It happened today - July 2, 2015

La AmistadOn July 2, in 1839, slaves on the Cuban ship Amistad, which incongruously means “friendship,” seized control of the vessel and headed for the U.S. After many troubles most reached American waters, though some died en route. In the land of the free they were promptly imprisoned and their Cuban prisoners released. But they did end up getting their freedom.

The original idea was to have them sent back to Cuba for trial and a certain gruesome fate. But American abolitionists managed to get them tried in the U.S. instead, in Connecticut, where Judge Andrew Judson ruled they were unlawfully enslaved and should be freed and sent back to Africa (all were African-born) rather than to Cuba. U.S. Democratic President Martin van Buren appealed the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court where former president John Quincy Adams joined their legal team and they won again.

It’s a remarkable story in all kinds of ways, beginning with the daring of the slaves who, seeing a narrow window of opportunity, seized it with both manacled hands. I think we all like to imagine that if we were slaves we would dare to revolt and manage to pull it off. But it’s easy to say when you haven’t been there; successful slave revolts were rare and clearly the dictates of prudence deserved careful consideration. Still, looking back, or simply in from the outside, there’s a vindication of the human spirit every time a slave or group does manage to cast off the fetters.

Then there’s the belief that the United States, then a major slaveholding nation, would live up to its ideals rather than succumb to the widespread violation of them (of course it would not have worked had they been taken to the South not New England). Their final legal victory in 1841 came two decades before hundreds of thousands of white Americans would lay down their lives to free people most of them, frankly, didn’t like very much (and over a hundred thousand more would die trying to keep them slaves). And the end of slavery in 1865 was far from the end of bigotry in the United States. And yet, when forced to the wall morally, Americans would side with liberty time and again.

It’s tragic that it took so long. But it did happen, and along the way episodes like the Amistad ruling do shine out in the murk that envelopes too much of the American past.