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WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

The U.S. Navy and the Amistad

On 26 August 1839, the officers of the U.S. brig Washington made a shocking discovery: they found a Spanish slave schooner lying at anchor near Montauk Point, New York, clearly in distress. The ship proved to be the Spanish schooner Amistad (meaning "friendship" in Spanish).

The ship was carrying a cargo of some fifty slaves illegally brought from Africa to Cuba in the summer of 1839; they were en route from Havana, Cuba to Puerto Principe, Cuba, when the black captives rose and overpowered the white crew. The slaves killed the captain and one of the crew, sparing the lives of two Spanish passengers whom they thought could sail the vessel back to Africa. The Spaniards, however, tricked the Africans by sailing the vessel northward and westward by night in hopes that the Amistad would be intercepted. For two months, the vessel had sailed aimlessly until they ran low on food and water.

After being discovered off Long Island, the Africans were arrested and taken to New Haven, Connecticut, where they were charged with piracy and murder. Their trial aroused great public interest and helped to galvanize the abolitionist movement in America. Abolitionists argued that the Africans were illegally brought to Cuba, and therefore were free men and women who were acting in self-defense when they rose and killed the captain and crew of the Spanish vessel. The two surviving Spanish passengers hoped their vessel and the illegal cargo of slaves would be returned to them by the court.

Eventually the case was argued before the Supreme Court by former President John Quincy Adams. The Africans were acquitted of all charges and most decided to return to Africa as free men and women after the trial ended.

The case was a defining moment in the struggle to abolish slavery in the United States. The American Missionary Association, which raised funds for the defense and repatriation of the Africans, continued its work by educating Freedmen after the Civil War and founding a number of black colleges, including Fisk, Hampton, Howard, and Talledega.

The Brig Washington

The U.S. brig Washington was one of a number of vessels employed by the navy to survey and map the coasts and harbors of the United States for the Coast Survey. The Coast Survey (predecessor to today's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) was part of the Treasury Department, but employed officers of the U.S. Navy. A number of young, scientifically- minded naval officers were assigned to survey duty when their services were not needed for naval operations.

The brig Washington, under the command of Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, U.S.N., was employed in the summer of 1839 in surveying and sounding operations off the eastern end of Long Island. While working between Gardiner's Island and Montauk Point in August, the ship's crew spotted and captured a suspicious vessel, the Amistad, lying at anchor off Culloden Point. Lieutenant Gedney took possession of the Amistad, taking her first to New London, and then turning her over to authorities in New Haven, Connecticut, the closest port with a U.S. District Marshal.

The brig Washington was transferred to the Coast Survey on 23 April 1840, but was called back to naval service during the Mexican War. The vessel was stationed at New Orleans at the outbreak of the Civil War and was taken over by Louisiana authorities. No more is known of her subsequent service.

The Officers

Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney's naval career began months after the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. This was a time of slow promotion in the Navy, and it was ten years before Gedney was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and sixteen more until he reached the rank of Commander. Thomas R. Gedney was a native of South Carolina. His personal views on slavery are not known. He died in 1857.

Lieutenant Richard W. Meade, who led the armed party that first boarded the Amistad, had entered the Navy in 1826 and was a junior lieutenant on the "reserved list" when he was assigned to survey work on the brig Washington. Meade was born in Spain while his father was acting as a commercial agent for the U.S. Government. He lived there for ten years until he returned with his mother to their home in Pennsylvania. He was educated at private Catholic schools and attended St. Mary's College in Baltimore before he entered naval service.

Prize Money for Capture

Under the maritime law of nations, the captors of vessels legally seized are entitled to a percentage of the value of the ship and goods. In the United States, this principal is upheld by the Constitution and enforced by the federal courts.

Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney and the other officers and crew members of the brig Washington filed a claim for the value of the captured schooner Amistad. Their claim was upheld by the Supreme Court, which granted them one-third of the value of the captured ship and cargo, with the other two-thirds going to the government.

The Amistad was sold at auction in New London, Connecticut in September 1840. The ship and cargo sold for a total of about $6000; the Amistad by this time was in poor condition with her sails and rigging in tatters, and sold for only $245. Lieutenant Gedney, who as commanding officer was entitled to one-twentieth of the prize money, would receive approximately $400 for the capture of Amistad (his annual salary as a lieutenant commanding a vessel was $1800). The other officers and seamen received lesser sums in proportion to their respective ranks.

For additional reading see:

Hoyt, Edwin Palmer. The Amistad Affair. London; New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970.

Jackson, Donald Dale. "Mutiny on the Amistad." Smithsonian: 28 (December 1997), 115-124.

Jones, Howard. "All We Want is to Make Us Free." American History 32, no.6 (Feb. 1988): 22-28, 78.

_____, Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Owens, William A. Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad. Philadelphia: Pilgrims Press, 1968.

Related Web Sites

The Amistad Case, National Archives and Records Administration

Amistad Research Center, Tulane University

Exploring Amistad Project

Mystic Seaport Museum

31 March 1998