The Slave Ship Rebellion


Celestino expired without a movement, without a cry, and Cinquè’s followers swept aft along the deck. Seeing the wave of enraged slaves about to engulf him, Captain Ferrer shouted in desperation to his cabin boy, Antonio, “Throw them some bread!”

Antonio had no chance to carry out the futile order. Before he could move, the foremost of the slaves, machete flailing, sprang upon the Captain. Ferrer eluded the blow and ran the man through with his sword. Then Cinquè was upon him. Cinquè’s machete rose and fell in one murderous stroke, and Captain Ferrer crumpled to the deck, his head cloven.

His fall unnerved the rest. The two sailors, Manuel and Jacinto, fled aft, leaped from the taffrail and started to swim to the nearby coast. This left only the planters, Ruiz and Montez, to oppose the rioters.

Ruiz had been the first to reach the deck. He arrived just as the slaves were swarming aft to attack the Captain. Grabbing an oar, he flailed about him, shouting “No! No!” In an instant, seeing that the slaves were beyond control, sensing the futility of battle, he dropped the oar and ran back into the cabin.

Montez, awakened by the thudding blows that killed the cook, emerged on deck a few seconds later, in the midst of the melee in which Ferrer was cut down. He grabbed a club and knife, and almost on the instant found himself face to face with Cinquè. One slashing stroke of Cinquè’s lethal machete, only partially parried, opened a long gash across one side of Montez’s head. A second ripped open Montez’s arm. The planter did not wait for the third and fatal stroke, but dropped club and knife and fled for refuge in the hold.

In the darkness, he momentarily eluded Cinquè, wrapped himself in an old sail, and hid between two barrels. A skilled huntsman, Cinquè rummaged the hold, seeking his quarry. As he did so, on the deck above, Ruiz surrendered to the slaves on the promise he wouldn’t be harmed. He then pleaded with his captors to spare the life of Montez. They agreed, and several went to the hold in search of Cinquè. They arrived barely in time. Cinquè had just discovered Montez’s hiding place and was striking out with his machete, trying to reach the huddled form behind the protective barricade of the barrels, when some of the other slaves grabbed his arm and restrained him.

Thus ended one of the strangest mutinies ever to take place on the high seas. Yet it was only a prelude to an even more fantastic odyssey and to a far-reaching sequence of dramatic events.

The mutiny on the Amistad became, in the instant of its success, a challenge to all the rules of the sea and the laws of navigation. For the new captain and crew of the Amistad were familiar only with the ways of the jungle. They knew not one rope from another; knew not how to handle the swift, tall-sparred Baltimore clipper or how to chart their course across the trackless pathway of the water.

All that Cinquè knew from observing the sun on their westward voyage was that their homes lay far to the east. When the sun shone, he could steer in the general direction of Africa. But in stormy weather and at night, he had no such guide. He was left with only one recourse—to enlist the aid of the white men who were his prisoners.

Montez, who had once commanded a ship, yielded to the persuasion of Cinquè’s brandished machete and agreed to sail the Africans back to their homes in Sierra Leone. He seized at once, however, upon the opportunity to dupe his captors in the hope of bringing about his own and Ruiz’s deliverance. By day Montez kept the Amistad’s prow faithfully to the east. but at night and in murky weather he altered course unobtrusively, sailing to the northwest.

For seven weeks, this voyage that nightly defeated the progress of the day kept the Amistad zigzagging back and forth in an erratic track across the Atlantic swells. There was scant food, little water. Seven of the Africans sickened and died. But the rest held grimly to their purpose, looking constantly to the east for the shores of Africa while all the time Montez edged them ever north and west, closer to the American mainland.

In late August the Amistad, nearing the coast in the triangle formed by the spit of Sandy Hook and the long, low-lying Long Island shore, began to sight ships outward bound from New York. From one, the Africans obtained some water and provisions before the captain, alarmed at the sight of black men carrying muskets and brandishing machetes, sailed hastily away. Fear spread along the coast. The strange and unkempt schooner had all the appearance of a pirate, and the steam frigate Fulton and several revenue cutters were sent out from New York looking for her.

The Amistad, flitting aimlessly off the coast, a gypsy of the sea without port or course, gave them the slip without trying. By Sunday, August 25, 1839, her odd crew had brought the ship to sight of land at Montauk Point at the extreme eastern tip of Long Island. Here Cinquè, knowing that this strange coast was not Africa, decided he would have to land to get fresh water and provisions to continue the voyage home.

He brought the schooner into the eastern entrance of Long Island Sound, and in the shelter of Culloden Point cast anchor. A boatload of slaves went ashore to forage for provisions. A small fortune in doubloons had been found in the Spanish planters’ possessions, and Cinquè gave the foragers several of these with instructions to pay for what they got. Banna, one of the slaves, who knew a few words of English, was the spokesman.

Accosting the first white men they encountered, Banna exhausted most of his English vocabulary in one question.

“Have rum?” he asked.