Amistad is based on historical events. In 1839 fifty-three Mende in Sierra Leone were captured by an enemy tribe and taken to an illegal slave trading post. Some Portuguese sailors took them and then transferred them to La Amistad. During a storm on July 1, 1839 Cinque’s chains slipped loose. The slaves escaped and took over the ship. The remaining crew sailed the ship to North America. After multiple trials, John Quincy Adams convinced the Supreme Court to free the Mende. “At the time, La Amistad became the Alamo of the abolitionist movement; the rallying call was now ‘Remember the Amistad!’” (Brode, 253. “Ironically enough, ‘Amistad’ is the Spanish word for friendship” [Freer, 257])
In 1839 the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, carrying African slaves, is caught in a storm off the coast of Cuba. The slaves, led by Senge Pieh (Cinque), revolt and kill most of the crew. They try to force the remaining crew, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, to sail back to Africa, but they land in the United States instead. The slaves are arrested and become the center of a trial over the legal status of the slaves District Attorney Holabird charges them with piracy and murder. Secretary of State John Forsyth appears on behalf of President Martin Van Buren, who is busy campaigning for re-election, and presents the claim from Queen Isabella II of Spain that the Africans are the property of Spain based on a treaty. Two Naval officers claim salvage rights. Ruiz and Montes produce proof of purchase and claim ownership as well.
The abolitionist Lewis Tappan and his black associate Theodore Joadson (a former slave) attempt to convince former president John Quincy Adams to assist them, but they fail. They then seek the help of Roger Sherman Baldwin, a property lawyer. Baldwin argues that the prisoners can legally be considered slaves only if they were born on a plantation. If so, then they cannot be charged with murder any more than one can charge a farming tool with murder. If they were not born on a plantation, then they were illegally acquired, and therefore all charges against them, and claims of ownership, are rendered void. Tappan objects and insists on winning the case on the foundation of righteousness rather than legal minutiae.
Baldwin argues in court that the prisoners were born in Africa rather than Cuba, but they make no progress. Baldwin then meets with Cinque in an attempt to prove his origin, but they lack a common language. Baldwin and Joadson then search the Amistad and find papers the Portuguese slave ship Tecora and argues that the prisoners were illegally taken from Sierra Leone.
Van Buren’s staff argues that if the prisoners are freed then the southern states will unite against him in his re-election and that it could bring the country closer to civil war. They replace the judge with judge Coglin whom they believe will be easier to influence.
Joadson then visits Adams who says he has been following the case in the newspapers. He says that need to discover just merely what the prisoners are (Africans) but also who they are, or what their story is. They arrange for Cinque to tell his story in court with Kai Nyagua (also named James Covey) translating. After Cinque was captured by fellow Africans who were helping the slave traders, he and the other slaves were taken to the Lomboko slave fortress. They were then placed on the Tecora. During the voyage, approximately fifty slaves were tossed into the sea due to a lack of sufficient provisions. They were later transferred to La Amistad. Cinque interrupts the court proceedings by repeatedly yelling, “Give us free!’
The court goes into recess during. Coglin prays in a church and considers his decision while two of the prisoners look through a Bible in their cell. When the court reconvenes, Coglin says he believes the prisoners were born in Africa. He declares Isabella’s claim of ownership and the Navy claim of salvage void. He orders the arrest of Ruiz and Montes on the charge of slave trading. He also orders the release of the prisoners and their return home.
Senator John Calhoun reminds Van Buren of the risk of civil war. Van Buren appeals the case to the Supreme Court. Adams, who has finally agreed to help, meets with Cinque and informs him that their path will be difficult. Cinque responds that he will invoke his ancestors for assistance.
During the trail in the Supreme Court Adams gives the closing statement. He first appeals to the independence of the judicial branch of government from the executive branch. He speaks on the nature of man and freedom. He argues that the argument for slavery conflicts with the notion of inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence.
Adams then explains the Mende practice of invoking one’s ancestors in times of trouble. He invokes the founding fathers of the United States. After a recess for deliberation, the Supreme Court finds in favor of the prisoners and orders the prisoners be set free and returned to their homes. The slaves are freed and sent home. The British navy then liberates and destroys the Lomboko slave fortress.
Amistad incorporates a mixture of Christianity and African tribal religion. The slaves practice ancestor worship. When one slave dies they want to bury him. Covey explains that the Africans (not the Americans) must bury him or else his spirit will haunt them forever (1:07:35. Interestingly, in this scene the tribal chanting is intermixed with a choir singing “The House of Thine Abode.” Earlier in the movie the choir visits the prisoners at the jail and sings “Amazing Grace” [0:36:00]).
When John Quincy Adams tells Cinque that their trial before the Supreme Court will be difficult Cinque assures him that they will not be alone. Instead, Cinque will call upon his ancestors for assistance, and they must respond, because it is because of the living members of his people that their ancestors exist at all (2:07:06). Adams draws upon this idea when he calls upon the founding fathers of the United States to assist them in the trial (2:15:41).
Amistad also includes elements of Christianity. The best example can be seen while waiting for judge Coglin’s verdict. Coglin prays in Latin in a church while Cinque and Yamba look at pictures in a Bible. Yamba interprets the story of Jesus as follows: The people lived in suffering until Jesus arrived, and then everything changed. He healed the sick and protected the people. They gave him children. He even walked on the sea. However, he was accused of a crime. People tied his hands and hung him on a cross. However, he rose again and then ascended into the sky. Yamba reasons that the sky is where they will go if they are killed; he says that it does not look like such a bad place (1:35:45 – 1:39:42). When they win the case Yamba holds up the Bible in gratitude (1:44:44).
Christianity is also the basis upon which the abolitionists campaign to eliminate slavery. One lady in a crowd yells, “Emancipation is God’s way” (0:39:52). Tappan says, “This war must be waged on the battlefield of righteousness. . . It is our destiny as abolitionists and as Christians to save these people” (0:34:21). He refuses to win the case on a mere legal technicality. Instead he asks, “Did Christ hire a lawyer to get him off on technicalities. He went to the cross, nobly. You know why? To make a statement. To make a statement as must we” (0:34:53). He also explains that Christianity shows that martyrdom is the greatest power for change (1:49:48).
The nature of man is also made a key issue. While addressing the Supreme Court, John Quincy Adams describes an article by Calhoun arguing that slavery is not immoral. In response, Adams argues that the natural state of mankind is freedom as evidenced by the lengths to which a man will go to preserve his freedom (2:11:48 – 2:13:46).