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Overview

In November 1839, Felix Grundy, attorney general of the United States, issued his opinion in a complicated case, which involved a Spanish slave ship known as the Amistad . While the ship plied the waters of the Caribbean, the African slaves on board revolted, killing the captain of the ship, his slave, and two seamen. The African slaves, led by Joseph Cinque, took control of the ship and forced two of the Spanish crew members to navigate. They wanted to return to Africa, however, the Spaniards altered the course of the ship, sending it along the U.S. coast. When the ship approached New York City, the Africans left the ship in search of food and water. At this point, the legal odyssey of the Amistad slaves began. This publication of the Official Opinions of the Attorneys General regarding the Slave Trade includes three separate letters pertaining to the Amistad. In the first and longest, from November 1839, Felix Grundy focused on the issues of jurisdiction and international law. He argued that the United States should not get involved in the case because the ship had legally passed between two Spanish ports. He said that the United States had no right to pass judgment on the ship and, further, that no U.S. laws had been violated. Referring to a 1795 treaty between the United States and Spain, Grundy determined that the ship and its cargo (including the Africans) should be turned over to the Spanish government. Grundy_s opinion in November 1839, however, was not to be the last on this case. Attorney General H. D. Gilpin commented briefly on the case in April and again in December of 1840. The slaves were never turned over to Spain and eventually won their freedom in the U.S. courts. This case is indicative of the complicated legal issues surrounding the slave trade that are covered in this collection.

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