“Se confundió el gozo en el pozo”― “he confused the joy in the well”; which is simply a way of saying that something went wrong which was expected to go right.

This was the expression that Saturnino Carrias used in 1848 to express his disappointment upon hearing that the $50,000 dollars in compensation that he and his nephew were going to receive from the United States government was no longer coming. However, in order to understand why Carrias was expecting such large sums of cash from a country he did not even live in, one must go back nearly a decade before.

“Se confundio el gozo en el pozo” (“He confused the joy in the well”). William George Stewart Papers, MS 594, New-York Historical Society.

In 1839, a schooner called the Amistad was found off the coast of Long Island carrying 53 illegally purchased slaves from Mendiland in Africa. The Amistad had been transporting the Mende from Cuba when a revolt among the slaves led to the death of the captain and the cook of the boat. Two Spaniards, José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, were spared on the condition that they steer the Amistad to Africa, but the men brought the schooner to the United States instead where the debate began as to what should be done with the Africans. The matter soon sparked international attention especially from the Spanish who urged that the Mende be brought back to Cuba. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court of the United States soon ruled that since the Africans were captured and sold illegally, they were free men by right.

However, for the next several years after the court’s decision, the Spanish government, including Spanish ambassador to the United States Ángel Calderón de la Barca y Belgrano, persisted in arguing that financial compensation was warranted for the loss of the ship, the slaves, and the goods on board the Amistad. This part of the story can be traced through correspondence in the William George Stewart papers held by New-York Historical. One of the men who believed that he was entitled to payments was none other than the Spaniard who had purchased the majority of the slaves and had also steered the ship towards the United States coastline: José “Pepe” Ruiz. After being briefly imprisoned in the United States following the Amistad’s landing there, Ruiz posted bail and returned to Cuba where his uncle Saturnino Carrias was also a merchant.

Angel Calderon de la Barca y Belgrano. William George Stewart Papers, MS 594, New-York Historical Society.

Despite the length of time that had passed since the Amistad incident, Carrias was insistent that his nephew be compensated. With this in mind, he named Mexican Consul to the United States and native of Spain, Juan de la Granja, as his legal representative in the U.S. with the expectation that De la Granja’s influence could sway Congress to act in Ruiz’s favor. In addition, Carrias was keeping in contact with Ángel Calderón de la Barca y Belgrano who assured him that he “shall, by no means, relent in [his] efforts” for compensation. Such men persisted in urging the U.S. government to pay for the losses of the Amistad by printing pamphlets and contacting congressmen. In fact, Carrias even hired men who supposedly had good relationships with several U.S. representatives so that they could push for legislation concerning the Amistad. Even during the midst of the Mexican-American War, Carrias thought that Congress should not neglect this issue.

Saturnino Carrias. William George Stewart Papers, MS 594, New-York Historical Society.

By 1848, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Relations proposed a bill that would provide $50,000 to pay for the losses of the Amistad. However, with the urging of Representative John Quincy Adams, the House struck down the bill after Carrias was certain his nephew would finally be paid.  Nevertheless, Carrias continued to persist unsuccessfully in his efforts against the U.S. House of Representatives’ “kidnapping” of what should rightfully be his; an odd criticism from a man who desired retribution for illegally purchased slaves.

This post is by intern Andy Latoni of the Princeton Internships in Civic Service program.