La Amistad, originally built in the United States and ironically named “Friendship,” was a Spanish purchased vessel never intended for slave transportation. Because the ship lacked slave quarters, the 53 captives kidnapped from Sierra Leone, were kept half on deck and half below. The slaves below deck came upon a rusty file and were able to free themselves and invade the deck with cane knives, machete-like knives used to cut sugar cane (Jones). The slaves on deck were relatively free to move around so they were able to take control of the ship rather easily. After they had gained control, they killed the captain and cook, but left the navigators alive to return the ship to Sierra Leone (Thomas). Instead of following the order, the navigators sailed the ship along the coast where they were discovered by an American, Lieutenant Gedney (Cornish).
The ship and its captives were held in Connecticut and Lieutenant Gedney presented a legal claim that the ship, the cargo, and the slaves all belonged to him because he had salvaged the vessel (Jones). At the time of the ship’s capture, the United States had outlawed international slave trade, but the ship’s owner lied about the origins of the slaves claiming they were Cuban-born.
The courts were faced with an extremely tangled web of possibilities. The Circuit Court in Connecticut originally ruled that the acts of mutiny took place in Spanish waters and therefore the court lacked jurisdiction. Abolitionists were outraged with this ruling and took their frustrations to the courts and opened a case against the Spaniards for assault, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. The District Court sided with the Abolitionists and stated the Africans aboard the ship were actually free and could return home. Worried about re-election and his relationship with Spain, President Van Buren heard the ruling and immediately sent the U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut to appeal the case. Much to his dismay, the Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the original decision and the case was challenged again and brought to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the Africans were in no way criminals, but simply victims and the final decision restored the freedom of the Africans (Jones). You can read the transcript from the U.S. Supreme Court decision here, and see snippets from relevant archival material here.
This real life version of Melville’s tale happened in 1839 with the Supreme Court ruling in 1841, just a few years before the original publishing of “Benito Cereno” in 1855. Melville’s story echoes a great deal of the real event. Both ships are Spanish owned ships that were overtaken by their slave captives. The slaves demanded to be taken home and the ship’s navigator instead drives the ship along the coast hoping to be found. While there is no account of Lieutenant Gedney boarding the Amistad and being deceived, there is the question of critiquing the American public. At a time when slavery was a common occurrence, the public was definitely guilty of looking past what is really going on to focus on what they hope to see. The racism of Captain Delano could have been a reflection of the slave holding public of the times.
The greatest difference between the two tales, and probably the most important, was the verdict. In the case of the Amistad, the court ruled in favor of the captives and deemed them to be free people. They were not seen at fault for revolting and killing the ship’s members. The real life story was a victory for abolitionists and a strong argument that the courts may be on their side. In Melville’s story, the slaves are not granted freedom. The slave said to be in charge of the revolt is even executed.
– Ashley K.
Cornish, Dudley T. “Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy.” Civil War History 34.1 (1988): 79-80. Project MUSE. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.
Jones, Howard. “Slave Mutiny on the Amistad” American History Magazine (January/February 1998): n.pag. Web. 22 Oct. 2013. http://www.historynet.com/slave-mutiny-on-the-amistad.htm
Thomas, JD. “The Amistad Goes on Sale.” Accessible Archives. Web. 22. Oct. 2013.