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Teaching With Documents:The Amistad Case

Libel of Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, on behalf of himself and the officers and crew of the U.S. Brig Washington, August 29, 1839

The Washington was the brig that seized the Amistad off the coast of Long Island. Its commander was Lt. Thomas R. Gedney. In his libel, or written statement, to Judge Andrew T. Judson of the district court, he described the encounter with the Amistad. Because he sought salvage of the schooner and its cargo, he was very detailed in his account and itemized all of its cargo, estimating its value at $40,000 and the value of the Africans as slaves at $25,000. In maritime law, compensation is allowed to persons whose assistance saves a ship or its cargo from impending loss. The libelants claimed that with great difficulty and danger to themselves they recaptured the Amistad from the Africans. They claimed that had they not seized the vessel, it would have been a total loss to its "rightful" owners. Therefore, Gedney and his crew believed they were entitled to salvage rights. At that time in U.S. history, even individuals acting in their official capacity as officials of the government were entitled to salvage rights.

In addition, Gedney relayed that the Africans could speak only native African tongues and that one of the two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz, spoke English. Gedney included in his libel the account of the mutiny as told by Ruiz.

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Lt. Thomas Gedney's Libel
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National Archives and
Records Administration
Northeast Region, Waltham, MA,
Records of the District Courts
of the United States, RG 21


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