Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

02 July 2014

Amistad Revolt

Today marks the 175th anniversary of the Amistad Revolt.

On 2 July 1839, the Amistad, a Spanish-owned schooner carrying 49 adults and 4 children recently captured in West Africa, was sailing off the Cuban coast. Early in the morning, having picked his fellow captives’ locks, Joseph Cinqué led a mutiny that resulted in the death of the ship’s captain and, two years later, to an unprecedented verdict by the U.S. Supreme Court granting the captives their freedom.  

Yet, even their journey to the United States was remarkable. Having gained control of the ship, the mutineers demanded that José Ruiz and Petro Montes, who had charted the Amistad, return them to Africa. For weeks, Ruiz and Montes deceived them by sailing into the sun in the daytime, and then west and north at night, as they desperately sought rescue by British anti-slave trade patrol vessels.

Finally, in late August – with its passengers emaciated and a corpse rotting on deck – the Amistad was captured off Long Island and the mutineers were jailed. News of the incident quickly spread. Ruiz and Montes initiated a legal case demanding the return of their property whilst the plight of the captives, who were jailed pending trial for murder on the high seas, was taken up by abolitionists.

Habeas corpus

Public Domain Mark

The African Captives: Trial of the Prisoners of the Amistad… (New York, 1839; BL shelfmark 1132.h.39.(1))

These works are free of known copyright restrictions. - See more at:

The captives’ court proceedings began in mid-September with the abolitionists seeking a writ of habeas corpus, which they hoped would establish them as human beings rather than property. This was denied: The African Captives: Trial of the Prisoners of the Amistad… (New York, 1839; BL shelfmark 1132.h.39.(1)) Eighteen months later, the case – which even involved U.S. President Van Buren attempting to return them to Cuba as slaves – entered the Supreme Court.

John Quincy Adams

Public Domain Mark

Frontispiece of Argument of John Quincy Adams before the Supreme Court of the United States… (New York, 1841. BL shelfmark 6615.b.1)

Defending the captives, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams challenged the Court to grant their liberty on the basis of natural rights doctrines found in the Declaration of Independence: ‘I know of no other law that reaches the case of my clients, but the law of Nature and of Nature’s God on which our fathers placed our own national existence.’ Argument of John Quincy Adams before the Supreme Court of the United States…(New York, 1841; BL shelfmark 6615.b.1). On 9 March 1841, the Supreme Court concurred; the mutineers were freed and six months later they returned to Africa.

For two years, the Amistad ‘incident’ enthralled the American public and the extensive contemporary newspaper coverage can be found in Early American Newspapers Series 1. Even today, the Amistad’s grip on the imagination of artists and writers as diverse as Robert Hayden (New York; London: 1985; BL shelfmark YC.1986.a.5379) and Steven Spielberg continues.

Acknowledgement and further reading: Howard Jones, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987; BL shelfmark YH.1988.b.369).

– Jean Petrovic


The comments to this entry are closed.