On June 28, 1839, the schooner La Amistad set sail from Havana, Cuba, setting off a series of events that would have international and historical consequences. On board the schooner were 53 Africans who had been abducted from West Africa and sold in violation of international law. Their intended fate was enslavement on plantations down coast from Havana. On the third day out, the Africans revolted and ordered that the ship be guided toward the rising sun back to Africa, but each night the Cuban plantation owners who had purchased them from Havana’s slave market and survived the uprising changed course. Zigzagging for two months, the ship eventually was brought by northerly winds and currents to Long Island. Intercepted by the United States Navy, the Africans were jailed and charged with piracy and murder. In New York City, a group of Christian abolitionists, headed by Lewis Tappan, formed a defense committee. Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin, with help from former President John Quincy Adams, took the case to the United States Supreme Court (United States v. The Amistad), which ruled in March 1841 that the Africans were free.
Hundreds of letters and documents related to these events and the Supreme Court case are housed within the records of the American Missionary Association. They continue to be of interest to researchers, from university professors to documentarians, to high school students completing National History Day projects. While the records were microfilmed decades ago, the Amistad Research Center is proud to launch a new digital collection that includes hi-resolution digital images of the vast majority of its primary source holdings related to the Amistad Case, along with transcribed summaries of the content of each document. This project would not have been possible without the generous support of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.
This digital collection is comprised of correspondence, dating from 1839-1841, by abolitionists, pro-slavery advocates, government officials, and the Amistad Africans themselves, related to the development of efforts to provide legal assistance to the Africans. The resulting trials in the U.S. court system; the political interests on the part of the United States, Cuba, and Spain; and the personal experiences of the imprisoned Africans are detailed in these letters. You can explore this collection directly through the Tulane University Digital Library or by visiting Amistad’s Digital Projects page on its website.
Images from the American Missionary Association Archives. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.