Joseph CinquéSep 2nd, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
c.1814-c.1879 Joseph Cinqué led an 1839 mutiny on board the Cuban schooner Amistad, initiating the first slave rebellion in history to be successfully defended in American courts. Captured off Long Island and nearly prosecuted on charges of murder, Cinqué and his fellow Amistad rebels were eventually set free following a Supreme Court decision that opposed the will of the President of the United States.
The man known to history as Cinqué was born sometime around the year 1814 in Sierra Leone. A rice farmer and trader among the Mende people, his birth name was Singbe-Pieh. Along with his wife and three children, he cared for his aging father in the village of Mani. Although transatlantic slave trade was made illegal by international agreement in 1820, the practice remained common, and young farmers like Cinqué were frequent targets of slave traders who knew agriculture skills would be prized by plantation owners in the Americas.
Cinqué was abducted in 1839 while working in his rice field. He was taken to the Sierra Leone slave depot known as Lomboko, held in chains for months, and put on board a slave ship bound for Cuba. In Havana, he was included in a group of men, women, and children sold to slave trader José Ruiz. Ruiz and another trader, Pedro Montes, hired the schooner Amistad to carry them all—the two slave traders and 53 slaves—to Puerto Principé, a region in central Cuba where the slaves were to be put to work on sugar plantations.
The Amistad never arrived. Cinqué managed to pick the lock on his chains and set the rest of the slaves free. The mutineers killed the captain and the ship’s cook, and two other crewmembers disappeared overboard. But Ruiz and Montes were spared, and Cinqué now ordered Montes, an experienced sea captain, to sail east for Africa. But Montes secretly reversed course each night, erasing the progress made during the day. After 63 days of this subterfuge, with no end in sight and 10 of his fellow Africans dead, Cinqué allowed Montes to sail for land. The nearest port turned out to be Long Island Sound in New York, where, on arrival, the Amistad was seized by a U.S. Coast Guard ship under the command of Lt. Thomas Gedney. Montes and Ruiz were set free, and Cinqué and the other surviving slaves were charged with piracy and murder.
Because New York was a “free state,” no longer importing slaves, Montes and Ruiz persuaded Gedney to tow the Amistad to the Connecticut port of New London. As soon as the ship arrived in Connecticut, Gedney cited the maritime law of salvage and claimed ownership of the ship and cargo for himself. Since Connecticut was a slave state, Gedney hoped the cargo would include the slaves. Ruiz and Montes opposed Gedney’s claim and asserted their right to return the ship and slaves to Havana where Cinqué and the others would be executed.
Gedney and Ruiz brought lawsuits against each other, and diplomatic discussion ensued between the United States and Spain on behalf of its Cuban colony. Cinqué and his fellow mutineers were jailed in New Haven during these negotiations. On September 17, 1839, the Circuit Court convened in Hartford. President Martin Van Buren and Secretary of State John Forsyth, intent on maintaining good relations with Spain, unsuccessfully argued in a brief that the court had no jurisdiction. The New York Anti-Slavery Society enlisted the prominent abolitionist Roger Baldwin to represent the slaves without charge. But by accounts of the era, Cinqué himself commanded the attention of the jurors, giving an articulate and moving speech in defense of the mutineers’ right to defend themselves and their freedom, a speech that was translated for the court from Cinqué’s native Mende language. He became a sensation in the northern, abolitionist press where the phonetic translation of his name from Singbe to Cinqué was popularized and coupled with “Joseph.”
A Victory for Freedom
The trial riveted the American public, and abolitionists claimed a victory when Judge Andrew Judson ruled for Cinqué and his fellow slaves, holding that they had never been slaves in a legal sense. The federal government, backed by President Van Buren, appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court where former President John Quincy Adams presented a passionate argument on behalf of the Amistad mutineers. Cinqué and his fellow slaves restated their case each time, always forced to return to a jail cell at the end of the day. In an 1841 decision, the Supreme Court upheld Judge Judson’s original ruling on a strict interpretation of the facts of the case. Cinqué and the other Amistad mutineers, after two years of incarceration and appeals, were free to go.
In order to raise the necessary funds to return to Africa, a committee of Amistad supporters organized a national speaking tour. Cinqué again distinguished himself with his eloquence and his dignity, and by November of 1841, sufficient funds had been raised to finance a voyage to Sierra Leone. The group, now 35 surviving members from the original 53, arrived in Africa in January 1842, accompanied by a group of missionaries charged with easing their return.
Little is known of Cinqué’s fate in Sierra Leone. It is not believed that he ever found his family again. A widely repeated story that he himself became a slave trader has no basis, and was concocted by an author in search of an ironic ending for an 1854 novel about the Amistad . But what is known of Cinqué’s life has proven to be an enduring tale of triumph over adversity, and a key legal turning point in the fight to abolish slavery in the United States.