A group of African captives made U.S. legal history 165 years ago, after they took over the ship they were being transported on and sailed to the United States. The ship, known as the Amistad, was re-built several years ago, and now travels to ports in North America. Its modern-day crew tells the dramatic story of the Africans who challenged slavery, and created one of the first legal precedents for racial equality in the United States. VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Miami, where the ship made a recent stop.
The bell of the Amistad tolls every time the 40-meter clipper ship sails into port. This year, the Amistad has docked at a busy waterfront harbor marketplace in Miami, Florida. She will stay here through February in commemoration of Black History Month in the United States.
While the original Amistad has been lost to history, the re-built version of the ship now offers a glimpse to visitors of one of the most dramatic moments in U.S. civil rights history - the events leading up to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said people of color had the same rights as anyone else, and that U.S. courts must enforce those rights.
In 1839, the Amistad was sailing along the coast of Cuba, which at that time was a Spanish colony, with 53 African captives. The Africans had been captured months earlier, and transported to Cuba to be sold as slaves. The Africans were being transported from Havana to eastern Cuba. But three days into the voyage, a rebellion broke out. The Africans, under the command of Sengbe Pieh, a Mendi farmer from what is now Sierra Leone, took control of the ship.
The captain of the Amistad was killed, and the Africans told the two surviving Spanish planters on board to sail the Amistad due east - back to Africa. However, at night, the two planters would turn the vessel north, toward the U.S. coast. After weeks at sea, the ship was taken into custody by the U.S. Navy, off the coast of New York. By that time, at least 10 of the Africans had died from thirst and starvation. John Dealy, the current captain and master of the re-built Amistad says it was a harrowing journey.
"We know that many of them starved to death. They did not have food or water," he said. "They also did not have any knowledge of what we consider the modern world. So, for example, they were drinking medicines that were on board. The conditions were deplorable."
When the surviving African captives were taken into custody in the United States, they were charged with mutiny and with murder. But those charges were dismissed by a U.S. circuit court judge, on the grounds that a U.S. court could not try the Africans for crimes committed on board a Spanish vessel.
Although they escaped trial on criminal charges, the Africans remained in detention, because the two Spanish planters on board the Amistad had petitioned the courts for the return of the captives, whom they considered their property.
Abolitionists, activists who had been working for years to abolish slavery, realized the Amistad captives were in a unique legal position. The planters argued that the slave trade was still legal in Cuba. But a treaty between Spain and Great Britain had outlawed the slave trade between Africa and the Americas.
Since the Africans had been captured after the treaty went into effect, the abolitionists argued, the Amistad captives should be set free. A lower court ruled in the Africans' favor, but the U.S. government appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Slavery had not yet been outlawed in the United States, and President Martin Van Buren did not want to lose the support of slave-holding southern legislators. Confident that the U.S. Supreme Court would rule in his favor, he ordered a ship to stand by to be ready to return the Africans to Cuba - and to almost certain death.
Since they had been in the United States, the African captives had made a strong impression on many Americans, enlisting many to support their cause. One of the captives, an 11-year-old boy named Kale, had even written former President John Quincy Adams, asking for his help.
Mr. Adams agreed to argue the Africans' case before the Supreme Court. In a historic decision, the court ruled the Africans, as free-born men and women, were entitled to their liberty. Kai Perry, who leads tours on board the re-built Amistad, says the case exposed fissures in U.S. society that exploded just over 20 years later in the Civil War.
"John Quincy Adams defended them passionately," she said. "He knew that these were free people originally. And, at the time, while slavery was legal, it was only legal if you were born into it. But others, like Martin Van Buren, for example, who was the president, was not ready to set these people free, for fear of not being re-elected. So, there were all types of emotions. Thank God for the abolitionists, who were really just trying to improve their movement. But they were able to use this trial, this case, as a way to do that."
Even though they were now free to return home, it took the Africans more than a year to raise enough money to return to Sierra Leone. When they did return, many found their land ruined, their relatives sold into slavery. Many joined the new Mendi mission in Freetown, where many future leaders of Sierra Leone and other African states were educated.
One of the captives, Sarah Magru, returned to the United States, where she became one of the first women of color in the United States to receive a university education at Oberlin College in Ohio.
While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Africans, it would be many years before African-Americans born in the United States would receive similar treatment. Sixteen years after the Amistad case, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision, that African-Americans had no rights under the U.S. Constitution. African-Americans had to wait until the 20th century for U.S. courts to rule they had equal rights under U.S. laws.