Joseph Cinque: The Captured African Who Led the Amistad Slave Revolt of 1839

The La Amistad revolt occurred aboard the Spanish slave ship “La Amistad,” when a group of enslaved Africans led by Joseph Cinque fought for their freedom. The revolt not only symbolized the indomitable spirit of those oppressed but also sparked international attention and legal debates that would reshape perceptions of slavery and the rights of enslaved individuals.

Joseph Cinque A Captured Slave Led the Amistad Slave Revolt
In the early 19th century, the transatlantic slave trade was at its peak, with millions of Africans forcibly transported to the Americas under brutal conditions. “La Amistad” was one such ship, carrying a cargo of 53 Africans abducted from Sierra Leone by slave traders. These individuals were destined for a life of servitude and hardship on Cuban plantations.

The ship was manned by Capt. Ramon Ferrer, two Spanish crewmen, a creole slave, a mulatto slave, and the slaves’ Spanish owners, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez. The appalling conditions on board, coupled with the dehumanizing treatment of the captives, ignited the spark of resistance that would lead to a remarkable struggle for freedom.

Led by Joseph Cinque, the captives planned and executed a daring revolt on June 30, 1839. Cinque, played a pivotal role in igniting the rebellion by freeing himself and then liberating the other enslaved Africans. Armed with sugarcane knives, the captives overpowered the ship’s crew, culminating in the deaths of the captain and the cook. Two sailors managed to escape, but the captives took control of “La Amistad.”

Joseph cinque took Ruiz and Montez, the merchants who had purchased them, as prisoners and demanded that they direct the ship back to Sierra Leone. Montez obeyed the slaves by sailing east during the day, but secretly steered northwest towards New York at night.

Upon their arrival in Long Island, New York, in 1839, the enslaved individuals were apprehended and faced charges of mutiny. They faced the possibility of execution if found guilty of mutiny, which led them to become a prominent cause championed by abolitionists in the United States.

Joseph Cinque A Captured Slave Led the Amistad Slave Revolt
Illustration of how Pieh and the group of slaves were kept on The Amistad

The trial, known as United States v. The Amistad, became a turning point in the fight against slavery. With Cinque as their informal representative, the enslaved Africans faced charges of mutiny.

After a series of legal battles, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in March 1841 that the Africans aboard La Amistad were not slaves but rather free individuals who had been illegally captured and transported and ordered their freedom. The court’s decision marked a significant victory in the struggle against the transatlantic slave trade and inspired renewed efforts in the fight for human rights.

Joseph cinque led the Amistad slave revolt and won his freedom in a U.S. court in 1841
Portrait of Joseph Cinqué, leader of the revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad ; from a broadside dated 1839. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

On November 25, 1841, Cinque, along with 34 survivors, interpreter James Covey, who acted as a liaison between the enslaved Africans and American authorities during the trial and subsequent proceedings, as well as five missionaries, commenced their voyage back to Sierra Leone. On their route, three of the survivors passed away. Upon their return in 1842, Cinqué and his fellow Africans finally set foot on their ancestral soil.

According to reports, Cinqué and his group initially stayed in touch with the local mission, seeking a semblance of stability in the midst of uncertainty. Eventually, Cinqué embarked on a different path, engaging in coastal trading to secure a livelihood. While the details of his later years remain shrouded in mystery, certain reports suggest that Cinqué reunited with his village, taking on the role of a missionary.

Joseph Cinque A Captured Slave Led the Amistad Slave Revolt

Joseph Cinque’s legacy lives on in Sierra Leone’s 5000 leone banknote, a symbol of his enduring impact. Memorials, including a statue in New Haven and a golden sculpture in Hartford, Connecticut, pay homage to his indomitable spirit and leadership.

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.


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