#Joseph Cinque, led an 1839 mutiny on board the Cuban schooner Amistad, initiating the first slave rebellion in history to be successfully defended in the American Courts. Cinque was captured off Long Island and almost prosecuted on charges of murder. However, Cinque 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.
Cinque was born around 1814 in Sierra Leone. He was a rice farmer and trader among the Mende people. His birth name was “Singbe-Pieh. He was also a caregiver to his aging father, with the help of his wife and three children. The transatlantic slave trade was illegal based on an international agreement in 1820, however the practice still was very common, and young strong farmers such as Cinque were targets every day of slave traders who knew they needed the agriculture skills of men from the area.
In 1839 Cinque was abducted while working in his rice field. He was captured and taken to the Sierra Leone slave depot known as Lomboko, where he was held in chains for months, and put on a slave ship schooner Amistad bound for Cuba. Cinque was sold to work on sugar plantations in Puerto Principe. However, the ship never arrived. Cinque was able to pick the lock on his chains and he set the rest of the slaves free. The mutineers killed the captain and the ship’s cook and the 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 ship arrived in Long Island Sound in New York, the Amistad was seized by the U.S Coast Guard under the command of Lt. Thomas Gedney. Montes and Ruiz were set free, but the slaves on the ship were charged with murder and piracy. Since New York was considered a “free state,” and not importing slaves the ship was to be towed to Connecticut port of New London.
Cinque and his fellow mutineers were jailed in New Haven. Cinque represented himself in court calling attention to the jurors. He gave an articulate and moving speech in defense of the right to defend himself and the mutineers, a speech that was translated for the court from Cinques’ 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.” 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. In 1842 Cinque was returned to Sierra Leone, no one knows whether or not he was ever reunited with his family. There have been many concocted tales about what happened once he return, but none have been proven.