Press Contact: Yvonne French (202) 707-9191
December 31, 1997
Original Amistad Court Brief Is Online at Library of Congress as Part of "African American Odyssey" Exhibition
Original Document to be Exhibited Beginning February 5
Eight pages of John Quincy Adams's brief from the 1841 Amistad Supreme Court case are available online as part of the permanent Library of Congress exhibition "American Treasures of the Library of Congress." Additionally, the original pages of the brief will be shown at the Library beginning February 5 in a major new exhibition, "African American Odyssey." The affidavit of captured Mende warrior Cinqu will also be on view in the exhibition. The Amistad case is the subject of a current motion picture focusing on the courtroom drama.
In 1839 a Portuguese slave trader purchased a cargo of about 50 kidnapped African natives from a Spaniard involved in the trade on the Guinea Coast of West Africa. The trade was prohibited by a treaty between Spain, Portugal and Great Britain. Transported to the Caribbean aboard the Portuguese vessel, Tecora, the captives, from the Mendi tribe on the northern border of Nigeria, were not slaves but legally free men who had been illegally enslaved. The Tecora landed in Havana, where the captives were marched to a slave market. Two Cubans, Ruiz and Montes, purchased them and planned to take them by the coastal schooner, Amistad, to Puerto Prncipe, a Cuban plantation area.
The Amistad, a Spanish vessel, set sail June 28, 1839. A few days later, the Africans rebelled, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered Ruiz, Montes and the cabin boy to transport them back to Africa. During the day, the pilots steered the vessel eastward, but at night they headed north, ultimately arriving in August 1839 off Long Island, N.Y. There the ship was seized by U.S. government authorities and the Africans were imprisoned after Ruiz and Montes denounced them as rebellious slaves, pirates and murderers.
Almost overnight the incident became a cause clbre. The Africans, led by the Mende warrior Singbe-Pih, named Cinqu by the slave traders, insisted that they be freed and returned to their continent. President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) and the Spanish administrators of Cuba claimed that they should be extradited to Cuba to stand trial for mutiny.
A series of complex legal maneuvers then ensued, involving the federal district court in Connecticut and the court of appeals. As a result, it was ruled that the Africans had been illegally captured, illegally transported and illegally enslaved, and that the United States should not become involved in such proceedings. Unwilling to accept the judge's decision, the United States appealed the case to the Supreme Court, where former President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) defended the Africans. In his lengthy argument he stated that all the sympathy seemed to be for the Spaniards rather than for the Africans. He argued it was the Africans who should be treated sympathetically because they were free people who had been kidnapped and illegally enslaved and "were entitled to all the kindness and good offices due from a humane and Christian nation." His argument prevailed, and the surviving Africans were sent home as free men. Wrote Adams in the brief that was to help undermine the Van Buren administration: "... The charge I make against the present Executive Administration is that in all their proceedings relating to these unfortunate men, instead of that Justice to which they were bound not less than this honorable court itself to observe, they have substituted Sympathy: -- Sympathy with one of the parties in this conflict of justice and Antipathy to the other. Sympathy with the white. Antipathy to the black."
The initial pages of Adams's legal brief, in his small but legible handwriting, are permanently available in the on-line version of the "American Treasures of the Library of Congress." The web address for the brief is http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr021.html. Additionally, the original legal brief and Cinqu's affidavit will be on view in the "African American Odyssey" exhibition. The affidavit, dictated by Cinqu, describes his capture and sale, the small amount of food he was given, the beating "on the head" he received from the vessel's cook, and his fear that the white men would eat him, which the cook had threatened by drawing a finger across his neck. The exhibition also will include an undated screen print of Cinqu and the Amistad mutiny by contemporary artist Romare Bearden.
"African American Odyssey" opens February 5 in the Northwest Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building, at First Street and Independence Avenue S.E. It is the largest exhibition of African American materials ever mounted by the Library, which holds the nation's largest collection, and will run through May 2. "African American Odyssey" is being sponsored in part by the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress, Fannie Mae, the Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc, Citicorp Foundation, Home Box Office, and the Cafritz Foundation. Exhibition hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The Library is closed on Sundays and federal holidays. For information, call (202) 707-8000, (202) 707- 6200 TTY.
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