Cinque (Sengbe-Pieh)

Nathaniel Jocelyn, Cinque, ca. 1840. Oil on canvas. New Haven Museum, Gift of Dr. Charles B. Purvis, 1898

Sengbe Pieh (also referred to as Joseph Cinqué) was illegally kidnapped in 1839 from his homeland in Sierra Leone West Africa and transported by a Portuguese ship, the Tecora, to Havana, Cuba. Sold into slavery to José Ruiz and Pedro Montez, he was transported with other captives on the schooner La Amistad. Since childhood, Pieh had been trained to be a leader. He assumed this role successfully, leading a revolt aborad the ship on June 30, 1839. Some of the crew and captives were killed. By day, the Africans bid the crew to take the ship back to Africa, while nightly the crew returned the ship to head northward along the North American coast. In August 1839, the USS Washington of the US Revenue Cutter Service captured La Amistad off the coast of Long Island, New York.

In September 1839, the USS Washington transported the captives to New Haven, Connecticut to await trial. A group of abolitionists formed the Amistad Committee to raise funds for their legal defense. After the district court referred the case to Federal jurisdiction, the case was appealed to the US Supreme Court. Former US President John Quincy Adams represented the Africans and persuasively argued that the captives should be freed. The court’s decision, on March 9, 1841, was in favor of the captives. In October 1841, Sengbe Pieh wrote to President John Tyler, “Now we want to go home, very much, very soon. As soon as you can send us. We want to land at no other place but Sierra Leone.” While Sengbe Pieh did return to his homeland, he was not able to find his family.

— Adrienne Joy Burns
Physician Assistant, Smilow Cancer Center, Yale School of Medicine
Member of the Amistad Committee