Object of the Month

Amistad Letters to JQA

Kale.
Letter to John Quincy Adams,
4 January 1841.
Adams Family Papers, MHS.

In January 1841, two of the Africans from the ship Amistad wrote letters, shown here, to John Quincy Adams--the man who would soon defend them before the United States Supreme Court. Kale and Kinna, the two writers, thanked Adams for taking the case and offered their encouragement and hope as he prepared the case. They also spoke of slavery, freedom, truth, justice, and their homeland of Mendi (now Sierra Leone) in West Africa.

Kale and Kinna's journey from Africa to the U.S. capital had begun in 1839, when the captain and crew of a Portuguese slave ship called the Tecora illegally transported some 200 slaves from West Africa to Cuba. In Cuba, a man named Don Jose Ruiz bought 50 of the captives, including Kale and Kinna, for use on his plantation. Some historians believe Ruiz eventually intended to sell the Africans in the United States. For this shorter journey, they were transferred to an American-built schooner, originally called Friendship and renamed La Amistad by its Spanish-speaking owners. Before they had reached their destination, however, the slaves rebelled and took over the ship. Taking advantage of the rebels' unfamiliarity with navigation, the Spanish prisoners tricked them into steering towards the United States instead of returning to Africa. After two months at sea, the ship reached the coast of Long Island, where the U.S. Navy intercepted it. As the 43 Africans waited in a jail in New Haven, Connecticut, their fates were decided in the U.S. court system.

A Connecticut judge quashed charges of murder and mutiny, but the original Cuban buyers (Ruiz and a man named Jose Montes), the Spanish government, and even officers of the U.S. Navy tried to claim the Africans as "lost property" or "salvage." At the same time, Roger Baldwin (a distinguished antislavery attorney) and others argued that since the international slave trade was illegal the Africans were free men. The Africans' lawyers seemed to have the better of the argument: they won a number of cases in the lower courts, but each time the decision was appealed, due in part to pressure from Pres. Martin Van Buren, who feared the effect an acquittal would have on both the South and the nation's diplomatic relationship with Spain. By 1840, the case had worked its way up to the Supreme Court and went onto the Court's schedule for February 1841. In the meantime, John Quincy Adams began preparing for the case--with Kale and Kinna's blessings.

Adams and his colleagues succeeded. The Africans were declared free men and eventually returned to their native land.

Read Kale's letter.
Read Kinna's letter.

Amistad holdings at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The two letters from Kale and Kinna are part of the Adams Family Papers held by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The Adams papers contain the vast majority of writings to and from John Quincy Adams and a number of items related to the Amistad case. The MHS also holds some of the papers of Joseph Story, a justice in the Supreme Court trial of the Amistad, and the Noyes Family Papers, which contains a detailed description of the case.


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