John Warner Barber, “The Death of Capt. Ferrer”, 1840, Etching, Frontpiece from the “A History of the Amistad Captives”, Unfolded 22.9 x 49.3 cm, Partially Hand-Colored, Private Collection
Born in East Windsor, Connecticut in February of 1798, John Warner Barber was an engraver and historian whose books of local, state, and national history featured his colorful illustrations. He learned his craft as an apprentice to East Windsor printmaker Abner Reed, who also was a bank note engraver for the United States and Canada. In 1823, Barber opened a business in New Haven, where he printed religious and historical books, illustrated with his own steel and wood engravings.
Barber traveled throughout Connecticut, creating ink sketches of town greens, churches, hotels and harbors; he also researched local histories on his travels. From his research, Barber produced in 1836 what is considered the first popular local history book published in the United States, the “Connecticut Historical Collections, Containing a General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, Etc. . .”. His pencil sketches were developed into more detailed wash drawings, which in turn were transferred directly to small blocks of boxwood on which he engraved the designs. The book sold well, seven thousand copies in the first year at a cost of what was then an average week’s pay.
In 1840, John W. Barber produced his thirty-two page “ A History of the Amistad Captives: Being a Circumstantial Account of the Capture of the Spanish Schooner Amistad, by the Africans on Board; Their Voyage, and Capture Near Long Island, New York; with Biographical Sketches of Each of the Surviving Africans, Also, an Account of the Trials , , , Compiled from Authentic Sources”. Documenting one of the most important events of its time, Barber’s book was published the same year of the Amistad trial and its ruling by the New Haven court.
In February of 1839, Portuguese slave hunters abducted hundreds of Africans from what is now present-day Sierra Leone and transported them to Cuba, then a Spanish colony. Spanish plantation owners Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz purchased fifty-three of the African captives as slaves, forty-nine adult males and four children. On June 28th, Montes and Ruiz with the African captives set sail from Havana on the Amistad, Spanish for ‘friendship’, for their plantations on Puerto Principe.
Several days into the journey, Sengbe Pieh, one of the Africans also known as Joseph Cinque, managed to unshackle himself and his fellow captives. Armed with knives, they seized control of the Amistad and killed the Spanish captain and the ship’s cook. In need of navigation, the Africans ordered Montes and Ruiz to return to Africa; however, the two men changed the ship’s course in the middle of the night, sailed through the Caribbean and up the eastern coast of the United States.
On August 26th of 1839, the U.S. Navy brig Washington found the ship anchored off the coast of Long Island to get provisions. The naval officers seized the Amistad, put the Africans back in chains, and escorted the ship to Conneticut, where they would claim salvage rights to the ship and its human cargo. Originally charged with murder and piracy, Cinque and the other Africans were imprisoned in New Haven. Though the charges were dropped, they remained in prison while the courts decided their legal status, as well as the competing property claims by the Washington’s officers, Montes and Ruiz, and the Spanish government.
In January of 1840, a judge in U.S. District Court in Hartford ruled that the Africans were not Spanish slaves, but had been illegally captured, and should be returned to Africa. After appealing the decision to the Circuit Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision, the U.S. attorney appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in ealry 1841.
On March 9, 1841, the Supreme Court ruled seven to one to uphold the lower courts’ decisions in favor of the Africans of the Amistad. However, the court did not require the government to provide funds for the Africans’ return voyage, but did award salvage rights for the Amistad to the officers who apprehended it. In November of 1841 after abolitionists raised money for the return voyage, Cinque and the surviving thirty-four Africans of the Amistad, the others either died at sea or in prison awaiting trial, sailed from New York aboard the ship Gentleman to return to their homeland.
James Warner Barber attended the court hearings between January 7th and 13th in 1840 when Judge Andrew Johnson rule that the Africans were illegally transported to Cuba, and thus would not be returned to Montes and Ruis. On the first of April, Barber began drawing the Amistad Africans in jail and, over the next two months, would create drawings and engravings to illustrate his book. Barber drew portraits, from which he engraved silhouettes of the Africans, and added other illustrations to his book, including a map of the Mendi country, home of the Amistad Africans.