In 1839, in waters off the coast of Cuba, a group of forty-nine Africans ensnared in the Atlantic slave trade struck out for freedom. They had been captured, sold into slavery, carried across the ocean, sold again, and they were being transported on what was, for millions of Africans, the last leg of the slave trade when they found the chance to seize the initiative. One of them, a man the world would come to know as "Cinque," worked free of his chains and led a shipboard revolt.
The vessel they won was a schooner that had been named, in a grim bit of irony, the Amistad ("Friendship"). The Africans tried to force two Cuban survivors to sail them back to Africa, but the Amistad wound up instead in U.S. waters, just past Long Island Sound, where the Africans were again taken into custody. Spain promptly demanded their extradition to face trial in Cuba for piracy and murder, but their plight caught the attention of American abolitionists, who mounted a legal defense on the Africans' behalf. The case went through the American judicial system all the way up to the Supreme Court, where former president John Quincy Adams joined the abolitionists' legal team. Finally, in March 1841, the Supreme Court upheld the freedom the Africans had claimed for themselves. Ten months later, in January 1842, the thirty-five Amistad Africans who had survived the ordeal returned to their homelands.
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