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The Amistad was a Cuban ship carrying slaves in 1839. The slaves revolted, sailed to the U.S. and a major legal case resulted.

The legal case in 1841 involved the question of what was to be done with the slaves. The Van Buren administration sought to return the men to Spanish custody, but they were defeated before the Supreme Court by John Quincy Adams who successfully argued the case for their freedom. The slaves were released and went back to Africa.

In 1839 fifty-four slaves on the Spanish schooner Amistad revolted near Cuba, killed part of the crew, and attempted to cause the remainder to sail to Africa. They landed on Long Island Sound in the jurisdiction of American courts. Piracy charges were quashed, it being held that it was not piracy for persons to rise up against those who illegally held them captive. Salvage claims, initially awarded by legal proceedings in Connecticut, were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841 and the Africans were freed. Former President John Quincy Adams represented the Africans before the Supreme Court. Abolitionists, who made the cause their own, provided their transportation back to Africa, and the organized support on their behalf played a part in the later establishment of the American Missionary Association. The missionaries believed that Cinque, one of the freed slaves, then became a slave trader himself, but the evidence is inconclusive.

A 1997 Hollywood movie "Amistad" by Steven Spielberg made the episode famous again, but distorted many of the events and people.[1]


  • Briley, Ronald F. "The Study Guide Amistad: A Lasting Legacy," The History Teacher, Vol. 31, No. 3 (May, 1998), pp. 390–394 in JSTOR
  • Jeffrey, Julie R. "Amistad (1997): Steven Spielberg's 'True Story.' " Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television. 21.1 (2001): 78-96.
  • Jones, Howard. Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American History, (1988) 304 pp, the standard scholarly history
  • McClendon, R. Earl. "The Amistad Claims: Inconsistencies of Policy," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Sep., 1933), pp. 386–412 in JSTOR, legal aspects of international law
  • Owens, William A. Slave Mutiny; the Revolt on the Schooner Amistad (1953)


  1. See Jeffrey (1997) and Jeremy D. Stoddard and Alan S. Marcus, "The Burden of Historical Representation: Race, Freedom, and 'Educational' Hollywood Film," Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Volume 36.1 (2006), pp. 26-35 in Project Muse