- Ka Le of the Amistad Writes John Quincy Adams
In the mid-1800s, the story of the Amistad brought strong national and
international attention to the issue of slavery in America. In 1839, the
Amistad, a slave ship, was being used to transport a group of slaves from
Cuba to a Caribbean plantation to work. Many of the ship's captives were
Mendi tribesmen and women who had been kidnapped and taken to Cuba to
be sold as slaves. Once they were in Cuba, two Spaniards, José Ruiz and
Pedro Montes, bought them and chained them into the cramped, dark hold
of the Amistad.
On the journey to the Caribbean, a Mendi tribesman named Joseph Cinqué
freed himself and his fellow captives. The enraged Mendis took over the
slave ship, killed the captain and cook, then forced Ruiz and Montes to
steer the ship back toward Africa. The Spaniards tricked them by steering
a zigzagging course into U.S. waters, where the ship was finally seized
by the U.S.S. Washington off the coast of Long Island, New York.
The slaves were placed in jail until a court could decide their fate.
A group of American abolitionists formed to Amistad Committee to defend
them and their right to return to Africa. Spanish officials demanded the
return of their "property." The lower American courts ruled that the slaves
had been captured illegally in Africa and should be returned to their
homeland. According to their rulings, a congressional act of 1819 made
it the responsibility of the president of the United States to return
the slaves. President Martin Van Buren, however, wished to return the
slaves to the Spanish in accord with Pinckney's Treaty of 1795. Finally
the case reached the United States Supreme Court, where former President
John Quincy Adams joined the Amistad group's defense team. The group won
the case and thirty-five of the surviving captives were returned to Africa
in November of 1841.
In the following selection, a Mendi named Ka Le writes a letter to John
Quincy Adams to help the former president understand the views of the
Mendis before he defends them before the court.
About the Author
Ka Le was a Mendi tribesman born in Africa. Around early 1839
he was kidnapped with a large group of fellow tribesmen and forcefully
imprisoned on a Portuguese slave ship bound for Cuba. In Cuba, he was
sold into slavery in July 1839 and was imprisoned on the slave ship Amistad
for transport to a Caribbean slave plantation. On board, he took part
in a successful mutiny, but was later captured and imprisoned once more-this
time in the United States. He and his fellow captives endured lengthy
court battles to determine whether they were in fact people or the property
of their Spanish "owners." Ka Le and his fellow captives finally regained
their freedom and returned to their homeland in November 1841.
- 1. languagethe use by human beings of voice
sounds, and often written
symbols representing these sounds, in combinations
and patterns to express and communicate thoughts
- 2. soulthe spiritual nature of human beings,
regarded as immortal, separable
from the body at death, and susceptible
to happiness or misery in a future state.
- 3. shipa vessel of considerable size for
- 4. punishto subject to a penalty for an offense,
a sin, or a fault.
- 5. ruddera vertically hinged plate
of metal, fiberglass, or wood
mounted at the stern of a vessel for directing its course.
- 6. Missionaryone sent on a mission,
esp. to do religious or charitable
work in a territory or foreign country.
- 7. tidingsa piece of information or news.
- 8. worshipthe reverent love and devotion
accorded a deity, an idol,
or a sacred object.
- 9. blessto invoke divine favor upon.
- 10. doltdull, stupid person.
Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection
and improve your comprehension of the essay.
Answer the Questions to Consider questions in the book as a way
to develop your understanding of the selection.
1. From the text of the letter, what can you infer were the arguments
made to return the Mendis to slavery?
2. What is Ka Le's position?
3. Which of Ka Le's points seems to you to be most persuasive?
4. What defense do you think would be made for the people of the Amistad
Slavery in America
Edward Ball.Slaves in the Family (1999). The carefully researched
story of a South Carolina family's plantation life and slave trading in
early America, including personal interviews with their slaves' descendants.
Lerone Bennett, Jr. The Shaping of Black America (1975). A well-known
historian describes black history from the arrival of the first Africans
in 1619 through the Civil Rights movement.
Ira Berlin et al, eds. Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery,
Freedom, and the Civil War (1992). An acclaimed volume of letters
and other documents about emancipation, drawn from the 20-year Freedman
and Southern Society Project.
John W. Blassingame. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the
Antebellum South (1979). A highly regarded history of the community
life of Southern slaves.
Michael L. Conniff and Thomas J. Davis. Africans in the Americas:
A History of the Black Diaspora (1994). A survey of African antiquity,
the slave trade, slavery in the Americas, and contributions of Africans
to American cultures since the end of slavery.
Malcolm Cowley and Daniel P. Mannix. Black Cargoes: A History of
the Atlantic Slave Trade (1981). A thorough and readable history of
the slave trade in the Atlantic.
Olaudah Equiano. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah
Equiano (1789, 1966). A talented ex-slave's influential 18th century
autobiography describes his African childhood and relates his experiences
as a slave and a free man in America and Europe.
John Hope Franklin. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans
(1988). A famed historian's survey of African American history, from
African origins through the Civil Rights
Alex Haley. Roots (1976). An African-American writer's celebrated
story of his search for his family history, which ultimately led him to
his ancestors' home village in Gambia.
Belinda Hurmence, ed. Before Freedom: When I Just Can Remember
(1989). Accounts of the lives and living conditions of 27 ex-slaves.
Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Series Research Team.
Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery (1998).A
fascinating account of slavery in America, the result of a 10-year WGBH
research project involving scholars all over the world.
Kenneth M. Stampp. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum
South (1956). A prize-winning study of slavery in the South and the
living conditions of slaves.