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Joseph Cinqué

AKA Sengbe Pieh

Born: c. 1813
Birthplace: Mani, Sierra Leone
Died: c. 1879
Location of death: Sierra Leone
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Occupation: Activist

Nationality: Sierra Leone
Executive summary: Led the Amistad slave rebellion

Sengbe Pieh (pronounced SENG-bay PEE-ay) worked as a rice farmer until he was about 26 years old, and was captured, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by Africans in the employ of slave trader Pedro Blanco. He was taken across the Atlantic to Havana and sold to work on sugar plantations, under the Spanishized name of Joseph or José Cinqué. While being shipped to Puerto Principe on the schooner Amistad -- meaning literally, "friendship" -- with 49 other adult slaves and four child slaves, Cinqué led an insurrection on 30 June 1839. The ship's captain and cook were killed, and the slaves' owners were held in chains until the vessel was captured by US forces.

The slaves were brought to New Haven, Connecticut to stand trial, and their case caught the conscience of America. President Martin Van Buren sought unsuccessfully to have the case removed from Connecticut courts and the slaves returned to Cuba to stand trial there, while abolitionists argued that Cinqué and his followers, kidnapped and illegally enslaved, were justified in their revolt and thus innocent of any crime. Cinqué himself was unable to speak English, but was taught the language, and in pre-trial reports the New York Sun quoted Cinqué saying, "Brothers, we have done that which we proposed. ... It is better to die than be a white man's slave." On 13 January 1840, Connecticut Judge Andrew Judson ruled that the slaves were victims of kidnapping, and should be returned to Africa. The US government appealed the ruling, and when the case reached the Supreme Court, Former President John Quincy Adams served as Cinqué's attorney. On 9 March 1841, the Supreme Court ruled in Cinqué's favor, setting him and the other Africans free.

By then fairly fluent in English, Cinqué and other slaves toured America speaking before abolitionist groups to raise funds for their return to Africa, and in late 1841 they chartered a ship, the SS Gentleman, for their voyage home. Carrying 35 of the freed slaves from the Amistad and several white and black American missionaries, the Gentleman arrived in Cinqué's homeland in what is now Sierra Leone in early 1842. After a few infrequent visits with the missionaries, Cinqué was not heard from again, and there are no reliable accounts of his life after returning to Africa.

A statue of Cinqué stands in front of the New Haven City Hall, near the place where he and his shipmates first stood trial, and his portrait appears on Sierra Leone’s 5,000 leone currency. More than a century later, Patty Hearst's kidnapper Donald DeFreeze adopted the name "Field Marshal Cinqué" in an odd homage to the slave revolt. Cinqué was played by Djimon Hounsou in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film Amistad.

    Kidnapped Apr-1839
    Sold into Slavery Apr-1839

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