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African Mutineer (1815-1852)

Sengbe Pieh, the son of a local chief, was born in Mani, Sierra Leone, around 1815.  He became a rice farmer and was married with three children when Spanish slave-traders captured him 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 to his schooner Amistad, to Puerto Principe a settlement further down the coast of Cuba. 

On July 2, 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 on 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.  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 how he died.  

Revised: July 18, 2013.