Beinecke Library at Yale– Mar 30, 2021
The Beinecke Library stewards a set of 22 pencil drawings of the Amistad captives as they awaited trial in New Haven, 1839-40. The sketches were done by William H. Townsend, a New Havener who was about 18 years old when he made the drawings. George Miles of the Beinecke Library discusses the drawings. and Joy Burns, a member of the contemporary Amistad Committee, discusses the resonance of this event in history for New Haven and the nation today and share efforts to commemorate the Amistad now and for the future.
In 1839, the Spanish slave ship Amistad set sail from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba. The ship was carrying 53 Africans who, a few months earlier, had been abducted from their homeland to be sold as slaves. The captives revolted against the ships crew, killing the captain and others, but sparing the life of the ships navigator so that he could set them on a course back to Africa. Instead, the navigator surreptitiously directed the ship north and west. After several weeks, the Amistad was seized by the U.S. Navy off the coast of Long Island and the Africans were transported to New Haven to await trial for mutiny, murder, and piracy.
Slavery advocates held that the Amistad prisoners were slaves and thus they should be punished for their uprising and immediately returned to Cuba. Abolitionists, on the other hand, argued that though slavery was legal in Cuba, the importation of slaves from Africa had been outlawed; thus, they claimed, the prisoners were not slaves, but freemen who had been kidnapped and thus had every right to escape their captors and even to use violence to do so. The case was important to the proslavery-abolitionist debates that were raging in the U.S., and to the international debates about treaty obligations with regard to slavery and the legality of the international slave trade.
After two years of legal battles, their case was successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841.
For Library of Congress (LOC) listing see:
The Amistad captives | Library of Congress
(Portraits are listed individually — along with other cross-listings from Yale’s collections)