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185 Years Since Mutiny on the Amistad

The story of Joseph Cinque’s courageous mutiny on the schooner Amistad has been often told. He was unlawfully kidnapped from his home in Sierra Leone and forced on to a Portuguese slave ship heading to Cuba. He was able to free himself and others from shackles, find knives on board, and kill the captain and the cook. The mutineers allowed the navigator to live so that they could return to Sierra Leone. But, the navigator steered the ship into US waters. Initially spotted off the coast of New York, it finally docked in Connecticut. That happened 185 years ago this week.

Connecticut as a slave state rabbit hole: In 1783, Massachusetts courts determined that slavery violated the Massachusetts Constitution. In 1799, New York initiated a gradual abolition of slavery which became final in 1824. Rhode Island is a little trickier – as a technical matter, Rhode Island abolished slavery in 1652, but for reasons that never made sense, it was still kind-of legal to own slaves until 1843 when the full effect of gradual emancipation was realized.  Like several of its neighbors, Connecticut also passed a gradual emancipation act in 1784 which would become final in 1848. So, in 1839 – when this mutiny occurred, the initial waters into which the Amistad sailed were in New York, which had outlawed slavery. even though this case would be tried in federal court, realistically, in order to make the argument the ship’s owners and creditors wanted to make, they had to be in Connecticut which was the only slave state in the immediate vicinity. It is unclear if the navigator knew any of this when he sailed north.

The mutineers faced trial for murder and also risked being sold into slavery. The people on the Amistad would be given an opportunity for a trial. But, that will come later - and to great acclaim. In an odd twist, the president of the United States - a New York Democrat named Martin Van Buren - so wanted to be re-elected that, while looking for votes, he sided with the slave traders.

Martin Van Buren's gamble rabbit hole: This was a terrible decision for Van Buren. He would lose his re-election bid to the "aged" whig William Henry Harrison (who was 68 at the time). Harrison, famously, fell ill about a month into his tenure and died leaving his vice president to succeed to the corner office. That man was John Tyler - a man essentially without a party who was added to the Harrison ticket solely to secure votes from the South. But, Tyler was woefully inept as president - genuinely a man without a party and without support anywhere in government. With tremendous, but confusing, confidence, he would spend his four years mired in chaos. He will be defeated by James K. Polk who campaigned in part on a promise not to run for reelection - a campaign promise he kept. Shortly after the left office, he died.

Back to the mutiny in 1839. Okay - so here we are - dead captain, dead cook and 53 unlawfully kidnapped people in a strange land where people spoke a strange language. They were all jailed pending trial. Thank goodness for interpreters because there was someone available in New Haven, or possibly Hartford, who spoke Cinque's West African language. He was able to explain what happened. He will be eloquent and descriptive and will even take the stand in his own defense at trial.

The issues at trial were several - first - there had to be a determination of status. Were the captives enslaved people or were they victims of unlawful kidnapping? The determination of this question was critical. Because the captives could explain what happened to them, the trial judge concluded that they were unlawfully kidnapped. Even though slavery was legal in Cuba, just as in the United States, the transatlantic trade to import human beings from Africa was not. Cinque and the others on board the Amistad had recently been abducted from West Africa. The judge determined, therefore, that these people were not subject to laws and rules regarding "slaves" and "masters", but instead they were crime victims who could seek their liberation, even if that meant killing their captors. Today this would be termed something along the lines of a "stand your ground" defense. It was a justifiable homicide.

But at the time, this was an international event - Spain argued for the return of the captives to Cuba. The United States government sided with Spain. When Cinque and the others were acquitted at trial, the United States government - led at that point by Van Buren appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States. It was in that appeal before the Supreme Court that former president, and then Congressman, John Quincy Adams, would ultimately shine.

In 1839, Spain was actively kidnapping human beings - or looking the other way as their representatives did so - and selling them into slavery. To place us in history - a very young Queen Victoria was monarch of Great Britain facing her first political crisis, Daguerre had just patented his newfangled camera which he had already used to take a picture of the moon, Goodyear discovered how to vulcanize rubber, and the British captured Hong Kong from China. In that universe, 53 kidnapped men and women were able to be heard in a court of law in Connecticut, make their case, and win. Even when the full force of the United States government appealed to the highest court in the land - then led by none other than Chief Justice Roger Taney - they still won.

Not every trial is fair. Not every wronged person gets his due in court. Not every story has a hero or a champion or a legacy that gets turned into movies at some point down the road where John Quincy Adams can be portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. But, the fact that we have trials where people get their day, so to speak - to make their defense heard and to seek justice - is a great American tradition. This is true even when people lose their cases. Or, when they lose at trial but find justice on appeal. And, respect for that system - even when it is imperfect, even when it does not do all we want it to do, even when it seems incredible that we are even there in the first place facing charges or defending our lives - is part of the fabric of how American became the kind of place that people will risk their lives to get to. It is part of a beacon that others have looked to for hundreds of years as a place of law and ordered liberty.

The chaos of the 1830's through the 1850's would lead up to the Civil War (which, again, it bears repeating - was a war in which traitors rose up against the federal government in order to ensure that they could continue to enslave other people when the sentiment that had been growing for decades to eliminate slavery was gaining strength - and these rebellious traitors lost the war. Their descendants and acolytes continue to gain support because we absolutely refuse to learn the lessons of the past.) But an important takeaway is this idea of a fair trial and an opportunity to be heard and represented by able counsel. These are still values we hold today - whether or not we are successful in that trial. Anyone who defies that framework or alleges, without cause, that the system is rigged or who delays justice in order to avoid facing the consequences does not understand at all what has always made this nation great: the rule of law.

When the captured men and women rose up on the Amistad, they did so as free people unlawfully kidnapped who had a right to bodily integrity and the right to be free from captivity. The fact that slave-holding America in 1841 would agree with those truths demonstrates that they are, and always have been, self-evident. And that is a phrase brought into our lexicon in another event whose anniversary is this week. The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence will forever be one of the great statements of all time, even if it is one we continually struggle to ensure: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Happy Independence Day - remember the Amistad.

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