On La Amistad
The La Amistad was a ship that existed in the 1800s that was used to transport slaves. It was owned by a man with Spanish descent that lived in the Caribbean state of Cuba. Ironically, the meaning of the ship’s name, friendship, in Spanish, did not even come close to the purpose the ship was being used for. It came to the attention of the world after being the first ship that faced resistance by the Africans who were being transported to the human trafficking market. The Africans who were aboard the ship took over it although they were later captured by an American marine ship. The ship played a large role in history, since it was the last of its kind, that is, ships that were used in the horrible practice of slave trade (Osagie, 2003).
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was an ill practice that was conducted by civilized and developed nations at the time. These nations travelled to the native and underdeveloped countries mostly in Africa in search of slaves after which they would capture them and force the slaves to accompany them to their nations or other slave markets. They used to select the strong men and boys, capture them and then transport them in ships to sell them or work for them. Slaves were mistreated and were carried in the bowels of the ships chained to one another like animals, waiting to be sold to the highest bidder in the then booming business of slave trade. This problem on slavery ensued and human rights activists had quite a task in trying to fight for the rights of these hapless human beings.
The ship’s navigator, Pedro Montes, narrated the story of how he was captured on deck by the Africans. He narrated the story during his testifying before an American judge who listened to the case once the ship and its occupants were captured and taken to America. The Africans, led by Sengbe Pieh, are said to have found a rusty file and used it to free themselves from the chains that had bound them in the main hold below decks. They then made their way up to the deck, seized the ship, and ordered the ship’s navigator to take them back to their home. The navigator then lied to them about the course of their voyage and steered the ship on the course of America.
This is where the ship was cited and regarded as strange as it seemed to be controlled by the Africans. The ship was captured by an American naval ship and taken to America. The case was taken to court and the Spaniards gave an account of the occurrences that had taken place aboard the ship. The judge presiding over the case had a history of being against the black and the ruling that he held did not come as a surprise. The judge held that the Africans should be charged with insubordination and murder and that the little children should be taken as witnesses.
The issue reached the ears of the world and many people who opposed the slave trade evils were attracted to the case. They viewed the case as an excellent opportunity to rise against it and tell the world about it. A committee was formed dubbed ‘the Amistad Committee’ to aid the Africans fight for their rights. The three main characters who headed the mission had earlier faced cruelty from their own people for supporting the cause of anti-racism and the stoppage of slave trade in America. One of them had had his house ransacked and burnt to the ground and the other had a college that he had meant to open for the African Americans closed down. The committee then hired a renowned lawyer to represent the African grievances in court (Osagie, 2003).
The Africans were being transported from place to place, they were taken to New Haven jail, and then they were later transported to Hartford for trial. Another judge in the District court dismissed the charges that the Africans had earlier on been convicted for and held that they could not be held on American soil since the crime that they are claimed to have committed happened on a vessel belonging to people of another nationality. However, the American judge who had previously convicted them declined to release them and they were returned to jail.
A professor of native languages from Yale was determined to break the communication barrier between the two sides and this was in an effort to aid the Africans to be able to express themselves even if it will be through a translator. He visited the Africans in the jail cell that they were held in and after a session of sign communication, he learnt a few words from their dialect. He later went to the docks at sea in a bid to find anyone who understood both the African native language and the American language. There he met a black man who had been captured as a slave and educated by the slavers who had captured him and later employed by them.
The African man was later brought by the professor to act as the interpreter. The new age African, after a long consultation with his fellow men, gave a report that the Africans had been captured by their fellow Africans and then sold to the European slave traders. This was quite a barbaric practice that dealt with the livelihoods of innocent people and their basic and most important human right to freedom. Some of these captured men had families and children. The Africans had even captured young boys and girls. The issue of slave trade and human trafficking has had concerns world over for years and in itself is a very sensitive issue (Mendoza, 2008).
The Africans of the Amistad, before their story was told to the world, had a very bad reputation. A reputation of savages and cruel black and uncivilized men who had beat up some Spanish businesspersons and killed them. Soon after their story and more so, the correct version was told to the world, the way society viewed them was as innocent men and heroes in the plight of slaves. Due to this occurrence, the fight for the abolition of slavery became stronger, though it had not been won yet.
The Amistad Africans acquired popularity and due to their links with the Yale professor, they got free education from the Yale university students. After a long wait for their case to be heard again, the day finally came and with very powerful people against them, they stood a very slim chance of winning the case. The then president was against them and even had a ship ready for the Africans to be taken to Cuba where they were first destined to be if the judge ruled against them.
The court trial was well attended and many of those who were present just wanted to witness what was going on. The Spanish representative brought his case forward citing a treaty that the two nations had that declared that any ship, with Spanish ties, recovered at sea together with its merchandise should be handed over to the Spanish government. This treaty, they argued, still existed so their ship together with its cargo, which in this case meant the African slaves, should be handed over back to the Spanish since both belonged to them. Slavery was still legal in Cuba and that is where they were taking them (Mendoza, 2008).
Representatives to the African side, in response to the Spaniards argument, stated that there existed a treaty between the two countries, that is Spain and Great Britain that declared slave trade a terrible crime by the Spaniards themselves. There were ownership papers that Ruiz had that claimed he owned the Africans as slaves. These papers were declared void and it was said that the Africans deserved their freedom. The papers had falsely stated that the Africans had been purchased long time ago and that they have been slaves ever since. The leader of the Africans, Pieh, later put up his testimony and gave the account, in not so good English, of his abduction and mistreatment and later sale to the Portuguese and later to the Spaniards.
It took the letter writing skills of a young African girl who had been abducted along with the other Africans to convince the then former president of America, John Quincy Adams to intervene. He put up a strong fight for them but did so rather impartially. He stated a few facts and sounded quite bitter, an effect, people said, of the touch he got from the young girls letter. The court actually ruled in favor of the Africans stating that they had the God given right to be free and as much as they have it they should be. The decision of the court played a huge role in the fight against this prejudicial treatment and those who opposed the ill trade met it with joy (Pickford & Russell, 1998).
Human rights activists world over rejoiced after this decision and it acted as the dawn to freedom of the African people. Those who opposed the court’s decision got food for thought and had their minds set to think otherwise of the people they considered as commodities. They were resettled in the town of Farmington where they were met with rejection at first but then were fully accepted after a few weeks. They proved to be very friendly and they were accepted and were to be assimilated into the society were it not for their strong urge to go back home to their loved ones. The people of Farmington raised money to help the Africans go home and indeed, they did.
After a year, they had enough money to fund their voyage back home. They held a ceremony before they left and they showed sadness of their departure. They were very grateful for the support they were given and they even gave speeches and wrote letters in English. The Amistad case was just the revelation in the long struggle with human rights, but the United States of America and the world as a whole felt it. If it were not for this incidence, maybe, just maybe, we would still have slave trade and the oppression of colored people. Long after the Amistad case, the injustices against color still went on but a great American Leader, President Abraham Lincoln put a permanent end to it.
Mendoza, J. Y. (2008). La Amistad Castigada. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, LLC.
Osagie, I. F. (2003). The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone. Atlanta, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Pickford, S. B., & Russell, J. (1998). Antonio’s La Amistad. Minneapolis, MN: SBP Collaboration Works.