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On June 28, 1839, the Spanish ship La Amistad left a port in Havana,
Cuba with 49 men, 1 boy and 3 girls kidnapped from Mendeland, Africa,
modern-day Sierra Leone. They were being taken to Puerto Principe,
Cuba for a lifetime of slavery. Before the ship reached its destination,
the Mende Africans seized control and forced the Spanish owners to
sail towards Africa, using the sun as a guide. At night, however, the
owners sailed northward, hoping to come ashore in a Southern slave
state in America. Instead, the ship entered the waters of Long Island
Sound where the U.S. Navy took it into custody. The vessel was
towed into New London harbor and moored at Lawrence Wharf,
near the U.S. Custom House.

The Mende Africans were eventually placed in jail in New Haven
while their fate became a major legal case that took two years to
resolve. Although the primary issue was whether the Mende Africans
were to be considered slaves or free, the long process led the public’s
attention to focus on the rights of African Americans in the United
States and on moral, social, religious, diplomatic and political
questions. Former President John Quincy Adams successfully defended
the Mende Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in February
1841, they were declared free.

In March 1841, the Mende Africans were sent to Farmington to
live while funds were raised for their return home to Sierra Leone,
Africa. In November, the 37 surviving Mende Africans sailed towards
their homeland as free individuals. Along with them were five
missionaries who were sent under the auspices of the newly formed
Union Missionary Society, a forerunner of the American Missionary
Association. The group reached Sierra Leone in January 1842.