United States v. Cinque 1841

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United States v. Cinque 1841

Appellant: United States

Appellees: Joseph Cinque and forty-eight other African captives

Appellant's Claim: That the slaves aboard the Amistad were guilty of murder and piracy for taking over the ship on which they were being transported.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Harry D. Gilpin, U.S. Attorney General

Chief Lawyer for Appellees: John Quincy Adams, Roger S. Baldwin

Justices for the Court: Philip P. Barbour, John Catron, John McKinley, John McLean, Joseph Story, Smith Thompson, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, James M. Wayne

Justices Dissenting: Henry Baldwin

Date of Decision: January 1841

Decision: Found Cinque and the other captive Africans not guilty of mutiny since they were held captive in violation of international slave trade laws.

Significance: Abolitionists seeking to end slavery in the United States hailed as a victory the decision not to convict slaves from the schooner Amistad for killing two of their captors in order to gain freedom. Though the ruling did not directly apply to slavery, it served to fuel increasing tensions in the United States over the slavery issue ultimately leading to the American Civil War.

An extensive slave trade involving the shipping of captured Africans to the New World colonies grew in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the Revolutionary War (1776–83) over a half million black slaves lived in the American colonies. Given their importance to the economy of the Southern colonies, the U.S. Constitution did not address slavery. In fact, protection was provided to the Southern states, including a prohibition against Congress from passing legislation outlawing slavery until at least after 1808. In addition, fugitive slaves who escaped from Southern states to the North had to be returned when caught.

In 1808 Congress did begin to take action against slavery by banning the importation of new slaves into the country. With the growth throughout Europe and the United States of the abolitionist movement intent on abolishing (ending) slavery, most European nations had also outlawed the shipping of slaves to the New World by the 1830s. Among those was Spain which, under pressure from Great Britain, finally passed its own laws in 1835.

With its international power in decline, Spain was unable to enforce its restrictions. Wealthy landowners who dominated the Spanish colonies, including Cuba, needed a steady supply of slaves to work their large estates. They could not afford to obey the new Spanish law and wait for children of their existing slaves to grow up to meet their growing demand. Consequently, an illegal slave trade mushroomed despite international efforts to stop it. Slavers would capture healthy young black women and men in western Africa and ship them to Cuba for sale. Spanish colonial governmental authorities did nothing to stop this trade.

Joseph Cinque's Journey to America

In April of 1839, slavers brought yet another shipment of slaves to Havana, Cuba from what is now Sierra Leone on the West African coast. Among them was a black man known to the Spaniards as Joseph Cinque. In June, two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes, who owned estates in the Cuban town of Puerto Principe purchased fifty-three captured Africans, including Cinque. The slaves were loaded on the schooner Amistad under command of shipmaster Ramon Ferrer to sail along the Cuban coast from Havana to their estates.

Having left Havana on June 28 for Puerto Principe, the desperate Africans quickly saw their chance for freedom. On the night of July 1, the captives led by Cinque rebelled, killing Ferrer and a crew member, and gained control of the ship. Four of the Africans died. They spared the lives of Ruiz and Montes so they could steer the ship back home to Africa across the Atlantic Ocean.

By day the Amistad journeyed east and by night the two Spaniards secretly reversed their course back west. Finally, after meandering for almost two months, the winds and currents drove the schooner northward drifting along the coast of the United States. On August 26th the U.S.S. Washington spotted the Amistad anchored a half mile off the coast of Long Island, New York. The Americans seized the ship and crew, and brought them to New London, Connecticut. U.S. authorities placed the surviving forty-nine Africans in prison.

Upon arrival in New London, Ruiz and Montes pressed their claim for the ship and its cargo including the slaves. The minister to the United States from Spain also filed a claim requesting the release of the ship and its cargo to the two Spaniards in keeping with a 1795 international treaty between the United States and Spain. Spain requested return of the slaves unless U.S. authorities determined the Africans had been illegally captured and hence not Spanish property. Wishing to avoid diplomatic headaches with Spain, U.S. President Martin Van Buren, directed U.S. District Attorney William S. Holabird to charge Cinque and the other captives with murder and piracy aboard the Amistad. The United States sought their return to Spanish authorities in Cuba to face punishment.

The plight of the forty-nine Africans quickly became the subject of impassioned debate in the United States between pro-slavery and anti-slavery proponents for the next two years. Seizing the case as a major opportunity to combat slavery, abolitionist Lewis Tappan led an extensive campaign arousing public sympathy for the Africans.

The Captives Are Not Slaves

The Africans' case went to trial in September of 1839 in the U.S. District for Connecticut in Hartford. The district court judge Andrew T. Judson. Judson had a history of rulings against blacks. Representing Cinque and the other captives were defense lawyers recruited by abolitionists. Among them was future Senator Roger S. Baldwin and former U.S. President John Quincy Adams. The defense argued that Cinque and the others had been captured in violation of Spanish law, hence they were not legal slaves and not "property" of Ruiz and Montes. Consequently, they had a right to free themselves due to the horrible conditions they had been held under. In addition, they would meet almost certain death at the hands of the Spanish colonial authorities once returned to Cuba for their actions on the Amistad.

Key to the African's defense was a British official stationed in Havana, Dr. Richard R. Madden, who related his observations while traveling about Cuba. Describing the condition of Cuban slaves, Madden stated, " . . . so terrible were these atrocities [horrible treatment], so murderous the system of slavery, so transcendent [unspeakable] the evils I witnessed, over all I have ever heard or seen of the rigour [hardship] of slavery elsewhere, that at first I could hardly believe the evidence of my senses." Madden testified about the European laws banning slave trade and that the Africans had been illegally smuggled into Cuba. Consequently, they were not legal slave property.

On January 23, 1840, Judge Judson to the surprise of many including Van Buren ruled in favor of Cinque and the other Africans. Because they were attempting to free themselves from illegal capture, they were found not guilty of murder and piracy. The Amistad and its cargo not including the African captives would be returned to Ruiz and Montes. The United States appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Knowing the Supreme Court included five justices, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, from the South who had owned slaves, the defense for Cinque relied on the prestige of John Quincy Adams to present their case. Arguments were made on February 22, 1840. Less than a month later on March 9th, Justice Joseph Story presented the Court's decision. They voted 8-1 to uphold the lower court's decision in favor of Cinque. Cinque and the others were finally free, but no money was provided for their return to Africa. With donated private funds, the Africans finally were able to return home with two African American missionaries.


D espite having captured the imagination of the American public for three years, little is actually known about the life of the leader of the Amistad rebellion except for what court testimony revealed. A member of the Mende of Western Africa, his African name as translated in English was Sengbe Pieh, translated to Cinque by his Spanish captors. Cinque was from the town of Mani, about ten days walk from the African coast. Born around 1811, he was a rice farmer in his late twenties when captured in January of 1839 while walking on a trail near his home, as he recalled. He described his father as a Mende chief. He was married with three children.

Those who met Cinque during his brief stay in the United States described him as a very charismatic (influential) leader. He posed an aggressive intensity, even while in chains in an American prison. During the period between trials, Cinque traveled with abolitionist leaders giving anti-slavery speeches.

Upon returning to Africa, Cinque found that his family had been wiped out in slaving wars. Working with the American Mende Mission, Cinque traded goods along the coast and little was known of his later life. There were many rumors about his later life, including becoming a slaver himself, but no information has ever been found.

A Key Step

Though claimed a major victory by abolitionists, the decision of the Court was actually not so broadsweeping as to abolish slavery. It primarily held that Africans who were not considered slaves could not be considered property. However, the ruling was considered a major step on the road for total elimination of slavery which came over twenty years later. The story of Cinque and the Amistad became the subject of a major motion picture in 1997, Amistad, by famed director Steven Spielberg.

Suggestions for further reading

Cable, Mary. Black Odyssey: The Case of the Slave Ship Amistad. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Jones, Howard. Mutiny on the Amistad: The Saga of a Slave Revolt and Its Impact on American Abolition, Law, and Diplomacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Martin, Christopher. The Amistad Affair. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970.

Owens, William A. Black Mutiny: The Revolt on the Schooner Amistad. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1997.

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United States v. Cinque 1841