During the course of the slave trade millions of Africans became involuntary immigrants to the New World. Some African captives resisted enslavement by fleeing from slave forts on the coast of West African. Others mutinied on board slave trading vessels, or cast themselves into the ocean, rather facing death than enslavement. In the New World there were those who ran away from their owners, ran away among the Indians, formed maroon societies, revolted, feigned sickness, or participated in work slow downs.
Some sought and succeeded in gaining liberty through various legal means such as “good service” to their masters, self-purchase, or military service. Still others seemingly acquiesced and learned to survive in servitude. The European, American, and African slave traders engaged in the large amounts of trade in humans. The politicians and businessmen who supported them, did not intend to put into motion a chain of events that would motivate the captives and their descendants to fight for full citizenship in the United States of America. But they did.
When Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “All men are created equal,” he could not possibly have envisioned how literally his own slaves and others would take his words. African Americans repeatedly questioned how their owners could consider themselves noble in their own fight for independence from England while at the same time believing that it was wrong for slaves to do the same. The first slaves came to the Western Hemisphere in the early 1500s. Twenty African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Series of complex colonial laws began to reform the status of Africans and their connection to slavery.
The United States outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, but the domestic slave trade and illegal importation continued for several decades. Captured Africans were sold at auction as “chattel,” like inanimate property or animals. Many literate ex-slaves discussed the degradation and humiliation they felt when they were treated like “cattle. ” Advertisements used in the North as well as the South before the Civil War, advertised the sale of slaves and land, the availability of employment for an overseer, a recall of debts, and a reward for anyone who captured slaves.
In November 1841 the 135 enslaved African Americans on board the ship Creole overpowered the crew murdering one man while sailing from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Led by Madison Washington, they sailed the vessel to Nassau, Bahamas, where the British declared most of them free. An author, William Channing, argues the American claims that the property of U. S. slave owners should be protected in foreign ports.
There was a huge diplomatic controversy that followed, Ohio Congressman Joshua Giddings argued that once the ship was outside of U.S. territorial waters, the African Americans were entitled to their liberty and that any attempt to re-enslave them would be unconstitutional. Censured by the House of Representatives, he resigned, but his constituents quickly reelected him and sent him back to Congress. The African American resistance to slavery is demonstrated time and time again in the successful and unsuccessful attempts to escape from bondage. The owners’ equal determination to protect their investment is demonstrated by their assiduousness in pursuing the runaways.
A Portuguese slave buyer purchased Africans in West Africa. Transported them to the Caribbean, the captives found themselves in the hands of Cuban slave dealers on board the Spanish schooner Amistad. In transport from Cuba the Africans, led by Cinqu , rebelled, killed the captain and three crewmen, and ordered the rest to sail to Africa. By day the crew complied, but at night they sailed west and finally landed near Long Island, New York, where the vessel was seized by U. S. authorities.
In the New York Sun, Cinqu is described as a “brave Congolese chief . . . who now lies in jail in arms at New Haven, Conn. , awaiting his trial for daring for freedom. ” Cinqu is quoted as saying, “Brothers, we have done that which we proposed . . . I am resolved it is better to die than be a white man’s slave. ” President Martin Van Buren and the Spanish administrators of Cuba wanted the Africans returned to stand trial for mutiny, but the Connecticut judge who heard the case disagreed.
The U. S. pealed the case to the Supreme Court where former President John Quincy Adams argued that it was the Africans, not the Cubans, who should be treated sympathetically because they were free people illegally enslaved. John Quincy Adams argued the appeal on behalf of the Africans before the Court. He stated that they “were entitled to all kindness and good offices due from a humane and Christian nation. ” In January 1841, the Supreme Court rendered its decision relating to the Amistad affair. Adams won and the Africans were returned to Africa.