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Coordinates: 41°21′40″N 71°57′58″W / 41.361°N 71.966°W / 41.361; -71.966

La Amistad (pronounced [la a.misˈtað]; Spanish for Friendship) was a 19th-century two-masted schooner, owned by a Spaniard living in Cuba. It became renowned in July 1839 for a slave revolt by Mende captives, who had been enslaved in Sierra Leone, and were being transported from Havana, Cuba to their purchasers' plantations.[1] The African captives took control of the ship, killing some of the crew and ordering the survivors to sail the ship to Africa. The Spanish survivors secretly maneuvered the ship north, and La Amistad was captured off the coast of Long Island by the brig USS Washington. The Mende and La Amistad were interned in Connecticut while federal court proceedings were undertaken for their disposition. The owners of the ship and Spanish government claimed the slaves as property; but the US had banned the African trade and argued that the Mende were legally free.

La Amistad
La Amistad (ship).jpg
Name: La Amistad
Owner: Don Ramon Ferrer
Acquired: pre-Oct, 1840
United States
Name: Ion
Owner: Captain George Hawford, Newport, Rhode Island
Acquired: Oct, 1840
Acquired: 1844
General characteristics
Length: 120 ft (37 m)
Sail plan: schooner

Because of issues of ownership and jurisdiction, the case gained international attention. Known as United States v. The Amistad (1841), the case was finally decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in favor of the Mende, restoring their freedom. It became a symbol in the United States in the movement to abolish slavery.



La Amistad was a 19th-century two-masted schooner of about 120 feet (37 m). By 1839 the schooner was owned by a Spaniard captain, Don Ramon Ferrer.[2] Strictly speaking, La Amistad was not a slave ship as it was not designed to transport large cargoes of slaves, nor did it engage in the Middle Passage of Africans to the Americas. The ship engaged in the shorter, coastwise trade around Cuba and in the Caribbean. The primary cargo carried by La Amistad was sugar-industry products. It carried a limited number of passengers and, on occasion, slaves being transported for delivery or sale.[citation needed]

1839 slave revoltEdit

1840 engraving depicting the Amistad revolt

Captained by Ferrer, Amistad left Havana on 28 June 1839 for the small port of Guanaja, near Puerto Principe, Cuba, with some general cargo and 53 slaves for the sugar plantation where they were to be delivered.[2] These 53 Mende captives (49 adults and 4 children) had been taken from Mendiland (in modern-day Sierra Leone) and illegally transported from Africa to Havana, mostly aboard the slave ship Teçora, to be sold into slavery in Cuba.[3][4] The crew of La Amistad, lacking purpose-built slave quarters, placed half the captives in the main hold, and the other half on deck. The captives were relatively free to move about, which aided their revolt and commandeering of the vessel. In the main hold below decks, the captives found a rusty file and sawed through their manacles.[5]

On about July 1, once free, the men below quickly went up on deck and, armed with machete-like cane knives, attacked the crew, successfully gaining control of the ship under the leadership of Sengbe Pieh (later known in the United States as Joseph Cinqué). They killed the captain and some of the crew, but spared Don José Ruiz and Don Pedro Montez, the two owners of the slaves, so they could guide them back to Africa.[2][4][5] While they demanded to be returned home, the navigator Montez deceived the Mende about the course, maneuvering the ship north along the North American coast until they reached the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. Discovered by the naval brig USS Washington while on surveying duties, La Amistad was taken into United States custody.[2][6] The Mende were interned at New Haven, Connecticut, while the courts settled their legal status and conflicting international claims regarding La Amistad's ownership, as well as the status of its property, including the slaves.[4]

Court caseEdit

A print of Cinqué that appeared in The Sun on August 31, 1839
Text of the Amistad Supreme Court decision

A widely publicized court case ensued in New Haven to settle legal issues about the ship and the status of the Mende captives. They were at risk of execution if convicted of mutiny. This became a popular cause among abolitionists in the United States. Since 1808, the United States and Britain had prohibited the international slave trade.[7] The ship's owners fraudulently described the Mende as having been born in Cuba and said they were being sold in the Spanish domestic slave trade, in order to avoid the international prohibition on the African slave trade. The court had to determine if the Mende were to be considered salvage and thus the property of naval officers who had taken custody of the ship (as was legal in such cases), the property of the Cuban buyers, or the property of Spain, as Queen Isabella II claimed, via Spanish ownership of the Amistad. A question was whether the circumstances of the Mendes' capture and transportation meant they were free and had acted as free men rather than slaves.[4]

On appeal, the United States v. The Amistad case reached the US Supreme Court. In 1841, it ruled that the Mende had been illegally transported and held as slaves, and had rebelled in self-defense. It ordered them freed.[4] Thirty-five[4] survivors returned to Africa in 1842, aided by funds raised by the United Missionary Society, a black group founded by James W.C. Pennington, a Congregational minister and fugitive slave in Brooklyn, New York, who was active in the abolitionist movement.[8]

Later yearsEdit

After being moored at the wharf behind the US Custom House in New London, Connecticut, for a year and a half, La Amistad was auctioned off by the U.S. Marshal in October 1840. Captain George Hawford, of Newport, Rhode Island, purchased the vessel and then needed an Act of Congress passed to register it.[citation needed] He renamed it Ion. In late 1841, he sailed Ion to Bermuda and Saint Thomas with a typical New England cargo of onions, apples, live poultry, and cheese.

After sailing Ion for a few years, Hawford sold it in Guadeloupe in 1844. There is no record of what became of Ion under the new French owners in the Caribbean.


Freedom Schooner Amistad
Freedom Schooner Amistad at Mystic Seaport in 2010.
 United States
  • 2000–2015: Amistad America, Inc., New Haven, Connecticut
  • from 2015: Discovering Amistad, Inc., New Haven, Connecticut
Builder: Mystic Seaport
Laid down: 1998
Launched: 25 March 2000
General characteristics
Tons burthen: 136 L. tons
Length: 80.7 ft (24.6 m)
Beam: 22.9 ft (7.0 m)
Draft: 10.1 ft (3.1 m)
Propulsion: Sail, 2 Caterpillar diesel engines
Sail plan: Topsail schooner

A monument dedicated to the revolt on La Amistad stands in front of City Hall in New Haven, Connecticut, where many of the events related to the affair in the United States occurred.

The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, is devoted to research about slavery, abolition, civil rights and African Americans; it commemorates the revolt of slaves on the ship by the same name.[citation needed] A collection of portraits of La Amistad survivors that were drawn by William H. Townsend during the survivors' trial are held in the collection of Yale University.[4]


Between 1998 and 2000, artisans at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut, built a replica of La Amistad, using traditional skills and construction techniques common to wooden schooners built in the 19th century, but using modern materials and engines. Officially named Amistad, it was promoted as "Freedom Schooner Amistad".[9][10] The modern-day ship is not an exact replica of La Amistad, as it is slightly longer and has higher freeboard. There were no old blueprints of the original.

The new schooner was built using a general knowledge of the Baltimore Clippers and art drawings from the era. Some of the tools used in the project were the same as those that might have been used by a 19th-century shipwright, while others were powered. Tri-Coastal Marine,[11] designers of "Freedom Schooner Amistad", used modern computer technology to develop plans for the vessel. Bronze bolts are used as fastenings throughout the ship. Freedom Schooner Amistad has an external ballast keel made of lead and two Caterpillar diesel engines. None of this technology was available to 19th-century builders.

"Freedom Schooner Amistad" was operated by Amistad America, Inc., based in New Haven, Connecticut. The ship's mission was to educate the public on the history of slavery, abolition, discrimination, and civil rights. The homeport is New Haven, where the Amistad trial took place. It has also traveled to port cities for educational opportunities. It was also the State Flagship and Tall ship Ambassador of Connecticut.[12] The ship made several commemorative voyages: one in 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in Britain (1807) and the United States (1808),[13] and one in 2010 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its 2000 launching at Mystic Seaport. It undertook a two-year refit at Mystic Seaport from 2010 and was subsequently mainly used for sea training in Maine and film work.[14]

In 2013 Amistad America lost its non-profit organization status after failing to file tax returns for three years and amid concern of the accountability for public funding from the state of Connecticut.[15][16][17] The company was later put into liquidation, and in November 2015 a new non-profit, Discovering Amistad Inc.,[18] purchased the ship from the receiver. Amistad has now been restored to educational and promotional activity in New Haven, Connecticut.[19]

La Amistad in popular cultureEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Teaching With Documents:The Amistad Case". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved 2013-03-14.
  2. ^ a b c d Adams, John Quincy (1841). Argument. New York: S. W. Benedict. pp. 13–14. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  3. ^ Lawrance, Benjamin Nicholas (2015). Amistad's orphans : an atlantic story of children, slavery, and smuggling. [S.l.]: Yale University Press. pp. 130–131. ISBN 9780300198454. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "Unidentified Young Man". World Digital Library. 1839–1840. Retrieved 2013-07-28.
  5. ^ a b Finkenbine, Roy E. (2001). "13 The Symbolism of Slave Mutiny: Black Abolitionist Responses to the Amistad and Creole Incidents". In Hathaway, Jane. Rebellion, Repression, Reinvention: Mutiny in Comparative Perspective. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 238. ISBN 978-0-275-97010-9. Retrieved 2012-08-18.
  6. ^ Between 1838 and 1848, the USRC Washington was transferred from the United States Revenue Cutter Service to the US Navy. See: Howard I. Chapelle, The History of the American Sailing Navy. New York: Norton / Bonanza Books (1949), ISBN 0-517-00487-9
  7. ^ "22 Statutes at Large". A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875. U.S. Congressional House Proceedings. 9th Congress. 2nd Session. Library of Congress. p. 426. American Memory. Retrieved 2012-07-11.
  8. ^ Webber, Christopher L. (2011). American to the Backbone: The Life of James W.C. Pennington, the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists. New York: Pegasus Books. ISBN 1605981753, pp. 162–169.
  9. ^ "Amistad". Coast Guard Vessel Documentation. Silver Spring MD, USA: NOAA Fisheries. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  10. ^ Marder, Alfred L. "About the Freedom Schooner Amistad". New Haven CT, USA: Amistad Committee, Inc. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  11. ^ "The New Topsail Schooner Amistad". Retrieved 2012-08-18.
  12. ^ "State of Connecticut Sites, Seals, & Symbols". Connecticut State Register & Manual. Retrieved 2012-08-18.
  13. ^ "Amistad Sails Into Bristol for Slave Trade Commemorations". Culture24. 30 August 2007. Retrieved 2009-12-07.
  14. ^ Lender, Jon (3 August 2013). "Troubles Aboard the Amistad". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
  15. ^ "State Missed Signs As Tall Ship Amistad Foundered". The Hartford Courant. 3 September 2013. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
  16. ^ Lender, Jon (4 September 2013). "Malloy Wants 'Action Plan' For Troubled Amistad". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
  17. ^ Collins, David (10 May 2013). "Amistad still sails some troubled waters". The Day. New London, CT. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Wojtas, Joe (31 December 2015). "Discovering Amistad charts new course for schooner". The Day. New London CT, USA. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  20. ^ Bloom, Harold (2005). Poets and Poems. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. pp. 348–351. ISBN 0-7910-8225-3. All this is merely preamble to a rather rapid survey of a few of Hayden's superb sequences, of which Middle Passage is the most famous.

Further readingEdit

  • Owens, William A. (1997). Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad. Black Classic Press.
  • Pesci, David (1997). Amistad. Da Capo Press.
  • Rediker, Marcus (2012). The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom. New York: Viking.
  • Zeuske, Michael (2014). "Rethinking the Case of the Schooner Amistad: Contraband and Complicity after 1808/1820". Slavery & Abolition. 35 (1): 156–164.

External linksEdit