"The Amistad Circuit Court Trial," New York Commercial Advertiser, 23 Sept. 1839

Hartford, Thursday Evening, Sept. 20

At the opening of the Court this morning Mr. Sedgwick read the answer of the three girls, by their next friend, to the return of the marshal to the habeas corpus. It set forth the circumstances of their kidnapping in Africa, their conveyance to Havana, &c.; and denied that they were slaves or the property of Senor Montez, or of any other persons. It recited also a royal decree of Spain prohibiting the traffic in slaves, and declaring free all negroes imported into any Spanish port. Wheaton, Vol. 10, p.32, Appendix. December, 1817.

Also another decree of the Queen Regent of Spain, reiterating the former, and urging the Governor of Cuba to enforce it. 2nd November, 1838. From documents laid before Parliament by Lord Palmerston.

Mr. Sedgwick also read affidavits to prove that the girls are native Africans. Augustus W. Hanson, and John Ferry, native Africans, were the deponents.

Mr. Ingersoll suggested to the Court whether it would go into the facts called in question by the answer to the return -- inasmuch as these facts were in litigation in the District Court.

Mr. Baldwin replied, contending that the question was properly brought before the Circuit Court; it was to decide whether these persons were or were not illegally held in custody. He averred that the District Court had no right to issue a warrant for the arrest of these girls, as property, not the marshal to hold them as property.

Judge Thompson suggested that the girls were held as witnesses in a criminal case -- a fact which seemed to obviate the difficulty.

[Here the proceedings were interrupted by the entrance of the grand jury. The foreman stated that the grand jurors had before them bills of indictment for murder and privacy against the Africans, and wished for advice from the Court respecting the law.

Judge Thompson said the Court could not give advice unless advised of the facts brought to the knowledge of the jurors, and that advice, when given, could relate only to the jurisdiction of the Court.

There upon the grand jury retired.

Mr. Baldwin resumed. When the habeas corpus was sued out, the only process under which the marshal held these girls was the monition on the libel of Lieut. Gedney, which directed him to take possession of the vessel and of the property on board. He contended that the girls were free; and deemed the authority of any Court to make them slaves, or to deal with them as slaves. As witnesses they might indeed be bound over for their appearance to testify; and in that light security for their appearance would not be wanting. But no otherwise than as witnesses could they be held; and no Court in Connecticut could assume jurisdiction over them for any other purpose.

Mr. Baldwin adverted to the fact that some of the Africans were arrested on shore, within the state of New York; and averred that if that were so, no Admiralty Court could have jurisdiction over them.-- Kent's Com. 1.366. The libel did not allege that these girls were on board the Amistad; therefore it was defective to give jurisdiction to the District Court.

He alleged also that if there was jurisdiction in any Admiralty Court, it must be in the District Court of New York. The Amistad was taken within that district. Lieut. Gedney had no authority to transport the captives into any district other than the one in which they were found.

Again -- the monition directs the marshal to take into his custody the schooner and the "articles of personal property" on board. Here was no warrant for the arrest of these individuals. The marshal had no right to assume that they were included under the term "property." He was bound to regard them and treat them as human beings, not as property. There was no process against them -- no authority for him to take them into custody.

On these and other grounds Mr. Baldwin contended that it was within the power and the duty of the Circuit Court to inquire into the jurisdiction of the District Court over these Africans as property; into the authority of the marshal to arrest them; and into the right or authority by which they are held in custody. And the writ of the habeas corpus was the proper process to bring the subject before the Circuit Court for its adjudication.

Mr. Baldwin was very severe upon Lieut. Gedney -- not for taking the vessel, but for setting up a claim for salvage, which, he said, should be scouted from the tribunals of a free country.

Judge Thompson, referring to the dictum of Judge Judson yesterday, that there was no power in the District Court to sell the negroes, said that the question of property was already settled; and that the negroes were not held under any process from that Court. Of course therefore they are entitled to be discharged.

Judge Judson said he had so decided, and meant to be understood. He had intended to rule that the negroes were only held under the application of the district attorney, on behalf of the the government of the United States, consequent upon the demand of the Spanish minister.

Thus it appeared that the negroes were only in custody under the process of the Circuit Court, on the criminal charge. And Mr. Baldwin, under this state of facts, made a powerful argument against the claims of Senors Ruiz and Montez to take out any process from the District Court, for the arrest and detention of the negroes, as slaves; and against the power of the District Court to issue any such process. The negroes were in the state of Connecticut, and entitled to their freedom. The District Court had no power over them -- much less any power to hold them as slaves He read the 8th and 9th articles of the treaty with Spain, which was relied on by the Spanish claimants -- providing for the restitution of vessels and effects that should be rescued from pirates or robbers on the high seas but contended that the question of property still came up. The treaty did not make negroes property.

Mr. Baldwin then took up the libel filed by the district attorney, on behalf of the United States.

[The grand jury came in again, and the foreman read a short statement of facts, on which they wished instruction from the Court. Judge Thompson told them that in the afternoon he would be prepared to advise them as they requested.]

Mr. Baldwin resumed the reading of the district attorney's application. He denied the right of the district attorney to make any such application to the District Court. The Executive of the United States had no right to call upon the Court for the arrest and detention of the slaves, at the instance of the Spanish minister. The Spanish minister had nothing to do with the matter. He denied that the Executive of the United States was under any obligation to pursue and arrest fugitives from bondage. Mr. Baldwin argued these points at great length and very elaborately.

Then as to the alternative application of the district attorney, that the negroes may be held subject to the disposal of the President, under the act of 1819, providing for their restoration to Africa, he contended that the act applied only to the cases of negroes found on board American slave ships, which had been captured by American vessels of war, and brought into a port of the United Stated, with the intent to hold them there in slavery. Therefore he alleged that there was no cause for the interference of the district attorney, and no law authorizing him to call upon the Court for its assistance.

Mr. Ingersoll replied. He contended that even if the opinion of Judge Judson, touching the inability of the Court to order a sale of negroes, had been judicially pronounced, still the attachment subsisted, to authorize their detention by the marshal, and to lay a foundation for subsequent proceedings. The negroes were lawfully in the custody of the District Court, and the other claims and libels were properly filed, and remained in force.

He denied that the negroes were not to be treated as property. This Court was instituted under a confederacy of states, in some of which negroes are held and recognized as slaves -- as property. The government itself recognized negroes as property, by demanding compensation from Great Britain, for negroes owned in the United States which had been set at liberty under British jurisdiction.

He read the 6th article of the treaty with Spain -- binding each party to defend and protect the vessels and effects of subjects or citizens belonging to the other; and contended that under the 9th article it was the duty of the district attorney to demand the interference and assistance of the judicial tribunals, for the preservation and restoration of the property.

He cited various decisions of the Supreme Court of the U.S. -- particularly the case of the Antelope -- to the effect that slaves taken on board a foreign vessel, and brought into the United States, must be restored.

He contended that the question of property ought not to be considered in this Court, under the writ of habeas corpus. The only question here was whether the process by which the girls were held was valid. If that process was defective he admitted that they were entitled to be released; but the question of property -- that grave question involving rights of the highest interest and importance, ought not to be discussed in this summary manner. It belonged to the District Court -- it would be examined there with full time for preparation, for obtaining evidence, and for the most careful and deliberate consideration -- and there he hoped it would be left for decision.

Mr. Staples has just risen to reply. But the dinner hour having arrived, the Court adjourns until 2 o'clock, and I send off this dispatch. The proceedings are of high interest, and are observed with close attention by a very numerous audience.

Soon after two o'clock the Court again assembled, and Judge Thompson instructed the grand jury that, upon the statement of facts submitted to him, the Court was entirely without jurisdiction for the trial of the prisoners on the criminal charge. In the first place it appeared that the Amistad was taken possession of within the Southern district of New York, and not within the district of Connecticut -- therefore the prisoners, if subject to trial at all, must be tried in the Southern district of New York.

But he was clearly and decidedly of opinion that no Court in the United States had jurisdiction for their trial. The offense with which they were charged was committed on board a Spanish vessel, sailing under a Spanish flag, with Spanish papers, owned by Spaniards, and making a voyage from one port to another of a Spanish island; it was therefore an offense, not against the law of nations or of the United States, but against the law of Spain; and under Spanish law only could it be tried.

Under this view of the case the judge decided that the grand jury had nothing to do in the matter, and there being no other business before them, the grand jurors were discharged.

Mr. Staples then commenced his argument for the prisoners. He began with a noble and eloquent character of the writ of habeas corpus, which he described as dealing with objects infinitely higher in importance than bales and boxes; it disregarded mere questions of property, and took cognizance of more essential interests -- of life and liberty. [This opening was applicable to the earnest appeal of Mr. Ingersoll, who had strongly contended that the Court should not, upon the habeas corpus, enter into any consideration but the regularity of the process issued out of the District Court; leaving all the great questions to be discussed and decided in that Court, at the proper time and in the proper manner.]

Mr. Staples insisted that it was the right and the duty of the Circuit Court to decide those questions now. The claims of the Spaniards and of all other parties to the vessel and cargo might be left for decision in the District Court; but here was a question of liberty -- of personal rights -- and it was not to be tolerated that these unfortunate Africans should be immured in a prison while third parties were disputing about them as property; as if they were bales of merchandize, or brutes devoid of reason.

Mr. Staples then went on to argue the general questions at great length, and with exceeding force contending that the Africans, even by the law of Spain, were free, the moment they arrived at Havana -- in proof of which he read a decree issued by the King of Spain in 1817, prohibiting the importation of slaves, and another decree, confirming it, issued by the Queen Regent in 1838; the first of which was given at length in a volume of Wheaton's Reports, and the second was among the documents communicated to the British Parliament by Lord Palmerston. As Mr. Baldwin had done before him, Mr. Staples took up all the numerous and complicated questions presented by the facts, and examined them with very great ability -- making a powerful argument in support of the position that the Africans could not be held in durance under the process issued against them. He was prepared also to show that the Circuit Court had not criminal jurisdiction in the matter, but on this point he had been anticipated by the decision of Judge Thompson.

Mr. Holabird, the district attorney, followed, with a very lame attempt to sustain the libel he had filed on behalf of the United States government; which he sought to uphold by the act of Congress passed on the 3rd of March, 1819, providing for the disposal of negroes taken on board American slavers, and brought into the United States by American men of war.

Mr. Hungerford, of counsel for the Spaniards, followed with a long and highly ingenious speech, in which he contended that the Africans were the property of Senors Montez and Ruiz; that property in slaves was recognized by the laws of Spain and of the United States; that there was no proof that these negroes had been imported into Cuba from Africa, and had not been born slaves in the island; and finally that the Courts and the government of the United States were bound by the treaty with Spain, which provides for the mutual delivery of vessels and property, coming into the ports of either nation by stress of weather or other necessity.

In the course of the afternoon an affidavit was read, which had been made by John Ferry, a native of Gallina, who had been brought from Africa to the West Indes when about eleven or twelve years old, and still retained a knowledge of his mother tongue. He deposed that he had seen and conversed with the three girls, and found that they spoke the Gallina language and no other; and from their speech and appearance, he was satisfied that they were native Africans, and very recently from that country.

Another affidavit to the same effect was read, made by a man named Hanson. And also the following affidavit of Bahoo, one of the captives, taken through the interpretation of Ferry.

I, Bahoo, of Bandaboo, in Africa, being duly cautioned, depose and say, that I knew Marngroo and Kenyee, two little girls now in prison at Hartford; that they were born in Bandaboo in Mandingo, and came over in the same vessel that I did to Havana, as did Penna and the little boy Carle; that they were about two moons in coming from Africa to Havana, where they stayed less than one moon. Good many in vessel, and many died -- were tight together, two and two chained together by hands and feet, night and day, until near Havana, when the chains were taken off -- were landed on the coast at a little place, near sun set -- staid until night and walked into the city, put them into an old building and fastened them in -- after some time the people now in jail were put on board the same vessel they came here in, in the night, and sailed away, about the time the gun fired. I know that these children are the same that came over from Africa, and that Marngroo and Kenyee were born in the same place I was, which was Bandaboo, and farther sail not.
Bahoo, his X mark.
State of Connecticut,
Hartford, Sept. the 20th, 1839

Antonio, the boy, was introduced, and being examined through the interpretation of Lieut. Meade, deposed that he was the slave of Captain Ferrez; that the Amistad sailed from Havana openly, in daylight, without any attempt to evade the observation of the British and Yankee men of war then lying in that port; that the slaves were not chained together &c. &c. His testimony had no very important bearing on the case.

Mr. Staples then concluded the argument, bestowing a severe castigation on the Spaniards and the district attorney, and reiterating with great clearness and power the arguments, already presented by himself and Mr. Baldwin.

Judge Thompson gave notice that he would pronounce his decision on Saturday morning.

Hartford, Saturday night, Sept. 21.
Gentlemen-- Judge Thompson occupied half an hour this morning in giving the views of the Court on the points submitted yesterday by the counsel. -- The question is, are these people rightfully detained in the District Court? If they are, the Circuit Court has no right, by summary process, to take them out of the possession of the District Court. He said that the Court was of the opinion that the prisoners cannot be taken out of the jurisdiction of the District Court, on the writ of the habeas corpus. The Court therefore requested the counsel to furnish them with an argument on the main question, whether the District Court had any jurisdiction in the case? The Court then took a recess till 2 o'clock to allow the counsel to prepare. This afternoon the question was elaborately discussed. The Court adjourned till Monday morning, when the opinion of the Court will be given. Respectfully, L. Tappan.

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