Sengbe Pieh, later known as Joseph Cinqué, used to be an ordinary man. He owned a rice farm in Sierra Leone, and lived with his wife and three children. However, one day, everything changed. Cinqué was suddenly torn away from his family and his home by slave traders, who imprisoned him in Lomboko. He was cruelly kept there, away from his wife, his family, and his livelihood for about a year. Eventually, he was carelessly sold to a slave trader named Pedro Blanco for less than the cost of a few bottles of Spanish Whisky.
In 1836, the British passed a law that authorized the destruction of ships caught smuggling slaves, as the slave trade was illegal in Britain. In response to this, slave traders would wait until prisons and such were full of (largely innocent) black prisoners, and then carry off their human cargo in huge loads to minimize the risk of getting caught by having to make multiple trips. Slave trader Jose Ruiz bought Cinqué and 48 other slaves from the now full prison for one of these trips, and put him on his schooner, La Amistad. The scared, disoriented Africans were herded in like livestock, restrained and put in heavy chains among a cargo of dishes, jewelry, cloth, and other fine items.In May, 1839, La Amistad set sail from Havana, Africa, originally intending to land in Puerto Principle, Cuba. However, unbeknownst to the crew, a rebellion was brewing below deck. Cinqué convinced his fellow prisoners that they could take over the ship and sail back their homes in Africa. He pointed out that the crew was feeble and old, and that there were machete-like cane knives for them to use. Eventually, a blacksmith prisoner named Burna figured out how free the mutineers from their shackles with a primitive spike. Freed from their shackles, Cinqué and his co-conspirators settled down to wait for an opportunity. On July 2, 1839, a storm rocked La Amistad, distracting the crew. Seeing their opportunity, Cinqué and two other freed prisoners armed themselves and proceeded above deck to stage their revolt. They fought furiously against the crew, and killed La Amistad’s captain and cook. The navigator was spared, and they commanded him to sail them back to Africa.
However, the navigator was sly. Taking advantage of the fact that the mutineers were short on supplies and could not speak English, he sailed La Amistad northeast, towards Africa by day, but in the opposite direction, towards the Bahamas by night for several weeks. Eventually, authorities from the U.S. captured the exhausted, hungry runaways, and tossed them in yet another jail in New Haven, Connecticut, a state where slavery was legal.
Before any court cases could even begin, right as Cinqué and his companions were arrested, the Spanish embassy demanded the slaves on La Amistad back. They claimed that, as they were technically Spanish people, Spain should have custody of the escaped soon-to-be slaves, but the U.S. simultaneously made claims on them as their property. The abolitionist movement, seeing that the plight of the African mutineers was a good opportunity to strike up public sympathy, made their move as well. U.S. President Martin Van Buren also had his sights set on the case. It was his reelection year, so he decided to stir up pro-slavery sentiment with his support and thus, gain more votes for his campaign. Eventually, abolitionist sentiment over the case managed to interest many sympathetic citizens, but many slave owners and politicians backed President Van-Buren’s pro-slavery stance.
There were two trials in total: A criminal trial, on charges of murder, mutiny, and piracy, and a civil trial. Although the odds were heavily stacked against them, the slaves of La Amistad managed to evade a life of slavery due John Quincy Adams, a talented lawyer known for his elegance and brilliance in the courtroom. While prosecutors wanted the mutineers jailed, and cruelly executed for using a desperate ploy to return home, Adams argued passionately in favor of their freedom. In the end, it was ruled that Cinqué and his two partners in crime were not guilty, due to a technicality in the law. After the trial, the slaves of La Amistad stayed in the U.S. for a while, until abolitionists finally stirred up enough public support to procure as ship back to Africa. The triumphant Africans returned home, leaving behind a doomed life of slavery, and a huge win for abolitionists everywhere.