Sengbe Pieh (circa 1813-1879), also known as Joseph Cinque, was the courageous leader of a revolt by slaves on board the slave ship Amistad in 1839, an event which led ultimately to a historic trial in the Supreme Court of the United States and had far-reaching consequences for both that country and Sierra Leone.
Sengbe was born around 1813 in the town of Mani in Mende country, a distance of ten days’ march from the Gallinas coast. He is said to have been the son of a local chief. He was certainly a farmer and was married with three children. In 1839 he was captured by four men as he was going to his farm, taken to a nearby village, and then sent to Lomboko, a notorious slaving island off the Gallinas coast, where he was sold to the wealthiest slaver there. He eventually came to be known as Joseph Cinque, a name given him by Spanish slavers in Cuba, and variously spelled Cinquez, Cingue, Sinko, and Jimgua in textbooks.
From Lomboko he was shipped with several other slaves to Havana, Cuba, on the schooner Iesora. Jose Ruiz, a Spanish plantation owner, bought Sengbe and 48 others for $450 each to work on his plantation in Porto Principe, another Cuban port 480 km (300 mi) away. Pedro Montez, another Spaniard also bound for Port Principe, bought four children. Although Spain had made the importation of slaves illegal since 1820, the two men loaded their slaves onto the schooner Amistad and set out for Porto Principe.
Three days out to sea, Sengbe managed to free himself and his comrades by using a loose spike which he found on the floor of the ship. Under his leadership, they killed the captain (who was the owner of the ship) and one of the crew, but spared the cabin boy, Ruiz, Montez, and the second mate, whose life was allowed him in order to have someone to steer the ship. Two of the slaves died in the attack.
Sengbe ordered the new captain to pilot them eastwards towards Africa, but at night he steered westwards or northwards, and after sailing in this fashion for nearly two months, anchored off Long Island. News soon spread concerning the mysterious ship. The Amistad, in a hopeless condition, her sails nearly all in shreds, was seized by a United States survey brig. Ruiz and Montez were released, while Sengbe and the other slaves were arrested and charged with murder and piracy. After a preliminary investigation, the district judge ordered that the case be heard before the circuit court at Hartford, Connecticut.
Ruiz and Montez claimed the Africans as their property, while the Spanish consul in Boston claimed the ship, slaves and cargo in the name of the king of Spain, as Ruiz and Montez were Spanish subjects. A committee of Abolitionists, which came to be known as the Amistad Committee, was then formed to defend the prisoners. Their greatest difficulty was to get the prisoners’ version of the story. Several attempts to find an interpreter failed, but eventually Professor J. W. Gibbs of Yale Divinity School discovered James Covey, an ex-slave serving on a British naval ship in New York, who was from Sierra Leone and could speak the Mende language.
With a great stir of excitement the Amistad Committee, comprising S.S. Jocelyn, Joshua Leavitt, and Lewis Tappan, a wealthy merchant and die-hard abolitionist, launched a campaign”–Appeal to the Friends of Liberty”–to raise funds for the welfare of the “Amistad negroes,” as the captives were popularly called, as well as to pay counsel to defend them.
The abolitionists’ position was a delicate one. The Amistad *incident was timely, for it provided an issue which united the differences of opinion which had threatened to destroy the abolitionist movement entirely. Moreover, there were a number of people who sympathized with the Amistad *case and gave it their support, but were not abolitionists. On the other hand, many influential supporters of the United States government had entrenched pro-slavery interests.
President Martin Van Buren (in office 1837-41), concerned about winning votes from the southern slave-holders in the forthcoming general election of 1840, was in favor of handing the captives over to the Spanish authorities, but this was stopped since there was no extradition treaty with Spain. The district attorney, a personal appointee of the President, claimed that they should be held at the President’s pleasure. Van Buren even sent a warship to New Haven, Connecticut, with instructions to seize the prisoners without delay, should the verdict go against them, so that the abolitionists would have no time to file an appeal.
Counsel for the defense urged the President not to have the case decided “in the recesses of the cabinet,” where the slaves could not be defended. When the circuit court finally gave its decision in January 1840, it ruled that the United States government had no right to try the captives as the Amistad was owned by a Spanish subject; that as the prisoners had been kidnapped into slavery, they were legally free. They should therefore be transported back to Africa from where they had been taken against their will.
Many people contested this decision, among them the President himself, who ordered the district attorney to appeal to the Supreme Court. Meantime, some of the Amistad negroes had taken ill and died. Meanwhile, the survivors were being taught to read and write in classes organized by the abolitionists.
Recognizing the need for a public figure of the highest standing to plead the case of the negroes before Supreme Court, the abolitionists approached former president John Quincy Adams to lead the defense. At 73, and 30 years out of practice, the ex-President was reluctant to accept the case lest he should jeopardize the lives of the Africans by failing to win. He was, however, persuaded to accept the brief, leading to the famous “trial of one president by another.” After preparing an elaborate defense, Old Man Eloquent, as Adams came to be called thereafter, addressed the court for a total of thirteen hours. In March 1841, the court gave its verdict: the captives were free men and fully entitled to their freedom.
After their acquittal, the Africans were taken to Farmington, an early abolitionist town, in Connecticut, where they received more formal education for the rest of the year 1841. With the President reluctant to provide a ship to repatriate them, the abolitionists assumed complete responsibility for the Africans. To raise funds to charter a boat, they were taken from one unity to another, making appearances before sympathetic church audiences, displaying their knowledge of reading and spoken language, and telling the tale of their ordeal.
Towards the end of the year, enough funds had been raised, and the Gentleman was chartered to take the 35 Africans to the colony of Sierra Leone, accompanied by five missionaries–two black and three white–to start the so-called Mende Mission with the Amistad Africans. This would promote the work of evangelization already successfully started in Sierra Leone. The ship arrived in Freetown in mid-January 1842. Sengbe learned from Mende recaptives that war had ravaged the country during his absence, and that his hometown and most of his family had been wiped out. The hope of locating the Mende Mission near Sengbe’s hometown could never be fulfilled.
Anxious to get to their homes and families, many of the Amistad Africans ran away, leaving only ten adults and the four children behind. It was not easy to find a place to start the mission, but finally in 1844 a station was established at Komende on the Sherbro Island. In the course of time the mission established stations on the mainland, one of which was named Mo Tappan (Mo in Sherbro meaning "at the place of") in gratitude for the selfless assistance of Lewis Tappan.
It is difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened to Sengbe between 1842 and the time of his death. There were many conflicting stories. Like a number of those who escaped from Freetown, Sengbe continued to return to the mission station from time to time. He told the missionaries that on leaving Freetown, he had hurried back to Mani only to discover the charred ruins of the town. In desperation he came to the mission for some time, then disappeared again. Rumors, many and various, circulated about him–that he had become a great war chief, or that he had given up Christianity and become a wealthy slave-trader himself. One of the strongest, which missionaries inclined to believe, was that he had emigrated to the West Indies.
Be that as it may, Sengbe is reported to have died at the mission station. The Rev. Alonzo Lewis, who as a boy had watched the capture of the Amistad and followed the case, later enquired from Rev. Albert Miller of the Mende Mission what eventually happened to Sengbe. According to Miller, shortly after his arrival at the Mende Mission in 1878, an old man, unrecognized by anyone, had stumbled into the station. He had announced himself as Joseph Sengbe, and said that he had come there to die. Sengbe had relapsed into paganism, but lived in the vicinity of the mission. He died in 1879 and was buried in the cemetery near the mission station.
The Amistad affair, prompted by the revolt of Sengbe, had far-reaching consequences. By the time the case ended, it had so embittered feelings between the north and the slave-holding south, that it must be accounted one of the events leading to the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1860. The decision of the court was not in itself an attack on slavery, but it drew the abolitionists together and prevented the movement from breaking up. Moreover, the missionary work in Africa precipitated by the Amistad case led to the foundation of the American Missionary Association in 1846 which took over the Mende Mission. This was the largest and most highly organized abolitionist society in the United States before the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Association established hundreds of anti-slavery churches and schools in the north and the border states of the south, mainly to educate liberated blacks. Thus were born such important institutions as Hampton Institute, and Atlanta, Howard, Fisk, and Dillard Universities, to which countless black Americans owe their higher education. Under the leadership of Sengbe, as the New Orleans Weekly put it, “the determination of fifty-three Africans not to accept the enforced slavery launched a movement that resulted in the creation of a tremendous network of institutions in the south that educated the leadership for the modern-day civil rights movement.”
It also led to the beginning of American evangelization in Africa and other parts of the world. In Sierra Leone, the American Missionary Association was responsible for bringing western education to the Mende people before the British colonial government introduced it. It also founded some important schools such as the Hartford School for Girls in Moyamba and the Albert Academy in Freetown, both still popular today. All these developments owe their origin to Joseph Sengbe, and to his act of rebellion on board the Amistad.
John W. Barber, A History of the Amistad Captives, New Haven, 1840; Morris Bishop, “Cinque the Noble Mutineer,”* New Yorker, December 20, 1941; Clifton, H. Johnson, “The *Amistad Incident,” in David Driskell (ed.), Amistad II: Afro-American Art, New York, 1975; Bernice Kohn, The *Amistad *Mutiny, New York, 1971; Helen Kromer, Amistad Revolt, 1839, New York, 1973; Alonzo N. Lewis, “Recollections of the Amistad Slave Case, “ Connecticut Magazine, II, 1907; William Owens, Black Mutiny, Philadelphia, 1953.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Two: Sierra Leone-Zaire, Ed. L. H. Ofosu-Appiah. New York: Reference Publications Inc., 1979. All rights reserved.