Joseph Cinque (pictured) and his bold seizure of the La Amistad schooner is recognized as one of the most-symbolic moments in the slavery-abolishment movement. On this date in 1840, Cinque and the “Amistad Revolt” survivors would discover that their fight against their captors was in fact legal and just – but not without lengthy proceedings that eventually saw the freed slaves returning to Africa in 1842.
While Cinque, born Sengbe Pieh, and 53 other illegally captured persons from West Africa were being transported to a location in Cuba on a ship, he freed the captives and led a revolt on July 2, 1839. Seizing the Amistad by brutal force and demanding to be returned home to Africa, the ship’s navigator fooled the slaves and traveled to the eastern tip of Long Island, N.Y. At the time, transport of slaves from Africa to America (as well as all international slave trading) was outlawed, and the owners of the Amistad lied and said that Cinque and the rest were Cuban-born.
A highly publicized case, which had the support of many abolitionists, opened up in New Haven, Conn., in February of 1841. The U.S. Supreme Court decided on March 9th of that same year that because the captives were legally free, they were within their rights to fight back and secure their freedom from captivity by any means possible. Supporters of Cinque and the Amistad Revolt survivors arranged to have them sent back to Africa in 1842.
Not much is known about Cinque after his return to Sierra Leone, which was riddled by civil unrest, but many say he became a Christian missionary and that he may have participated in the slave trade as well. Those rumors, however, have been largely decried by experts on the matter.
Cinque’s bravery is commendable and the American courts’ support of the revolting African slaves was surprising considering the tension of race relations in the country at the time. The 1997 Stephen Spielberg-directed film “Amistad” featured Djimon Hounson (pictured right) in the role of Sengbe Pieh/Joseph Cinque and was nominated for a handful of Academy Awards.
Watch the trailer of the “Amistad” here: