The Captives of the Amistad/Section 8

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Cinquè, on his return, relapsed into savagery but finally settled down into the position of interpreter of the mission station, where he died, about 1879. Margroo (or Sarah), one of the girls, became a teacher at the mission school, and was the last survivor of the whole company. The services at Cinquè’s funeral were conducted by the Rev. Albert President Miller, a graduate of Fisk University of the class of 1878, who, after a term of missionary service in Africa, came to this city in 1883 to be pastor of the Temple Street Congregational Society.

The Secretary of State had offered to surrender Antonio to the Spanish legation, immediately after the decision of the District Court in 1840. As, however, the District Attorney suggested that his testimony would be important for use against the Africans, should the appeal of the United States be successful, he was allowed to remain in jail until the final judgment of the Supreme Court. When informed of it, he still professed his desire to return to slavery, but just as our government was about to turn him over to the Spanish authorities, he slipped away to New York and placed himself in the hands of Lewis Tappan, who soon put him beyond the chances of recapture.

On May 29, 1841, the Chevalier de Argaiz addressed to our State Department a formal demand for indemnity for the losses of the owners of the Amistad and her cargo, and for an assurance that the forced and illegal “course given to this affair” by the government of the Union, should “never serve as a precedent in analogous cases which may occur.”

Daniel Webster was now the Secretary of State, and he at once sent a clerk to Mr. Adams for advice as to his reply. The latter writes, in his diary, May 31, 1841, “I gave him Mr. Baldwin’s argument in the case of the Amistad, and desired him to advise Mr. Webster not on this occasion to truckle to Spain.”[1]

The matter was laid before President Tyler, and in the following September a reply was made, taking the ground that the decision of the Supreme Court was conclusive on the Executive, and declining to accede to any of the demands of the Spanish minister. The later rejoined that he had “received express orders from his government to protest in the most solemn and formal manner against all that has been done by the courts of the United States in the case of the schooner Amistad.” Mr. Webster returned to this, on June 21, 1842, a lengthy dispatch, in which plainer language was used than that of his former communication, and Montez and Ruiz were described as persons who “had held in unjust and cruel confinement certain negroes who, it appeared on the trial, were as free as themselves.”[2] Spain again expressed her dissatisfaction with these views in language of rather a threatening character, and the President communicated all the correspondence to the House of Representatives,[3] with a recommendation that the amount of the salvage allowed to the officers of the Washington should be refunded, as a proof of our good faith.

The Committee on Foreign Affairs reported on this matter, April 10, 1844. The decisions of our courts, they said, were erroneous. “A lawless combination, insisting that these blacks were guilty of no offence, resisted their being punished or tried in this country, or their extradition for trial and punishment in Cuba.”[4] . . . “Zealots, with the help of the press, resisted the course of justice, and resolved to free the negro malefactors at all hazards. Moral force and intimidation (too significant of the physical violence to be the last resort, should justice be done), were put in operation to awe the courts, and rescue the slaves from their control. If they had been white, the due course of law would have been undisturbed. But the fanatical denunciation of negro slavery, which latterly passed over from England to America, created these blacks heroes and martyrs, surrounded them with irresistible succor, and your committee own with humiliation, set all law and its administration at defiance.” Dr. Madden’s testimony was denounced as the bold fabrication of a salaried spy. “We are accustomed,” the report continued, “to regard the Spanish inquisition as the worst possible dispensation of injustice. But what will be said of American justice when large bodies of men combine, and not only with impunity but applause and transcendent success, prostrate treaties, annul acts of Congress, intimidate courts of justice, seize and imprison parties litigant before them, steal their adjudged property, and by fictitious contrivances of proof, overthrow all law to set free murderers, robbers and pirates?” They then analyzed the evidence and findings on which the judgments were pronounced, and commented with great severity on a discrepancy of a year which they had discovered in the “judicial chronology” in regard to the time the negroes had been in Cuba. Unluckily, however, this mistake was their own, as they had assumed the capture by the Washington to have been made in August, 1840, when it really was in August, 1839, a gross error, the exposure of which greatly discredited their conclusions. They recommended an appropriation of $70,000 to indemnify the owners of the Amistad and her cargo, and Charles J. Ingersoll of Pennsylvania, their chairman, moved that ten thousand copies of the report be printed for public distribution.

Joshua R. Giddings made the single speech which was necessary to defeat the measure.[5] It is indexed in the Congressional Globe, as “Remarks on the subject of paying for the negro pirates on the schooner Amistad.”

Mr. Adams had prepared himself to follow Mr. Giddings, but the report was laid on the table so promptly that he had no opportunity to give his views to the public, except through the newspapers. He wrote of it in his diary: “A baser and more profligate misapplication of public money was never made than that proposed by this bill; and seven years in a penitentiary cell would be a strictly just retribution for the report.”[6]

A year later, he published in an address to his constituents, the speech which he had intended to deliver in the House,—a biting attack upon the committee, whom he charged with throwing before the public a “putrid mass of slander,” and a report “thick-sown” with “false and spurious principles of international law.”

The Spanish minister, encouraged by some allusions to the matter in President Tyler’s annual message, had meanwhile (on Dec. 4, 1844) again brought the matter to the attention of our Department of State, of which John C. Calhoun was now the head, in a dispatch in which he dwelt on the “gratuitously cruel persecutions against inoffensive subjects of her Catholic Majesty, of which an example fortunately rare in the annals of civilized nations has been exhibited in the confiscation of the Amistad, its sale, and the arbitrary confinement, in public prisons, of the two respectable Spaniards, escaped from the murderous dagger of the negroes, who had inflicted a violent death on the captain and crew of that ill-starred vessel.” He commended Mr. Ingersoll’s report very warmly, as giving “most estimable proofs of noble frankness and of an intrepid love for truth.”

This was followed up, after President Polk’s accession to office, by another letter (of Jan. 29, 1846), to Mr. Buchanan as Secretary of State, and both these communications were then brought to the attention of Congress. They were referred by the House, to the committee on Foreign Affairs of which Mr. Ingersoll was still chairman, and they renewed their former report,[7] on June 24, 1846, but without effect, the measure only receiving about forty votes.

In his next message, the President recommended an appropriation for the benefit of the Amistad claimants, as a measure required both by good policy and faithful compliance with our treaty obligations. Before this recommendation was acted upon, in February, 1848, Mr. Adams’ long term of service in the House of Representatives, beginning in 1831, came to a sudden close. He died at his post, in the Capitol, sinking to rest with these words on his lips: “This is the last of earth; I am content.”

At the close of the session, an appropriation of $50,000 to be paid to the Spanish government in settlement of its claims, was carried in the Senate, but defeated in the House. Among the senators voting in the negative was Roger S. Baldwin of Connecticut, one of the new members, who had recently taken his seat, and the leading speech against the proposition in the House was by the late John A. Rockwell of Norwich.

Another bill for the same purpose was favorably reported to the Senate in 1851, and again in 1852. Gov. Seward of New York, who had entered the Senate in 1849, opposed its adoption, and it was not acted upon during the session.

The annual message of President Pierce in 1853, revived the subject, and advised an appropriation. Mr. Giddings again took the floor against it, and again with success. The next administration, that of President Buchanan, a few years later, still urged this measure upon Congress, and it was discussed for the last time in both Houses. The Senate committee on Foreign Affairs reported in favor of an appropriation, a minority report however, being submitted by Gov. Seward. The bill went to a second reading, but no farther, and the latest trace of it is found in the unfinished business that went over, at the close of the first session of the thirty-fifth congress, May 20th, 1858.

So ended the last chapter in the history of the Amistad. New questions had arisen to occupy the public mind. The discussions that shook the councils of the nation in 1859 and 1860, were not as to whether slave-traders should be paid for the escape of their living cargoes, but first whether the whole system of society out of which the slave-trade sprang was not a false one, and then whether those who so believed, if a majority of the American people, should be suffered to exercise the powers of government at Washington.

I will not allude to the history of the last quarter of a century farther than to say that the United States is not the only land that has grown freer since that Summer day in 1839 when the captives of the Amistad were blown upon our shores.

At the Milan Conference of the Association for the Reform and Codification of the Law of Nations, held in 1883, resolutions were adopted that “every clause in any international treaty, which binds a State to give up slaves who have come within its territory, is invalid with regard to international law,” and that “where the extradition of an accused person who was a slave in the country seeking for his extradition is requested, such extradition should only be accorded, if the extradition of a free man would be accorded in the same case.”[8] Copies of these resolutions were communicated to the Spanish government, among others, and on May 17, 1884, a response was sent from the Colonial office at Madrid, approving their declarations, and stating that they “are in no way an innovation in Spain, whose ancient laws have always recognized as free the slave who enters the territory (including her own) of a nation where slavery does not exist, or who seeks refuge on board a ship belonging to such a nation.”

In his argument before the Supreme Court, Mr. Baldwin had asserted that “The United States, as a nation, is to be regarded as a free State.” If this position was questionable then, it was assured twenty years later, and it is pleasant to see that another twenty years has brought Spain herself into the same rank, and hears her ministry disown the claim on which their predecessors so stoutly founded their demand for the restoration of the captives of the Amistad.


  1. Memoirs x. 470
  2. Webster’s Diplomatic and Official Papers, 355.
  3. By his messages of Feb. 27, 1842, and January 24, 1844.
  4. Reports of the Committees, 1st Sess., 28th Congress, vol. ii., No. 426.
  5. Cong. Globe, 1st Sess., 28th Congr., appendix, p. 500.
  6. Mem. xii. 186
  7. Report No. 753, House of Representatives, 29th Congress, 1st Session.
  8. Report of Conference of 1883, p. 118.