In April of 1839, a group of militant Portuguese abducted a group of 53 Africans, and shipped them to Havana, Cuba. In June of 1839, the Africans were purchased as slaves by four Spaniards and put on the schooner La Amistad (Spanish for 'the friendship'; ) for a voyage to Principe, an island republic, off the west coast of Africa, in the Gulf of Guinea. During this voyage, in the summer of 1839, the Africans performed mutiny on the ship, led by Cinque (Dji mon Hounsou), they kill two of the crew, and take control of the ship. They have one goal: return to Africa. With little or no navigational skills, the Africans had to rely on the remaining two Spaniards to get them to the coast of Africa. They ordered the crew to sail to Africa, but they were tricked.
After two months on a sketchy course up the Eastern Seaboard, La Amistad is captured off the coast of Long Island (in the film, the Africans are captured off the coast of Connecticut, but in actuality, they were imprisoned in New Haven and and Hartford, Connecticut). The Africans are charged for murder and piracy. In the beginning, they are embraced by abolitionists Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and Lewis Tappan (Stella n Skarsgard), as well as a young, idealistic real estate / property attorney named Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey). During the proceedings this case divides a nation. Two great American figures butt heads in debate as to what the outcome should be. Pro-Slavery Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), seeking re-election in 1840, is willing to convict the Africans to gain favor with voters in the South, as well as with Queen Isabella of Spain (Anna Paquin).
His actions are challenged by former President John Quincy Adams (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who comes out of political retirement to fight the African's side in the United States Supreme Court. The Spanish men have claimed the Africans as their property and others claimed that they had saved La Amistad in the cargo contained therein, and the Africans were American property, determining a salvage amount given to them (under maritime law of salvage, those who saved a sea vessel were entitled to a portion of the value they saved). The case went to trial in September of 1839, where the Federal District Court ruled that the Africans were illegally held, and therefore were not liable for their acts, and they were not property. The Circuit Court upheld the District Court decision. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where Adams argued the defendants' case. The Supreme Court upheld nearly all of the Circuit Court's opinion stating the Africans were free men and women, illegally taken from Africa, were never citizens of Spain and were not guilty of the murders of the crewmen during the mutiny.
Bibliography Pate, Alex's D. Amistad New York: NAL/Dutton, 1997.