salvage to Lieutenant Gedney, and to all other persons claiming salvage.

Afterwards, Ruiz and Montez each filed in the District Court, a separate libel, stating more at large the circumstances of the voyage of the Amistad, the murder of the captain by the negroes, and that the negroes afterwards compelled them to steer the vessel towards Africa, but that they contrived to bring her to the coast of the United States, where she was captured by the United States brig Washington. Ruiz, in his libel, stated the negroes belonging to him to have been forty-nine in number, "named and known at Havana, as follows: Antonio, Simon, Jose Pedro, Martin, Manuel, Andreo, Edwards, Celedonia, Burtolono, Ramia, Augustin, Evaristo, Casamero, Merchoi, Gabriel, Santorion, Escolastico, Rascual, Estanislao, Desidero, Nicholas, Estevan, Tomas, Cosme, Luis, Bartolo, Julian, Federico, Salustiano, Ladislao, Celestino, Epifanio, Eduardo, Benancico, Felepe, Francisco, Hipoleto, Berreto, Isidoro, Vecente, Deconisco, Apolonio, Esequies, Leon, Julio, Hipoleto, and Zenon; of whom several have died." Their present names, Ruiz stated, he had been informed, were, "Cinque, Burnah 1st, Carpree, Dammah, Fourrie 1st, Shumah, Conomah, Choolay, Burnah 2d, Baah, Cabbah, Poomah, Kimbo, Peea, Bang-ye-ah, Saah, Carlee, Parale, Morrah, Yahome, Narquor, Quarto, Sesse, Con. Fourrie 2d, Kennah, Lammane, Fajanah, Faah, Yahboy, Faquannah, Berrie, Fawnu, Chockammaw, and Gabbow."

The libel of Pedro Montez stated that the names of three negroes on board the Amistad, belonging to him, were Francisco, Juan, and Josepha; the Spanish name of the fourth was not mentioned; and the four were not called Teme, Mahgra, Kene, and Carria.

All these were stated to be slaves, and the property of the claimants, purchased by them at Havana; where slavery is tolerated and allowed by law; and they and the merchandise on board the vessel, the claimants alleged, by the laws and usages of nations, and of the United States of America, and according to the treaties between Spain and the United States, ought to be restored to the claimants without diminution, and entire.

The vessel, negroes, and merchandise were taken into his possession, by the Marshal of the district of Connecticut, under process issued by order of the Court.


On the 19th of September, 1837, William S. Holabird, Esq., attorney of the United States, for the district, filed a suggestion in the District Court, stating that, since the libel aforesaid, of Thomas R. Gedney, Esq., was filed in this Court, viz. within the present month of September, in the year of our Lord 1839, the duly accredited minister to the United States, of her Catholic Majesty, the Queen of Spain, had officially presented to the proper department of the United States government, a claim, which is now pending, upon the United States, setting forth that "the vessel aforesaid, called the Amistad, and her cargo aforesaid, together with certain slaves on board the said vessel, all being the same as described in the libel aforesaid, are the property of Spanish subjects, and that the said vessel, cargo, and slaves, while so being the property of the said Spanish subjects, arrived within the jurisdictional limits of the United States, and were taken possession of by the said public armed brig of the United States, under such circumstances as make it the duty of the United States to cause the same vessel, cargo, and slaves, being the property of said Spanish subjects, to be restored to the true proprietors and owners of the same without further hindrance or detention, as required by the treaty now subsisting between the United States and Spain." The attorney of the United States, in behalf of the United States, prayed the Court, on its being made legally to appear that the claim of the Spanish minister is well founded, and is conformable to the treaty, that the Court make such order for the disposal of the said vessel, cargo, and slaves as may best enable the United States in all respects to comply with their treaty stipulations, and preserve the public faith inviolate. But if it should be made to appear that the persons described as slaves, are negroes and persons of colour, who have been transported from Africa, in violation of the laws of the United States, and brought within the United States, contrary to the same laws, the attorney, in behalf of the United States, claimed that, in such case, the Court will make such further order in the premises as may enable the United States, if deemed expedient, to remove such persons to the coast of Africa to be delivered there to such agent or agents as may be authorized to receive and provide for them, pursuant to the laws of the United States, in such case provided, or to make such other order as to the Court may seem fit, right, and proper in the premises."


On the same day, September 19, 1839, the negroes, by their counsel, filed an answer to the libel of Lieutenant Gedney and others, claiming salvage, and to the claim of Ruiz and Montez, claiming them as slaves, as also to the intervention of the United States, on the application of the minister of Spain; in which they say, that they are natives of Africa, and were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are and ought to be free and not slaves; that they were never domiciled in the island of Cuba, or in the dominions of the Queen of Spain, or subject to the laws thereof. That on or about the 15th day of April, 1839, they were, in the land of their nativity, unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly, and wrongfully, by certain persons to them unknown, who were there unlawfully and piratically engaged in the slave trade between the coast of Africa and the island of Cuba, contrary to the will of these respondents, unlawfully, and under circumstances of great cruelty, transported to the island of Cuba for the unlawful purpose of being sold as slaves, and were there illegally landed for that purpose. That Jose Ruiz, one of the libellants, well knowing all the premises, and confederating with the persons by whom the respondents were unlawfully taken and holden as slaves, and intending to deprive the respondents severally of their liberty, made a pretended purchase of the respondents, except the said Carria, Teme, Kene, and Mahgra; and that Pedro Montez, also well knowing all the premises, and confederating with the said persons for the purpose aforesaid, made a pretended purchase of the said Carria, Teme, Kene, and Mahgra; that the pretended purchases were made from persons who had no right whatever to the respondents or any of them, and that the same were null and void, and conferred no right or title on Ruiz or Montez, or right of control over the respondents or either of them. That on or about the 28th day of June, 1839, Ruiz and Montez, confederating with each other, and with one Ramon Ferrer, now deceased, captain of the schooner Amistad, and others of the crew thereof, caused respondents severally, without law or right, under color of certain false and fraudulent papers by them procured and fraudulently used for that purpose, to be placed by force on board the schooner to be transported with said Ruiz and Montez to some place unknown to the respondents, and there enslaved for life. That the respondents, being treated on board said vessel by said Ruiz and Montez and their confederates with great cruelty and oppression, and being of right free as aforesaid, were incited by the love of liberty natural to all men, and by the desire of returning to their families and kindred, to take possession of said vessel while navigating the high seas, as they had a right to do, with the intent to return therein to their native country, or to seek an asylum in some free state, where slavery did not exist, in order that they might enjoy their liberty under the protection of its government; that the schooner, about the 26th of August, 1839, arrived in the possession of the respondents, at Culloden Point near Montauk, and was there anchored near the shore of Long Island, within hailing distance thereof, and within the waters and territory of the state of New York; that the respondents, Cinque, Carlee, Dammah, Baah, Monat, Nahguis, Quato, Con, Fajanah, Berrie, Gabbo, Fouleaa, Kimbo, Faquannah, Cononia, otherwise called Ndzarbla, Yaboi, Burnah 1st, Shuma, Fawne, Peale, Ba, and Sheele, while said schooner lay at anchor as aforesaid, went on shore within the state of New York to procure provisions and other necessaries, and while there, in a state where slavery is unlawful and does not exist, under the protection of the government and laws of said state by which they were all free, whether on board of said schooner, or on shore, the respondents were severally seized, and well those who were on shore as aforesaid, as those who were on board of and in possession of said schooner, by Lieutenant Gedney, his officers, and crew of the United States brig Washington, without any lawful warrant or authority whatever, at the instance of Ruiz and Montez, with the intent to keep and secure them as slaves to Ruiz and Montez, respectively, and to obtain an award of salvage therefor, from this honourable Court, as for a meritorious act. That for that purpose, the respondents were, by Lieutenant Gedney, his officers and crew, brought to the port of New London; and while there, and afterwards, under the subsequent proceedings in this honourable Court taken into the custody of the marshal of said district of Connecticut, and confined and held in the jails in the cities of New Haven and Hartford, respectively, as aforesaid. Wherefore, the respondents pray that they may be set free, as they of right are and ought to be, and that they be released from the custody of the marshal, under the process of this honourable Court, under which, or under colour of which they are holden as aforesaid.


Jose Antonio Tellincas, and Aspe and Laca, subjects of Spain, and merchants of Cuba, presented claims for certain merchandise which was on board the Amistad when taken possession of by Lieutenant Gedney; denying all claims to salvage, and asking that the property should be restored to them.


On the 23d day of January the District Judge made a decree, having taken into his consideration all the libels, claims, and the suggestion of the District Attorney of the United States, and the claim preferred by him that the negroes should be delivered to the Spanish authorities, the negroes to be sent by them to Cuba, or that the negroes should be placed under the authority of the President of the United States, to be transported to Africa.

The decree rejected the claim of Green and others to salvage with costs. The claim of Lieutenant Gedney and others to salvage on the alleged slaves was dismissed. The libels and claims of Ruiz and Montez being included under the claim of the minister of Spain, were ordered to be dismissed, with costs taxed against Ruiz and Montez respectively.

"That that part of the claim of the minister of Spain which demands the surrender of Cinques and others, who are specifically named in the answer filed as aforesaid, be dismissed, without cost."

That the claim of the vice counsul of Spain, demanding the surrender to the Spanish government of Antonio, a slave owned by the heirs of Captain Ferrer, should be sustained; and ordered that Antonio should be delivered to the government of Spain, or its agent, without costs.

The claims of Tellincas and Aspe and Laca, for the restoration of the goods specified by them, being part of the cargo of the Amistad, was sustained, and that the same goods be restored to them, deducting one-third of the gross appraised value of them, which was allowed as salvage to the officers and crew of the Washington. A like salvage of one-third of the gross value of the Amistad, and the other merchandise on board of her, was also adjudged to the salvors. The costs were to be deducted from the other two-thirds.

"And, whereas the duly accredited minister of Spain, resident in the United States, hath, in behalf of the government of Spain, for the owners of said schooner, and the residue of said goods, claimed that the same be restored to that government for the said owners, they being Spanish subjects, under the provisions of the treaty subsisting between the United States and Spain: And, whereas it hath been made to appear to this Court, that the said schooner is lawfully owned by the subjects of Spain, as also the residue of said goods not specifically claimed: And, whereas the aforesaid Don Pedro Montez, and Jose Ruiz, have in person ceased to prosecute their claim as specified in their respective libels, and their said claims fall within the demand and claim of the Spanish minister, made as aforesaid: And, whereas the seizure of the said schooner and goods by the said Thomas R. Gedney and others, was made on the high seas, in a perilous condition, and they were first brought into the port of New London, within the District of Connecticut, and libelled for salvage,"

[The decree then proceeds to adjudge to Lieutenant Gedney and others, as salvage, one-third of the gross proceeds of the vessel and cargo, according to an appraisement which had been made thereof; and, if not paid, directed the property to be sold, and that proportion of the gross proceeds of the sale to be paid over to the captors, the residue, after payment of all costs, to be paid to the respective owners of the same.]

Upon the answers of the negroes, and the representations of the District Attorney of the United States, and of Montez and Ruiz, the decree proceeds:

"This Court having fully heard the parties appearing with their proofs, do find that the respondents, severally answering as aforesaid, are each of them natives of Africa, and were born free, and ever since have been, and still of right are free, and not slaves, as is in said several libels claims or representations alleged or surmised; that they were never domiciled in the Island of Cuba, or the dominions of the Queen of Spain, or subject to the laws thereof; that they were severally kidnapped in their native country, and were, in violation of their own rights, and of the laws of Spain, prohibiting the African slave trade, imported into the island of Cuba, about the 12th June, 1839, and were there unlawfully held and transferred to the said Ruiz and Montez, respectively; that said respondents were within fifteen days after their arrival at Havana, aforesaid, by said Ruiz and Montez, put on board said schooner Amistad to be transported to some port in said island of Cuba, and there unlawfully held as slaves; that the respondents or some of them, influenced by the desire of recovering their liberty, and of returning to their families and kindred in their native country, took possession of said schooner Amistad, killed the captain and cook, and severely wounded said Montez, while on her voyage from Havana, as aforesaid, and that the respondents arrived in possession of said schooner at Culloden Point near Montauck, and there anchored said schooner on the high seas, at the distance of half a mile from the shore of Long Island, and were there, while a part of the respondents were, as is alleged in their said answer, on shore in quest of water and other necessaries, and about to sail in said schooner for the coast of Africa, seized by said Lieutenant Gedney, and his officers and crew, and brought into the port of New London, in this district. And this Court doth further find, that it hath ever been the intention of the said Montez and Ruiz, since the said Africans were put on board the said schooner, to hold the said Africans as slaves; that at the time when the said Cinque and others, here making answer, were imported from Africa into the dominions of Spain, there was a law of Spain prohibiting such importations, declaring the persons so imported to be free; that said law was in force when the claimants took the possession of the said Africans and put them on board said schooner, and the same has ever since been in force."

The decree of the District Court recites the decree of the government of Spain of December, 1817, prohibiting the slave trade, and declaring all negroes brought into the dominions of Spain by slave traders to be free; and enjoining the execution of the decree on all the officers of Spain in the dominions of Spain.

The decree of the District Court proceeds:

And this Court doth further find, that when the said Africans were shipped on board the said schooner, by the said Montez and Ruiz, the same were shipped under the passports signed by the Governor General of the Island of Cuba, in the following words, viz.:

Peculiar signs.

Havana, June 22d, 1839.

I grant permission to carry three black ladinoes, named Juana, Francisca, and Josefa, property of Dr. Pedro Montez, to Puerto Principe, by sea. They must present themselves to the respective territorial judge with this permit.

Duty, 2 reasls. ESPLETA.

(Endorsed) Commander of Matria.

Let pass in the schooner Amistad, to Guana ja, Ferrer, master. Havana, June 27th, 1839

MART & Co.

Peculiar signs.

Havana, June 26th, 1839.

I grant permission to carry forty-nine black ladinos, named Antonio, Simon, Lucas, Jose, Pedro, Martin, Manuel, Andrios, Edwardo, Celedernnio, Bartolo, Raman, Augustin, Evaristo, Casimero, Meratio, Gabriel, Santome, Ecclesiastico, pasenal, Stanislao, Desiderio, Nicolas, Estevan, Tomas, Cosme, Luis, Bartolo, Julian, Federico, Saturdino, Ladislas, Celestino, Epifano, Fronerie, Venaniro, Feligre, Francisco, Hypolito, Benito, Isdoro, Vicente, Dioniceo, Apolino, Esequiel, Leon, Julio, Hipolito, y Raman, property of Dr. Jose Ruiz, to Puerto Principe, by sea. They must present themselves with this permit to the respective territorial judge.


Duty, 2 reals.

(Endorsed) Commander of Matria.

Let pass in the schooner Amistad, to Guanaja, Ferrer, master.

Havana, June 27th, 1839.

MART & Co."

"Which said passports do not truly describe the said persons shipped under the same. Whereupon, the said claim of the minister of Spain, as set forth in the two libels filed in the name of the United States by the said District Attorney, for and in behalf of the government of Spain and her subjects, so far as the same relate to the said Africas named in said claim, be dismissed."

"And upon the libel filed by said District Attorney in behalf of the United States, claiming the said Africans libelled as aforesaid, and now in the custody of the Marshal of the district of Connecticut, under and by virtue of process issued from this Court, that they may be delivered to the President of the United States to be transported to Africa. It is decreed that the said Africans now in the custody of said Marshal, and libelled and claimed as aforesaid, (excepting Antonio Ferrer, be delivered to the President of the United States by the Marshal of the district of Connecticut, to be by him transported to Africa, in pursuance of the law of Congress, passed March 3d, 1819, entitled "An act in addition to the acts prohibiting the slave trade.'"