William S. Holabird
In June 1839, 52 African captives revolted as they were being transported on the Spanish schooner Amistad from Havana to Guanaja, Cuba. Led by Joseph Cinque, an Mende from the Sierra Leone region of West Africa, the rebels ordered two surviving Spaniards to sail the ship eastward to Africa. The crew sailed eastward during the day, but veered northwestward at night, hoping to encounter a British ship patrolling for vessels engaged in the illegal slave trade or to reach a friendly port.
Four months earlier, the Africans had been illegally shipped to Cuba; a third of the captives died along the way. During the 1830s, Cuba, the world's leading sugar producer, imported over 180,000 slaves in violation of a law prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa after 1820.
In late August, the U.S.S. Washington seized the Amistad near the Long Island coast. When the Amistad was captured, there were 39 African men and four children on board. A hearing was held in New London, Connecticut, and the Africans were charged with mutiny, murder, and piracy. They were then sent to New Haven, where the adults were placed in a jail cell, 20 by 30 feet in size. For 18 months, the Amistad rebels remained confined to their cell. Spectators paid 12 and a half cents to look at them.
Abolitionists quickly took up the cause of the Amistad rebels. They insisted that since the Africans had been illegally imported into Cuba and were free at the time that they entered U.S. waters, the rebels should be released from jail. The district court judge found on their behalf, but President Martin Van Buren (who came from a Dutch-American family that had once held slaves in New York and who was desperate to maintain southern support for his reelection bid) ordered the case appealed to the Supreme Court.
The following letters trace the disposition of the Amistad Affair in court, a case which raised critical issues of law and justice: whether captives had a right to rebel against their captors and whether American courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed outside this country.
In this letter, William S. Holabird (1794?-1855), the U.S. district attorney in Connecticut and a staunch Jacksonian Democrat, informs the Secretary of State that there was no legal basis for returning the Africans to Spanish authorities in Cuba. He argues that the United States had no right to try the Africans because their rebellion had taken place on a Spanish vessel on the open sea and involved only Spanish subjects. Weakened by the disastrous economic Panic of 1837, President Van Buren feared that the Amistad case would shatter his support in the South. The administration rejected the district attorney's argument and pressed ahead with the case.
In fact, Van Buren's administration intentionally mistranslated Spanish documents in a desperate effort to mislead the court about whether it was legal to import slaves into Cuba. President Van Buren also ordered a ship to take the rebels to Cuba before the District Court could render its verdict. Both attempts to obstruct justice failed.
I wrote you a few days since on the subject of the blacks taken on board the Spanish schooner "Amistad." Since then I have made a further examination of the law on the subject of the jurisdiction of our courts, which has brought me fully to the conclusion that the courts neither of this nor any other district in the United States can take cognizance of any offence committed on board a vessel belonging exclusively to citizens of a foreign State, on the high seas, and on and against subjects of a foreign State: and they (the blacks) not being citizens of the United States, the vessel having a national character at the time the offence was committed....
I would respectfully inquire, sir, whether there are no treaty stipulations with the Government of Spain that would authorize our Government to deliver them up to the Spanish authorities; and if so, whether it could be done before our court sits?