The American Slave Trade (Spears)/Chapter 18

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3516014The American Slave Trade (Spears) — Chapter 181907John Randolph Spears



A Cuban Coastwise Slaver that may have been Used to Smuggle Slaves into the United States — On the Way from Havana to Puerto Principe the Slaves Overpowered the Crew, and Started Back to Africa, but were Beguiled to Long Island — Judicially Decided that Slaves Unlawfully Held have a Right to Take Human Life in a Stroke for Liberty.

On August 26, 1839, the United States brig Washington, Captain Thomas R. Gedney, was engaged in surveying the water between Gardiner's Island and Montauk Point, L. I., when a schooner was seen at anchor well in shore near Culloden Point. There were a number of people on the beach with carts and horses, and a boat was passing to and fro between the stranger and the shore.

Apparently here was a smuggler at work in broad daylight, and Captain Gedney at once sent a boat, with six armed men, in charge of Lieutenant Richard W. Meade and Passed Midshipman David D. Porter to investigate. They found her "a Baltimore-built vessel of matchless model for speed, about one hundred and twenty tons burden, and about six years old. On her deck were grouped, amid various goods and arms, the remnant of her Ethiope crew, some decked in the most fantastic manner in the silks and finery pilfered from the cargo, while others ina state of nudity, emaciated to mere skeletons, lay coiled on the decks.

"Over the decks were scattered, in the most wanton and disorderly profusion, raisins, vermicelli, bread, rice, sill, and cotton goods. In the cabin and hold were the marks of the same wasteful destruction.

"Her cargo appeared to consist of silks, crepes, calicoes, fancy goods of various descriptions, glass and hardware, bridles, saddles, holsters, pictures, looking-glasses, books, fruits, olives, olive-oil, and other things too numerous to mention." So runs an old newspaper account.

As soon as the United States officers reached her deck two white men came to them, one begging for protection, while the other, an elderly man, threw his arms around Lieutenant Meade and held him in an embrace that made the lieutenant think the man intended violence. Drawing a pistol, Meade thrust it in his face, when the man retreated, and his companion, a young man of good address, who spoke English fluently, began an explanation.

He said his name was Jose Ruiz and that of the demonstrative elder was Pedro Montez. No offence was intended by Montez; on the contrary, his embrace was but a manifestation of gratitude. The queer little schooner, he continued, was the Amistad, of Havana, where she was owned and commanded by Captain Ramon Ferrar. She had sailed from Havana on June 27th, bound for Guanaja, in the Cuban state of Puerto Principe, but on the night of June 30th the slaves on the ship had mutinied, killed the captain and cook, sent the two sailors ashore in the boat, and ordered him (Ruiz) and Pedro Montez to navigate the ship to Africa. Under fear of death the "Amistad" had been steered toward the east by day, but at night she had been headed for the United States. So it had happened that they had been for several days within a few miles of Long Island, and had finally anchored where found in order to get food and water.

As to the negroes, Ruiz said that one called Antonio was the property of the slain captain, three belonged to Pedro Montez, while the remainder, forty-nine in number, were his own property.

On hearing that, Meade sent Porter ashore with four men to round up the blacks there. The blacks on shore got into their boat and started rowing out to the schooner, but Porter stopped them with a pistol shot, and took them on board the schooner under guard. Once there, their leader, called Cinque, leaped overboard with a belt containing three hundred doubloons, and went "diving and swimming like a fish" for shore, but he was hauled back on board with a boat-hook in the hands of a grinning quartermaster.

Meantime Captain Gedney had brought the "Washington" alongside, and on hearing the reports of his officers decided to take the schooner to New London, where he libelled her for salvage. And then the trouble began.

Señor A. Calderon, who was then the Spanish Minister at Washington, at once demanded the vessel and cargo under the treaty with Spain dated 1795. One article of this treaty was quoted as exactly covering the case. It said:

"All ships and "merchandise of what nature soever, which shall be rescued out of the hands of any pirates" or robbers on the high seas shall be brought into some port of either State and shall be delivered to the custody of the officers of that port, in order "to be taken care of and restored entire" to the true proprietor as soon as due and sufficient proof shall be made concerning the property thereof."

The words in italics were so emphasized when quoted in Señor Calderon's demand. Very naturally the Washington officials were entirely willing to grant the demand. Under our laws slaves were property, and here were negroes in charge of a ship which they had taken by force from its owner. Further than that, these negroes were, according to the papers of the ship and the passports of the two Spaniards Ruiz and Montez, slaves. Ruiz, for instance, produced a passport issued by the captain of the port of Havana, in due form, dated 26 de junio (June) de 1839, which read in Spanish thus: "Concedo licencia, á cuarenta y nueva negros ladinos, nombrados." etc. The names of the negroes followed.

The Spanish words are given because of their bearing on the case, as will appear farther on. So far as the papers appeared, everything was in proper form.

Meantime, however, the negroes, who were put in jail at New London, had found friends who were willing to spend money to see that they had a fair trial, were that possible in the existing state of civilization. These friends saw the passport which Ruiz exhibited as proof of ownership of the forty-nine negroes, and they were able to translate it. The translation offered by Ruiz and accepted by our Government, and so printed in a message of the President on the subject, read as follows:

"I concede license to forty-nine "sound" negroes," ladinos being rendered as "sound". As a matter of fact, "ladinos" was a local term used in Cuban law to designate slaves born in the country or imported previous to 1820. The translation was a fraud, and the beginning of a shameful attempt to deceive the people of the United States, including the courts. For it was at once learned that neither the forty-nine negroes claimed by Ruiz nor the three claimed by Montez were "ladinos". Cuban slave-dealers had imported them from Africa in a Portuguese vessel called "Teçora", on June 12th — fifteen days only before they were taken on board the "Amistad". They had been landed near Havana, and taken to a barracoon near the city, and there, on June 22d, Ruiz and Montez had purchased them. The purchasers had then obtained the usual permit for taking "ladinos" coastwise. But how it had happened that the Havana official was willing to issue a "ladino" permit, when these negroes had been landed contrary to the Spanish law, does not appear in the printed proceedings.

In short, the abolitionists said these negroes, that had been taken from their African homes and carried to Cuba, contrary to the laws of Spain, were not slaves but freemen, and when they were confined as slaves on the "Amistad" they had the natural right to rise against those who restrained them, and to regain liberty even if they had to kill two men to do it.

So issue was joined, and in the course of time (1841) the case reached the United States Supreme Court, where Justice Story delivered the opinion of the court. He said that in order to sustain the claims of Ruiz and Montez "it is essential to establish: 1st. That these negroes under all the circumstances fall within the description of merchandise in the sense of the treaty. 2d. That there has been a rescue of them on the high seas out of the hands of the pirates and robbers, which, in the present case, can only be by showing that they themselves are pirates and robbers. 3d. That Ruiz and Montez, the asserted proprietors, are the true proprietors, and have established their title by competent proof."[1]

As to the first point, if the negroes had been lawfully held as slaves under the Spanish law, said the Justice, "we see no reason why they may not justly be deemed, within the intent of the treaty, to be included under the denomination of merchandise. . . . . But admitting this, it is clear, in our opinion it is plain beyond controversy, if we examine the evidence, they never were the lawful slaves of Ruiz or Montez, or of any other Spanish subject. . . . If, then, these negroes are not slaves. . . there is no pretence to say they are pirates or robbers. But it is argued on behalf of the United States that the ship and cargo and negroes were duly documented as belonging to Spanish subjects, and this court has no right to look behind these documents. . . . To this argument we can in nowise assent. . . . The very language of the ninth article of the treaty of 1795 requires the proprietor to make due and sufficient proof of his property. And how can that proof be deemed either due or sufficient which is but a connected and stained tissue of fraud? Upon the whole, our opinion is. . . that the said negroes be declared free, and be dismissed from the custody of the court, and go without date." The narrative of events has been interrupted in order to give the exact status of these negroes under our laws of that date, because we are thus enabled to appreciate better the attitude of the Government officials toward this case. The Spanish Minister, Calderon, claimed them not only as slaves bunt as murderers, and asserted that if the leaders were executed for crime in Cuba the effect would be more salutary than if they were convicted and executed in Connecticut. Our Government officials were anxious to sustain this view. United States District Attorney William 8. Holabird, of Connecticut, was soanxions in the matter that he wrote to Secretary of State Forsyth to ask whether there were no treaty stipulations under which the negroes might be given up "before our court sits."

There were none, but Secretary Forsyth instructed him to "take care that no proceedings of your Circuit Court, or any other judicial tribunal, place the vessel, cargo, or slaves beyond the control of the Federal Executive." Attorney-General Grundy wrote an opinion saying he could not see any "legal principle" that would justify the Government in questioning "the papers clearing the vessel from one Spanish port to another." He added that as the negroes were charged with violating Spanish law they ought to be delivered over to Spanish courts for trial in order that the guilty "might not escape punishment." The President, he thought, ought to order the vessel, cargo, and negroes delivered to the Spanish Minister at once without any investigation.

President Van Buren did not go so far as that, but Captain Gedney was ordered to hold his vessel in readiness to go to Cuba with the negroes, and for the purpose of giving testimony "in any proceedings that may be ordered by the authorities of Cuba in the matter" This was done before the court in Connecticut had assembled to consider the case. Worse yet, the Cabinet, in anticipation that the District Court would decide against the liberty of the negroes, prepared to hurry them off to Cuba before an appeal could be taken. The proof of this is found in a letter written by Secretary Forsyth in which he said: "I have to state, by direction of the President, that if the decision of the court is such as is anticipated, the order of the President is to be carried into execution unless an appeal shall actually have been interposed. You are not to take it for granted that it will be interposed."

Had the Court decided as Van Buren hoped it would do, the negroes would have been marched from the court-room to the United States ship "Washington", and sent, as fast as wind and tide could drive her, to Havana.

By the decision of the Court the negroes freed were only those that had been imported from Africa in the Portuguese ship Teçora. Antonio, claimed as the property of Captain Ferrar, of the "Amistad", was by law a slave, and he would have been delivered to the Spanish authorities had not some conductors on the underground railroad come to hisaid. He had simply disappeared. The schooner was sold for salvage. Mills' Register (October 31, 1840) says she was old and Cuban built. She sold for $245.

Drake in his "Revelations of a Slave-Smuggler" speaks of the "Amistad" as a schooner that belonged to a joint-stock slave-smuggling company "connected with leading American and Spanish mercantile houses," that used "one of the Bay Islands, so called, near the coast of Honduras," as a station where slaves were landed after the voyage from Africa. They were there restored to health and taught plantation work before being sent to market.

It is not unlikely that the energy shown by the Washington authorities in their efforts to return these free negroes to Cuba was due in part to pressure brought by New York merchants of prominence.

But the case of the "Amistad" by no means came to an end with the comprehensive decision of the Supreme Court. The Spanish authorities appealed to Congress for indemnity in behalf of Ruiz and Montez. Our executive branch of the Government was entirely willing to grant this appeal, and on April 10, 1844, Congressman Charles J. Ingersoll, of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, brought in a report in which the committee "entirely concur with the President's intimation" that "in conformity with every principle of law and justice" the United States ought to pay for the "Amistad" negroes. It was asserted by them that "to set the slaves free cardinal principles were violated"; and that "in defiance of the law of treaties, of the law of all civilized nations and of primary principles of universal jurisprudence, were these much abused foreigners stripped of their property; and the pirates who, by revolt, murder, and robbery, had deprived them of it, set free."

By an examination of the documents (including House Reports No. 426, 28th Congress, 1st Session) it appears that Ingersoll in making this report deliberately falsified dates, and built his argument on a false date.

the slaves on the ship had mutinied
See page 185.

The desired appropriation was not made, but as late as February 2, 1858, the claim was before Congress with a recommendation from President Buchanan that it be paid. But it never was paid, and it might now be forgotten but for the fact that the Supreme Court of the United States, when it heard the case, decided then, for the first time, that black men carried from their homes in Africa as slaves had the right, when seeking their liberty, to kill any who would deprive them of it.

  1. Peters's U. S. Reports, vol, 15, p, 592.