December 10, 1997
Documents and Teaching Activities Related to the Amistad Case Now Available Online from the National Archives
Washington, DC. . . The National Archives and Records Administration announces a new digital classroom project on its website. "The Amistad Case" presents documents related to the circuit court and Supreme Court cases involving the Amistad and offers suggestions for teaching activities that are correlated to the National Standards for History and the National Standards for Civics and Government. Its URL is http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/amistad_case/amistad_case.html.
The dramatic story of the Amistad, featured in a major motion picture opening this week, began in February of 1839, when Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from an area now known as Sierre Leone, and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence. Fifty-three Africans were purchased by two Spanish planters and put aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad for shipment to a Caribbean plantation. On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island by the U.S. brig Washington. The planters were freed and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, CT, on charges of murder. The press and President VanBuren were in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans. Despite claims to the slaves by the planters, the government of Spain, and the captain of the brig, the murder case went to trial in September in the Federal District Court at Hartford. The court ruled that the case fell within Federal jurisdiction and that the Africans, because they were illegally held, were not liable for their acts. The prosecution appealed and the case went to the Supreme Court in November. Former President John Quincy Adams argued the defendants case. Adams defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Africans, and 35 of them were returned to their homeland. The others died at sea or in prison while awaiting trial.
The teaching activities encourage educators and students to analyze the documents and draw conclusions about slavery, abolition, and the United States legal system.
"The Amistad Case" is the latest in a series of digital classroom exercises that the National Archives and Records Administration has produced for teachers and students on the website. Other subjects covered on our education website include exercises on Watergate and poster art from World War II. For a full listing, visit http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/teaching_with_documents.html.
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