The “Amistad Revolt,” led by illegally captured West African slave Joseph Cinque (pictured), was a gripping chapter of the international slave trade and its impact on the world. Cinque’s uprising took place in July of 1839, and two years later after a lengthy trial, he and 34 other survivors of the revolt would begin their long trek back to their native lands on this day in 1841.
Cinque, born Sengbe Pieh, was one of 53 captured slaves being transported to Cuba. After staging the revolt and taking over the Amistad ship, Cinque demanded to be returned to Africa but was tricked by the ship’s navigator. Landing in Long Island, New York, the ship owners lied and said the group were Cuban-born and they were imprisoned. International slave trading was outlawed at the time, and Northern abolitionists were heavily involved in the case, learning that the group was not Cuban later.
Former president John Quincy Adams wasn’t known as an advocate for abolition, but he was devoted to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. After meeting with the prisoners in 1840, Adams would prepare to greet the Supreme Court and argued effectively on the rights that the survivors should be free of bondage and not sent to Cuba as property.
Using sarcasm, wit, and a known temper, Adams won over the High Court and the justices released Cinque and the others.
Cinque and the survivors won the case, but still needed the necessary funds to make the trip back to their home. In a letter, Cinque, who lived in Connecticut with the others, demanded they all be returned to Sierra Leone, which was part of a fund-raising effort on his behalf:
They say we are like dogs without any home. But if you will send us home you will see whether we be dogs or not. We want to see no more snow. We no say this place no good, but we afraid of cold. Cold catch us all the time…We want to go very soon, and go to no place but Sierra Leone.
Cinque, the 34 survivors, interpreter James Covey, and five missionaries began the trip on this day. Along the way, three survivors passed away and it was alleged Cinque returned home to his ravaged village. Some accounts say he worked as a missionary, while others claim he disappeared while trying to locate his missing family.
Despite the conflicting record of Cinque’s life after Amistad, the story is still a resonant tale of determined for justice in the name of freedom.
A historical account of the Amistad survivors can be read here.