Voyage of the Amistad
   Sengbe Pieh, the man who would become known as "Cinque", was "stolen and sold into slavery while "walking in the road" near his village along the Gallinas River in northwest Africa in 1839. Of the 52 other Africans who would eventually find themselves aboard the Amistad, nine others were captured the same way. Six were seized when their villages were raided by larger parties of slavers, probably "soldiers" hired by rival chiefs or kings. Some were condemned and sold as punishment for committing crimes within their villages. And several others were sold to pay off debts.
   However they had become slaves, once in captivity, the Africans were marched from the interior to the delta at the mouth of the Gallinas River. Here they came into Spanish hands. The Spaniards kept them in baracoons -- crude structures, many of them little more than walled, open-air pens, with high, stout walls -- built on the marshy, low-lying islands along the river. The slaves were chained together in pairs by leg irons to discourage escape or revolt. Meanwhile, beyond the baracoon walls, African and European traders bargained -- trading the men, women and children for rum, tobacco, muskets, gunpowder, cloth and other goods.
   The ship that carried the Africans across the Atlantic was the Tecora, a brig, built specially for the slave trade, for maneuverability and, above all, speed, to evade the British patrols intent on stopping this illegal traffic.
   When the Tecora was ready to sail, the slaves were herded out of the baracoons, marched to the water's edge, forced into large wooden canoes and ferried out to the slave ship beyond the surf. In all liklihood, none of the captives had ever been to sea before. The European slavers and their African workers, members of a coastal tribe, the Kru, worked rapidly. If a British cruiser suddenly appeared on the horizon, the venture would be lost -- and the slaves would likely be thrown into the surf to drown.
Once loaded, the slave ship quickly weighed anchor and sailed off. The voyage, known as the "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic, took two months.
   On board the Tecora, the slaves were packed into a dark, stooped space called the slave deck, about four feet high, built below the main deck, above the hold. In the testimony given later by the Amistad Africans about this nightmare voyage, the most vivid aspect of the experience was being cramped here in this suffocating, fetid darkness, being tossed about by the rolling sea. Both Cinque and another captive, Grabeau, reenacted their confinement by getting down on the floor and curling into hunched balls.
   Periodically, they were brought up on deck and fed rice. If some of the captives tried to starve themselves, as often happened, they were whipped and forced to eat. Over the two months they were at sea, water supplies ran low, and disease spread through the close-packed, unventilated slave deck. By the time theTecora had crossed the Atlantic, a third of the Africans had died.
   As theTecora neared Cuba, the captain had the surviving slaves brought up on deck and prepared for sale. They were bathed, clothed and fed extra rations to make them appear as healthy as possible. (Healthy adult males were worth about $450 apiece.) The Tecora unloaded her cargo at night, landing the slaves by small boats in a secluded inlet a few miles from Havana. The Africans were then marched three miles through the jungle. At daylight, they were led into baracoons, already teeming with several hundred fellow captives. They had reached the slave market, where imported Africans were auctioned off to Cuba's sugar and coffee planters.
   Two young Spanish sugar planters, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, bought 53 of the Africans for their plantations near Puerto Principe, several hundred miles away. They had obtained passports for each of slaves so, if they were stopped by British patrols, they could claim that the slaves were Cuban-born, since importing Africans was illegal in Cuba. Each slave was also given a Spanish name, (Sengbe Pieh became "Jose Cinque). They then loaded their new slaves on the Amistad, a coastal schooner.
   The Amistad -- the name means 'friendship' -- put off from Havana for Puerto Principe on June 28, 1839. In addition to Ruiz and Montes, the ship carried Captain Ramon Ferrer, two crew members, and a cook named Celestino.
   The slaves were kept in the hold. On the second day out, the wind shifted. Now facing a longer voyage than he had anticipated, the captain cut the slaves' rations to one banana, two potatoes, and a small cup of water a day. Some of the Africans tried to drink more than their ration so Ruiz had them strung up on deck and flogged by the crew, and their wounds rubbed with gunpowder and vinegar.
   Cinque approached the cook and asked in sign language what was happening to the Africans on deck. Cinque's interpretation of the cook's response was that the crew planned to slaughter and eat the Africans. Fearing for his life, Cinque, on the third night out, found a nail which he used to work open the lock securing his iron collar, then freed his fellow captives. Above them, a storm was occupying the crew; so no one on deck heard the activity in the hold, where the Africans were arming themselves with steel sugar cane knives from the schooner's cargo.
   At 4:00 a.m., the Africans struck, killing Captain Ferrer and Celestino, the cook. The two other members of the crew either died in the melee or escaped overboard. Ruiz and Montes were captured and brought to the quarterdeck, where the Africans ordered them to sail the vessel in the direction of the rising sun -- back to Africa.
   The Africans did not know how to operate the schooner or navigate their way back across the Atlantic. Trying to save themselves, the Spaniards slowed the sailing by day when the vessel pointed eastwards, then brought the schooner about during the night, fervently hoping they would attract the notice of other vessels. These tactics carried the Amistad north, up the eastern coastline of the United States, and ultimately to New England waters where it met the U.S.S. Washington. The Africans were immediately taken into custody and brought into New London, Connecticut. It was August 26, 1839.
   Even while the schooner was still offshore, word spread of a mysterious ship manned by armed, fierce-looking blacks, apparently roaming coastal waters off New York. When the Africans were moved to the jail in Hartford, Connecticut, throngs of curious visitors crowded the cell windows to see the exotic captives. The jailers charged admission. An artist named James Sheffield sketched Cinque within a few days of his arrival in New London, and the image was published in the New York Sun and sold widely as a lithograph. Wax figures of the Africans went on tour up and down the northern Atlantic seaboard. A Boston artist painted a 135-ft. mural depicting the murder of Captain Ferrer that was translated into engravings and woodcuts. 
   A team of New York abolitionists, led by Lewis Tappan, formed the Amistad Committee to defend the Africans' freedom in the courts. The abolitionists set up an impromptu schoolhouse and missionary station in the jail to teach the captives English, reading, and the Gospel to demonstrate to skeptical white Americans that these people were capable of being "civilized" without being enslaved.
   As a legal case, the Amistad incident quickly became a tangle of competing claims and contradictory legal issues. Ruiz and Montes filed suit to recover their "property," including the cargo and the Africans. New York abolitionists hired New Haven attorney Roger S. Baldwin to argue on the Africans' behalf. He claimed that the Africans had been illegally kidnapped and enslaved -- illegally because Spain had outlawed the African slave trade -- and that they therefore had had the right to free themselves by whatever means they could muster. The government of Spain formally demanded custody of the Africans so that they could stand trial in Cuba for murder and piracy.
   After two years of legal maneuvering, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. For the oral arguments, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams joined Baldwin on the abolitionists' team. The Court found that the Africans had been illegally enslaved and had thus exercised a natural right to fight for their freedom, but the Court stopped short of ordering their return to Africa.
   Elated at the affirmation of their freedom, but supremely frustrated at still not being able to return home, the Africans relocated to Farmington, Connecticut. The Amistad Committee turned its efforts to raising funds to pay for the return voyage, organizing a series of appeals in local churches where the Africans told their stories and demonstrated the results of their education and Christian conversions. When the fund reached $1,840, the Amistad Committee was able to charter the barque, Gentleman, to undertake the return voyage. Several ministers and their families accompanied 35 Amistad Africans on the return voyage. They planned to set up a "Mendi" mission near Cinque's town, establish themselves, and disseminate not only the gospel, but American habits of commerce, dress and morality.
   The Gentleman arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in mid-January 1842 -- just about three years exactly after Sengbe had been kidnapped into slavery. The Africans' reception was festive and excited, and some of them found acquaintances in the crowd that greeted them. But they also found grim news: Sengbe learned that the interior had been ravaged by slaving wars, and that his village and most of his family had been wiped out.
   Once back on home ground, most of the Amistad Africans drifted away from the American missionaries, including Sengbe, himself. 
 Answer the following questions:
39. How did Cinque get his name?
40. Why did the slaves on the Amistad revolt?
41. How did the Supreme Court decide the Amistad case?
42. Did the Africans on the Amistad ever return to their homeland?



I recommend Steven Spielberg's excellent film version of this event, entitled "Amistad".


Return to Study Guide #1



Revised February 1, 2004

by Tom Gallup, e-mail address:
West Valley College