This African slave leader was defended by John Quincy Adams before the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1841. Now WE know em


Sengbe Pieh was born between 1811 and 1814 in West Africa (what is now Sierra Leone). His family were rice farmers who spoke the Mende language.

His exact date of birth remains unknown. He married and had three children.

Then in 1839, he was captured by African slave traders and sold to Portuguese slave traders. He was imprisoned on the Portuguese slave ship Tecora, in violation of treaties prohibiting international slave trade.

He was taken to Havana Cuba, where he was sold with 110 others to Spaniards José Ruiz and Pedro Montez.

It is here in Cuba that his name is changed and he became known as Joseph Cinqué.


A print of Joseph Cinqué that appeared on August 31, 1839

Ruiz and Montez transported Joseph and the other slaves they purchased in Cuba on the schooner Amistad headed for a Caribbean plantation, with the intention of selling them for work at sugar plantations.

Schooner La Amistad

Schooner La Amistad

On June 30, Joseph freed himself from his shackles and led a revolt aboard the Amistad. The slaves killed the captain and the cook of the ship. Two slaves also died in the siege. Joseph took both Ruiz and Montez prisoner and demanded that they direct the Amistad back to Africa.


That night, the ship’s navigator duped the Africans and sailed in the direction of the Americas, with the hope of attracting the attention of another Spanish ship who could save them and regain control of the Amistad.

The navigator, for unknown reasons, vacillated the ships course between the United States and Africa for about 2 months. Finally, the Amistad reached waters near Long Island, New York and was captured by a U.S. Navy ship.

A boarding party from the USS Washington boarded the Amistad. When the Spaniards explained their version of events, the Americans charged Joseph and the other Africans with mutiny and murder, and removed them to New Haven, Connecticut to await trial.

The murder charges were dismissed, but Joseph and the slaves remained in prison as Ruiz and Montez, the Spanish government, and even the captain of the U.S. ship all laid claim to the Africans.

Mende language interpreters were found, who enabled Joseph and his fellow Africans to tell their side of the story to attorneys and the court. Joseph served as the groups representative.

In the trial United States v. The Amistad, the Spaniards claimed that the Africans were already slaves in Cuba at the time of their purchase and were therefore legal property.

After the case was ruled in favor of Joseph and the 51 other Africans in both district and circuit courts, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

President Martin Van Buren, hoping to win Southern votes, sought to have the slaves extradited to Cuba. Abolitionists who opposed extradition hired a defense team for the slaves.

The advocacy of former U.S. President John Quincy Adams, together with Roger Sherman Baldwin, was critical to the Africans’ defense. They argued that the slaves were kidnap victims rather than property.

In March 1840, the Supreme Court ruled that Joseph and the Africans mutinied to regain their freedom after being kidnapped and sold illegally as part of the Atlantic slave trade.

The decision was appealed, and former President John Quincy Adams again defended Joseph and the African group before the Supreme Court in January 1841.

The court upheld the earlier decision on March 9, 1841, ordering the Africans freed and returned to Africa, if they wished.

Text of the Amistad Supreme Court decision

Text of the Amistad Supreme Court decision

This decision went against the protests of President Martin Van Buren who worried about relations with Spain and implications for domestic slavery.

Joseph and Thirty-four of the former slaves secured passage home to Africa with the help of sympathetic missionary societies in 1842. The others had by now died in prison.

Back home in Sierra Leone, Joseph faced the outbreak of civil war.

Joseph and the other 51 freed men maintained contact with the local mission for a while, but Joseph soon left to trade along the African coast.

Little is known of Joseph’s later life, and rumors circulated widely.

Some maintained that Joseph had moved to Jamaica. Others held that he had become a merchant or a chief, perhaps trading in slaves himself.

The latter charge derived from oral accounts within Africa cited by twentieth-century author William A. Owens, who claimed that he had seen letters from Missionaries suggesting Joseph Cinqué was a slave trader.

Although some of the Africans associated with the Amistad probably did engage in the slave trade upon their return, most historians agree that the allegations of Joseph Cinqué’s involvement are not substantiated.

A dying Joseph Cinqué was said to have returned to the mission, where he died in 1879.

Joseph Cinqué received a Christian burial.


Now WE know em



Sculpted by Ed Hamilton in 1992, this monument of Sengbe Pieh (known as Joseph Cinque) stands on the former site of the New Haven Jail, where illegally kidnapped Africans were imprisoned in 1839 while awaiting trial. The work is a majestic, 14-foot relief sculpture cast in bronze, and distinguished by its unique three-sided form, each side highlighting the capture, trial and return home of Sengbe and his fellow captives.



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