On this day in 1841, the U.S. Supreme Court exonerated 35 Africans who had seized control of the Amistad, a Spanish slave ship headed to Cuba. The incident occurred two years earlier when the kidnapped slaves, led by a West African named Cinque, managed to free themselves, wield machetes, and demand that the ship return home. Under the cloak of night, the navigator cleverly managed to steer the Amistad back toward Cuba, but a fierce storm pushed them off-course until a U.S. naval ship intercepted them.
After torturously working its way through lower courts, with abolitionist Christians championing the cause of the slaves, the case finally landed in the Supreme Court in February 1841. Former U.S. President John Quincy Adams joined the Africans’ defense team. The venerable 73-year old statesman eloquently argued in their favor, citing our nation’s founding document: “The moment you come to the Declaration of Independence, that every man has a right to life and liberty, an inalienable right, this case is decided. I ask nothing more in behalf of these unfortunate men than this Declaration.” The Supreme Court ruled that Cinque and his fellow slaves had been illegally captured and rightfully fought for their freedom.
Finally released from their chains, the Africans sailed back to their homeland, arriving the next year. The fate of Cinque is murky. A rumor arose that he actually engaged in the slave trade himself, though the evidence is scant. Some scholars insist that he remained in Africa, working for the mission society that spoke out on his behalf in the American courts. There are also reports that an ailing Cinque requested a Christian burial before his death in 1879. We do know that one of the freed Amistad passengers, a young girl named Margru, eventually returned to the United States to receive an education at the integrated Oberlin College in Ohio, whose second president was the renowned evangelist, Charles Finney. In 1849, Margru sailed back to Mende, her homeland which is now Sierra Leone, and became the director of a mission-sponsored girls’ school.
Freedom is a precious commodity, isn’t it? One of the most majestic charters of history, the Declaration of Independence, touts the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ironically, in a nation that worships freedom, many aren’t truly free. Addiction, rage, fear, greed, and lust enslave the soul in chains that can last a lifetime.
One of the most deceptive bondages of all is legalism. The religious were offended when Jesus told them the “truth shall set you free.” They pointed out they were slaves to no one and touted their relationship to Abraham. But here was One who preceded Abraham standing before them in the flesh — God Himself, the Great I AM — and they refused to recognize Him! They were slaves to a religious system when a relationship to the Living Truth could have set them free.
It’s good to live in a country where we can speak our minds, go to a voting booth, hear news from a free press, and worship wherever we want—or if we want. But it’s even better when our hearts our unfettered to live for God. If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!