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In 1839 a group of Africans were kidnapped from their homeland and transported to Cuba as slaves. While being transported from one port in Cuba to another, the Africans revolted, killed the captain and cook, and steered for the coast of Africa. The ship was eventually boarded by U.S. authorities in U.S. waters, and the Africans were imprisoned. Fierce legal battles ensued regarding entitlement to the Africans and the ship's cargo. In 1997 Steven Spielberg's company, Dream Works, released a movie based upon the uprising. The movie Amistad engendered its own legal furor amid charges that the screenplay plagiarized a 1989 novel.
The Ship and Slavery
In April 1839 a Spanish slaving brig with kidnapped Africans aboard sailed from the West African coast to Havana, Cuba. Jose Ruiz, a Spaniard living in Puerto Principe, Cuba, bought 49 males for $450 each. Another Spanish planter living nearby, Pedro Montes, bought four children, including three girls. In late June 1839 the ship Amistad sailed from Havana to Puerto Principe. On the third night out, two Africans named Cinque and Grabeau managed to free and arm themselves. During the uprising, the captain and cook were killed, but Ruiz and Montes were spared and forced to assist in navigation. The Amistad sailed east toward Africa by day, but at night Montes and Ruiz steered the ship north.
On August 26, 1839, the ship anchored off Long Island and was discovered by the U.S. brig Washington. The vessel, the cargo, and the Africans were taken into the District of Connecticut.
Montes and Ruiz filed suit in federal court to recover some of the cargo and the Africans, asserting ownership of the Africans as their slaves. The U.S. district attorney for the District of Connecticut appeared on behalf of the Spanish government and demanded that the Africans be handed over for trial in Cuba on murder and Piracy charges.
Rallying on behalf of the Africans, New York abolitionists hired attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin. Baldwin argued that because Spain had outlawed the African slave trade, the Africans could use whatever means possible to attain freedom after their illegal kidnapping and enslavement. The abolitionists sought a writ of Habeas Corpus relief to free the Africans pending charges of piracy or murder that might be brought. The writ was denied and the Africans remained in custody but were not indicted on any criminal charges.
The trial proceeded in the U.S. district court of New Haven, Connecticut, with the litigants disputing what should be done with the Africans, the cargo, and the ship. Anticipating that U.S. District Judge Andrew Judson would order the Africans turned over for criminal proceedings in Cuba, President Martin Van Buren ordered that the U.S.S. Grampus wait in the New Haven harbor to transport the Africans to Cuba immediately upon such a ruling.
The U.S.S. Grampus waited in vain. Judge Judson ordered that the kidnapping and enslavement had been illegal and that the United States must return the Africans to their homeland. The United States, now acting on behalf of the Spanish government and the claims of Montes and Ruiz, appealed to the U.S. circuit court, where Judge Judson's ruling was upheld. The United States appealed again, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
John Quincy Adams, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of Massachusetts, former U.S. president, and sympathetic to the abolitionist movement, joined Baldwin in representing the Africans before the Supreme Court. Adams and Baldwin contended that the Africans should be granted their freedom because they had exercised their natural rights in fighting to escape illegal enslavement. The U.S. Supreme Court opinion, delivered by Justice Joseph Story, affirmed the rulings by the lower courts, but instead of ordering the United States to return the Africans to Africa, declared them to be free and ordered them to be immediately discharged from custody (United States v. Amistad, 40 U.S. [15 Pet.] 518, 10 L. Ed. 826 ).
While the Amistad case essentially presented questions of International Law and did not involve any legal attacks on U.S. Slavery, it was important in U.S. history because of the attention and support it garnered for the abolitionist movement.
The Movie and Plagiarism
The 1997 movie by Steven Spielberg and his company, Dream Works SKG, is a fictitious rendering of the real events that ensued between 1839 and 1841. But before the movie was released, an author who had written a historical novel about the uprising attempted to halt the film's release, charging the moviemakers with Copyright infringement. Filing suit in October 1997, Barbara Chase-Riboud sought $10 million in damages and screenwriting Acknowledgment, based upon alleged Plagiarism of her novel, Echo of Lions. In December, a federal district judge declined to delay the movie's opening, ruling that the similarities between the movie and the novel did not establish a probability of success for Chase-Riboud but did raise serious questions for trial.
The plagiarism suit took a strange turn in December 1997 when the New York Times reported that Chase-Riboud had plagiarized several passages of her 1986 book, Valide: A Novel of the Harem, from a nonfiction book published 50 years earlier. Chase-Riboud admitted to the New York Times that she had used material for Valide without attribution. Dream Works also charged that Chase-Riboud had taken passages for Echo of Lions from a 1953 novel, Slave Rebellion, by William A. Owens, the book optioned by Amistad producers for the movie.
In early 1998 Chase-Riboud and Dream-Works settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed amount. In dropping the lawsuit, Chase-Riboud stated that she and her attorneys had concluded that neither Spielberg nor Dream Works had done anything improper.
Chase-Riboud, Barbara. 1989. Echo of Lions. New York: Morrow.
Genovese, Eugene D. 1979. Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press.
Linder, Douglas O. 2000. "Salvaging Amistad." Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce 31 (October): 559-581.
Weissman, Gary A. 1998. "The Legal Case behind the Movie Amistad" The Hennepin Lawyer 67 (August): 28–30.