Sengbe Pieh, the son of a local chief, was born in Mendi, Sierra Leone, in about 1815. He became a rice farmer and was married with three children when he was captured by Spanish slave-traders in 1839. The Spanish, who gave him the name Joseph Cinque, took him to Cuba where he was sold to Jose Ruiz.
Ruiz purchased 48 other slaves in Havana and hired Ramon Ferrer to take him in his schooner Amistad, to Puerto Principe, a settlement further down the coast of Cuba. On 2nd July, 1839, the slaves, led by Cinque, killed Ramon Ferrer, and took possession of his ship. Cinque ordered the navigator to take them back to Africa but after 63 days at sea the ship was intercepted by Lieutenant Gedney, of the United States brig Washington, half a mile from the shore of Long Island. The ship was towed into New London, Connecticut and the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven.
The Spanish government insisted that the mutineers be returned to Cuba. President Martin van Buren was sympathetic to these demands but insisted that the men would be first tried for murder. Lewis Tappan and James Pennington took up the African's case and argued that while slavery was legal in Cuba, importation of slaves from Africa was not. The judge agreed, and ruled that the Africans had been kidnapped and had the right to use violence to escape from captivity.
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
The New York Morning Tribune reported: "Instead of a chivalrous leader with the dignified and graceful bearing of Othello, imparting energy and confidence to his intelligent and devoted followers, he saw a sullen, dumpish looking negro, with a flat nose, thick lips, and all the other characteristics of his debased countrymen, without a single redeeming or striking trait, except the mere brute qualities of strength and activity, who had inspired terror among his companions by the indiscriminate and unsparing use of the lash. And instead of intelligent and comparatively civilized men, languishing in captivity and suffering under the restraints of the prison, he found them the veriest animals in existence, perfectly contented in confinement, without a ray of intelligence, and sensible only to the wants of the brute."
The United States government appealed against this decision and the case appeared before the Supreme Court. The former president, John Quincy Adams, was so moved by the plight of Joseph Cinque and his fellow Africans, that he volunteered to represent them. Although now seventy-three, his passionate eight-hour speech won the argument and the mutineers were released.
Lewis Tappan and the anti-slavery movement helped fund the return of the 35 surviving Africans to Sierra Leone. They arrived in January, 1842, along with five missionaries and teachers who formed a Christian anti-slavery mission in the country.
Cinque discovered that his wife and three children had been killed while he had been away. He left the mission to do some trading further down the coast but he never returned. It is not known when or how he died.
On board the brig we also saw Cinques, the master spirit and hero of this bloody tragedy, in irons. He is about five feet eight inches in height, 25 or 26 years of age, of erect figure, well built, and very active. He is said to be a match for any two men on board the schooner. His countenance, for a native African, is unusually intelligent, evincing uncommon decision and coolness, with a composure characteristic of true courage, and nothing to mark him as a malicious man. He is a negro who would command in New Orleans, under the hammer, at least $1500.
He is said, however, to have killed the captain and crew with his own hand, by cutting their throats. He also has several times attempted to take the life of Senor Montes, and the backs of several poor negroes are scored with the scars of blows inflicted by his lash to keep them in subjection. He expects to be executed, but nevertheless manifests a sang froid worthy of a Stoic under similar circumstances.
We have seen a wood-cut representation of the royal fellow. It looks as we think it would. It answers well to his lion-like character. The head has the towering front of Daniel Webster, and though some shades darker than our great countryman, we are struck at first sight, with his resemblance to him. He has Webster’s lion aspect. - his majestic, quiet, uninterested cast of expression, looking, when at rest, as if there was nobody and nothing about him to care about or look at. His eye is deep, heavy - the cloudy iris extending up behind the brow almost inexpressive, and yet as if volcanoes of action might be asleep behind it.
The nose and mouth of Cingues are African. We discover the expanded and powerful nostrils mentioned in the description, and can fancy readily its contractions and dilations, as he made those addresses to his countrymen and called upon them to rush, with a greater than Spartan spirit, upon the countless white people, who he apprehended would doom them to a life of slavery. He has none of the look of an Indian - nothing of the savage. It is a gentle, magnanimous, generous look, not so much of the warrior as the sage - a sparing and not a destructive look, like the lion’s when unaroused by hunger or the spear of the huntsman. It must have flashed terribly upon that midnight deck, when he was dealing with the wretched Ramonflues.
We bid pro-slavery look upon Cingues and behold in him the race we are enslaving. He is a sample. Every Congolese or Mandingan is not, be sure, a Cingues. Nor every Yankee a Webster. “Giants are rare,” said Ames, “and it is forbidden that there should be races of them.” But call not the race inferior, which in now and then an age produces such men.
Our shameless people have made merchandise of the likeness of Cingues - as they have of the originals of his (and their own) countrymen. They had the effrontery to look him in the face long enough to delineate it, and at his eye long enough to copy its wonderful expression.
By the way, Webster ought to come home to defend Cingues. There is indeed no defence to make. It would give Webster occasion to strike at the slave trade and at our people for imprisoning and trying a man admitted to have risen only against the worst of pirates, and for more than life - for liberty, for country and for home.
Instead of a chivalrous leader with the dignified and graceful bearing of Othello, imparting energy and confidence to his intelligent and devoted followers, he saw a sullen, dumpish looking negro, with a flat nose, thick lips, and all the other characteristics of his debased countrymen, without a single redeeming or striking trait, except the mere brute qualities of strength and activity, who had inspired terror among his companions by the indiscriminate and unsparing use of the lash. And instead of intelligent and comparatively civilized men, languishing in captivity and suffering under the restraints of the prison, he found them the veriest animals in existence, perfectly contented in confinement, without a ray of intelligence, and sensible only to the wants of the brute.
Cinque, the leader of the Africans, was then examined. Cinque told Captain Gedney he might take the vessel and keep it, if he would send them to Sierra Leone. His conversation with Captain Gedney was carried on by the aid of Bernar, who could speak a little English. They had taken on board part of their supply of water, and wanted to go to Sierra Leone. They were three and a half months coming from Havana to this country.
Cross examined by General Isham. Cinque said he came from Mendi. He was taken in the road where he was at work, by countrymen. He was not taken in battle. He did not sell himself. He was taken to Lomboko, where he met the others for the first time. Those who took him - four men - had a gun and knives. Has three children in Africa. Has one wife. Never said he had two wives. Can't count the number of days after leaving Havana before the rising upon the vessel. The man who had charge of the schooner was killed. Then he and Pepe sailed the vessel. Witness told Pepe, after Ferrer was killed, to take good care of the cargo.
The brig fired a gun, and then they gave themselves up. When they first landed there they were put in prison. Were not chained. They were chained coming from Africa to Havana, hands and feet. They were chained also on board the Amistad. Were kept short of provisions. Were beaten on board the schooner by one of the sailors. When they had taken the schooner they put the Spaniards down in the hold and locked them down.
Grabbaung and Fuliwa, two more of the Africans, testified, in the main, to the same facts as above. Fuliwa stated that Captain Ferrer killed one of the Africans, Duevi by name, before the Africans killed him.
Joseph Cinque, the hero of the Amistad. He was a native African, and by the help of God he emancipated a whole ship-load of his fellow men on the high seas. And he now sings of Liberty on the sunny hills of Africa, and beneath his native palm trees, where he hears the lion roar, and feels himself as free as that king of the forest.
All hail! thou truly noble chief,
Who scorned to live a cowering slave;
Thy name shall stand on history's leaf,
Amid the mighty and the brave:
Thy name shall shine, a glorious light
To other brave and fearless men,
Who, like thyself, in freedom's might,
Shall beard the robber in his den.
Thy name shall stand on history's page,
And brighter, brighter, brighter grow,
Throughout all time, through every age,
Till bosoms cease to feel or know
"Created worth, or human woe."
Thy name shall nerve the patriot's hand
When, 'mid the battle's deadly strife,
The glittering bayonet and brand
Are crimsoned with the stream of life:
When the dark clouds of battle roll,
And slaughter reigns without control,
Thy name shall then fresh life impart,
And fire anew each freeman's heart.
Though wealth and power their force combine
To crush thy noble spirit down,
There is above a power divine
Shall bear thee up against their frown.