As the British had entered into a treaty with Spain prohibiting the slave trade south of the equator, they considered it a matter of international Law that the United States release the Africans. They applied diplomatic pressure to achieve this, including invoking the Treaty of Ghent with the US, which jointly enforced their respective prohibitions against the international slave trade.
While the legal battle continued, Dr. Richard R. Madden, “who served on behalf of the British commission to suppress the African slave trade in Havana,” arrived to testify. He made a deposition “that some twenty-five thousand slaves were brought into Cuba every year – with the wrongful compliance of, and personal profit by, Spanish officials.” Madden also “told the court that his examinations revealed that the defendants were brought directly from Africa and could not have been residents of Cuba,” as the Spanish had claimed. Madden (who later had an audience with Queen Victoria concerning the case) conferred with the British Minister in Washington, D.C., Henry Stephen Fox, who pressured U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth on behalf “of her Majesty’s Government.”
Fox wrote “…Great Britain is also bound to remember that the law of Spain, which finally prohibited the slave-trade throughout the Spanish dominions, from the date of the 30th of May, 1820, the provisions of which law are contained in the King of Spain’s royal cedula of the 19th December, was passed, in compliance with a treaty obligation to that effect, by which the Crown of Spain had bound itself to the Crown of Great Britain, and for which a valuable compensation, in return, was given by Great Britain to Spain; as may be seen by reference to the 2d, 3d, and 4th articles of a public treaty concluded between Great Britain and Spain on the 23d of September, 1817.
“It is next to be observed, that Great Britain and the United States have mutually engaged themselves to each other, by the 10th article of the treaty of Ghent, to use their best endeavors for the entire abolition of the African slave-trade; and there can be no doubt of the firm intention of both parties religiously to fulfill the terms of that engagement.
“Now, the unfortunate Africans whose case is the subject of the present representation, have been thrown by accidental circumstances into the hands of the authorities of the United States Government whether these persons shall recover the freedom to which they are entitled, or whether they shall be reduced to slavery, in violation of known laws and contracts publicly passed, prohibiting the continuance of the African slave-trade by Spanish subjects.
“It is under these circumstance that her Majesty’s Government anxiously hope that the President of the United States will find himself empowered to take such measures, in behalf of the aforesaid Africans, as shall secure to them the possession of their liberty, to which, without doubt they are by law entitled.”
Forsyth responded that under the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, the President could not influence the court case. He said that the question of whether the “negroes of the Amistad” had been enslaved in violation of the Treaty was still an open one, “and this Government would with great reluctance erect itself into a tribunal to investigate such questions between two friendly sovereigns.” He noted that when the facts were determined, they could be taken into account. He suggested that if the Court found for Spanish rights of property, the Africans would be returned to Cuba. At that point, Great Britain and Spain could argue their questions of law and treaties between them.
. Rebellion at sea and capture
Secretary of State Forsyth requested from the Spanish Minister, Chevalier de Argaiz, “a copy of the laws now in force in the island of Cuba to slavery.” In response, the Captain General of Cuba sent Argaiz “everything on the subject, which had been determined since the treaty concluded in 1818 between Spain and England”.The Minister also expressed dismay that the Africans had not already been returned to Spanish control.
The Spanish maintained that none but a Spanish court could have jurisdiction over the case. The Spanish minister stated “I do not, in fact, understand how a foreign court of justice can be considered competent to take cognizance of an offence committed on board of a Spanish vessel, by Spanish subjects, and against Spanish subjects, in the waters of a Spanish territory; for it was committed on the coasts of this island, and under the flag of this nation.” The Minister noted that the Spanish had recently turned over American sailors “belonging to the crew of the American vessel ‘William Engs'”, whom it had tried by request of their captain and the American consul. The sailors had been found guilty of mutiny and sentenced to “four years’ confinement in a fortress.” Other American sailors had protested this and when the American ambassador raised the issue with the Spaniards, on March 20, 1839 “her Majesty, having taken into consideration all the circumstances, decided that the said seamen should be placed at the disposition of the American consul, seeing that the offence was committed in one of the vessels and under the flag of his nation, and not on shore.” The Spaniards asked how, if America had demanded that these sailors in an American ship be turned over to them despite being in a Spanish port, they could now try the Spanish mutineers.
The Spaniards held that just as America had ended its importation of African slaves but maintained a legal domestic population, so too had Cuba. It was up to Spanish courts to determine “whether the Negroes in question” were legal or illegal slaves under Spanish law, “but never can this right justly belong to a foreign country.”
The Spaniards maintained that, even if it was believed that the Africans were being held as slaves in violation of “the celebrated treaty of humanity concluded between Spain and Great Britain in 1835”, this would be a violation of “the laws of Spain; and the Spanish Government, being as scrupulous as any other in maintaining the strict observance of the prohibitions imposed on, or the liberties allowed to, its subjects by itself, will severely chastise those of them who fail in their duties.”
THE SPANISH ARGUMENT
The Spaniards pointed out that by American law the jurisdiction over a “vessel on the high seas, in time of peace, engaged in a lawful voyage, is, according to the laws of nations, under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State to which her flag belongs; as much so as if constituting a part of its own domain. …if such ship or vessel should be forced, by stress of weather, or other unavoidable cause, into the port and under the jurisdiction of a friendly Power, she, and her cargo, and persons on board, with their property, and all the rights belonging to their personal relations as established by the laws of the State to which they belong, would be placed under the protection which the laws of nations extend to the unfortunate under such circumstances.” The Spaniards demanded that the U.S. “apply these proper principles to the case of the schooner Amistad.”
The Spanish were further encouraged that their view would win out when U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun and the Senate’s Committee of Foreign Relations on April 15, 1840 issued a statement announcing complete “conformity between the views entertained by the Senate, and the arguments urged by the [Spanish Minister] Chevalier de Argaiz” concerning La Amistad.
The Spanish categorized the Africans as property to have the case fall under Pinckney’s Treaty of 1795. They protested when Judge William Jayconstrued a statement by their Minister as seeming to demand “the surrender of the negroes apprehended on board the schooner Amistad, as murderers, and not as property; that is to say founding his demand on the law of nations, and not on the treaty of 1795.”
The Spanish pointed out that the statement Jay was referring to was one where the Spanish minister was “speaking of the crime committed by the negroes [slave revolt], and the punishment which they merit”. They went on to point out that the Minister had stated that a payment to compensate the owners “would be a slender compensation; for though the property should remain, as it ought to remain, unimpaired, public vengeance would be frustrated”.
Judge Jay took issue with the Spanish Minister’s request that the Africans be turned over to Spanish authorities (which seemed to imply that they were fugitives instead of misbehaving property), because the 1795 treaty said that property should be restored directly to the control of its owners. The Spanish denied that this meant that the Minister had waived the contention that they were property.
By insisting that the case fell under the treaty of 1795, the Spanish were invoking the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which would put the clauses of the treaty above the state laws of Connecticut or New York, where the ship had been taken into custody, “no one who respects the laws of the country ought to oppose the execution of the treaty, which is the supreme law of the country.” The case was already in the federal district court.
The Spanish also sought to avoid talk about the Law of Nations, as some of their opponents argued that America had a duty under the Law of Nations to treat the Africans with the same deference they would accord any other foreign sailors.
John Quincy Adams later argued this issue before the Supreme Court in 1841, saying,
When pressed with questions concerning the Law of Nations, the Spanish referred to a concept of Hugo Grotius (credited as one of the originators of the Law of Nations). Specifically, they noted that “the usage, then, of demanding fugitives from a foreign Government, is confined…to crimes which affect the Government and such as are of extreme atrocity.”