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Another look at admiralty law

The judicial power of the United States, according to Article III of the United States Constitution, shall extend “to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority.”1

That’s the first part of the section that gives particular powers to the federal courts. It’s the one most people pay attention to, the one that most cases involving our ancestors will arise under.

But it’s not the only grant of power to the courts — another of the enumerated grants of authority in that same section extends “to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction.”2

By definition, that’s “marine affairs, commerce and navigation, controversies arising out of acts done upon or relating to the sea, and over questions of prize.”3 Maritime law, in general, is “that system of law which particularly relates to commerce and navigation, to business transacted at sea or relating to navigation, to ships and shipping, to seamen, to the transportation of persons and property by sea, and to marine affairs generally.”4

And so many people read that, shake their heads, and think: “Booooorrrrrring.”


So how about the case, decided 179 years ago today by the Supreme Court of the United States, called United States v. The Amistad?5

The Legal Genealogist dares anybody to read the history of that case and use the word boring in any way to describe it.

The Amistad

As described by the U.S. National Archives, the case began this way:

In February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, a center for the slave trade. This abduction violated all of the treaties then in existence. Two Spanish plantation owners, Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, purchased 53 Africans and put them aboard the Cuban schooner Amistad to ship them to a Caribbean plantation. On July 1, 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered Montes and Ruiz to sail to Africa.

Montes and Ruiz actually steered the ship north; and on August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. brig Washington. The schooner, its cargo, and all on board were taken to New London, CT. The plantation owners were freed and the Africans were imprisoned on charges of murder.

Although the murder charges were dismissed, the Africans continued to be held in confinement and the case went to trial in the Federal District Court in Connecticut. The plantation owners, government of Spain, and captain of the Washington each claimed rights to the Africans or compensation.

President Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans. Had it not been for the actions of abolitionists in the United States, the issues related to the Amistad might have ended quietly in an admiralty court. But they used the incident as a way to expose the evils of slavery and generate significant opposition to the practice.6

Essentially, the American sailors who took the ship into custody began the case by filing a claim for salvage. Abolitionists hired lawyers to represent the Africans. And the documents filed in the case on their behalf are stirring, asserting their claims:

That they and each of them are natives of Africa and were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are and ought to be free, and not slaves …

That on or about the 15th day of April 1839 they and each of them were in the lands of their nativity unlawfully kidnapped and forcibly and wrongfully by certain persons to them unknown, who were then and there unlawfully and piratically engaged in the Slave trade, … and under circumstances of great cruelty, transported to … Cuba, for the unlawful purpose of being sold as slaves …

That the Respondents being treated on board said Vessel … with great cruelty and oppression, and being of right free as aforesaid were incited by the love of liberty natural to all men, and by the desire of returning to their families and kindred, to take possession of said Vessel, while navigating the high seas, as they had right to do with the intent to return therein to their native Country, or to seek an asylum in some free state where slavery did not exist, in order that they might enjoy their liberty…7

And, they asked the Court for relief: “the Respondents severally pray that they and each of them may be set free, as they of right are and ought to be…”8

It was a daring move. It was controversial. It was hotly contested politically and legally.

And it worked.

The trial court held the Africans were not slaves but had been unlawfully captured. The Circuit Court affirmed. And the Supreme Court — 179 years ago today — made it clear:

It is plain beyond controversy, if we examine the evidence, that these negroes never were the lawful slaves of Ruiz or Montez or of any other Spanish subjects. They are natives of Africa, and were kidnapped there, and were unlawfully transported to Cuba in violation of the laws and treaties of Spain and the most solemn edicts and declarations of that government. By those laws and treaties and edicts, the African slave trade is utterly abolished; the dealing in that trade is deemed a heinous crime; and the negroes thereby introduced into the dominions of Spain are declared to be free. …

If then, these negroes are not slaves, but are kidnapped Africans who, by the laws of Spain itself, are entitled to their freedom, and were kidnapped and illegally carried to Cuba, and illegally detained and restrained on board the Amistad, there is no pretence to say that they are pirates or robbers. We may lament the dreadful acts by which they asserted their liberty and took possession of the Amistad and endeavored to regain their native country, but they cannot be deemed pirates or robbers…9

And, the Court ordered: “that the said negroes be declared to be free, and be dismissed from the custody of the Court…”10

Admiralty law.

Maritime law.

Boring cases?

Um… think again.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Those boring cases,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 9 Mar 2020).


Image: Oil painting of The Amistad, via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Article III, section 2, United States Constitution.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 40, “admiralty.”
  4. Ibid., 755, “maritime law.”
  5. United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (1841).
  6. See “Educator Resources > Teaching With Documents > The Amistad Case,” ( : accessed 9 Mar 2020).
  7. Answer of the Proctors for the Amistad Africans, DocsTeach, U.S. National Archives ( : accessed 9 Mar 2020).
  8. Ibid.
  9. United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. at 593-594.
  10. Ibid., 40 U.S. at 597.
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