- Historic Sites
The Slave Ship Rebellion
From the dark hold of the Amistad sprang a bold band who sailed her into history
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
He showed his money and managed to dicker for a bottle of gin, some potatoes, and two fat dogs.
The success of this expedition prompted Cinquè to go ashore with another boatload of slaves and some water casks. They were filling the casks at a stream when two white men appeared, riding in a wagon.
Cinquè called Banna and asked him to inquire of the white men whether this was a slave country. Combining signs and broken English, Banna managed to convey the import of the question.
“No. This is free country,” one of the white men, a Captain Henry Green, assured the Africans.
“Spaniards?” Banna asked, sweeping his arms about in a gesture that said as plain as English: “Are there any Spaniards here?”
Captain Green shook his head emphatically.
“No, there are no Spaniards here,” he said.
At these words, believing they had at last won freedom in a free land, Cinquè and his followers leaped high in the air, kicking their heels and whooping with joy
The demonstration startled the two white men, who ran in terror for their wagon. Cinquè quickly took steps to reassure them. Shaking his head and making signs to indicate they intended no harm, he and his followers, in a gesture of perfect trust, turned over to Captain Green two guns, a knife, a hat, and a handkerchief—the total of their belongings.
Then began a strange palaver, with Banna, the most imperfect of interpreters, trying to convey to Captain Green that they wished someone to sail them back to their homes in Sierra Leone. They could pay. Would he take the job?
While the Captain was considering this weirdest of business propositions, advanced by a group of naked black men on a lonely Long Island sand spit, a sail suddenly hove into sight around Culloden Point. It was the navy brig Washington, on a coastal survey mission. Swiftly the Washington rounded to near the anchored Amistad, and the warship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander T. R. Gedney, sent a boatload of armed sailors, commanded by Lieutenant R. W. Meade, to investigate the sail-tattered, mysterious schooner.
Cinquè, at first sight of the Washington, had jumped into a boat with several of his followers and begun to row frantically for the Amistad . He was still some distance away, however, when Lieutenant Meade led his boarders up the side of the ship. The instant the navy men reached the deck, Montez and Ruiz appeared, hailing them as deliverers and asking the protection of the American flag. Cinquè arrived to find his followers disarmed, his schooner in possession of these alien men in uniform, himself again a prisoner. He sized up the situation at a glance, then leaped for the rail, dived overboard, and swam for shore.
The navy sailors quickly manned their boat and rowed him down. Then they continued on to shore to round up the rest of the Africans. The slaves, seeing the sailors approaching with brandished cutlasses, fell on their knees and pleaded with Captain Green—the man who had told them that this was a “free country”—to save them. Their piteous pleas went unheeded, and they were dragged back aboard the Amistad, a crushed and dejected band.
Aboard ship, Cinquè spoke a farewell to his followers. His wrists were manacled, but his carriage was proud and he spoke with a savage eloquence. Only Antonio Gonzales, the mulatto cabin boy whose knowledge of Mendi was admittedly imperfect and who was not above taking a bit of poetic license, pretended to know what he said. Antonio’s version, printed in the New York Sun on August 31, 1839, quoted Cinquè:
“Friends and Brothers: We would have returned, but the sun was against us. I would not see you serve the white man. So I induced you to help me kill the Captain. I thought I should be killed. I expected it. It would have been better. You had better be killed than live many moons in misery. I shall be hanged, I think, every day. But this does not pain me. I could die happy if by dying I could save so many of my brothers from the bondage of the white men.”
Though the Americans couldn’t understand Cinque’s oration, its import was obvious enough. His words brought an instantaneous angry stirring among the slaves, and the sailors, seeing his influence over his followers, hustled him from the schooner and locked him up aboard the Washington for the night.
The next day, resorting to sign language, Cinquè induced the sailors to take him back to the Amistad, pretending that he could show them where many doubloons were hidden. But once aboard the schooner, instead of unveiling treasure, he began to exhort his fellow slaves to rise and kill the white men.
The cabin boy Antonio was so stirred by the scene that he obviously added some embellishments of his own to Cinquè’s final words. This is the way he reported them:
”… It is better for you to die thus, and then you will not only avert bondage yourselves, but prevent the entailment of unnumbered wrongs on your children. Come! Come with me, then!”
The effect of the speech, reflected in the angry flashing eyes of the Africans, was such that the Americans again hurried Cinquè off the Amistad and back to close confinement on the Washington. Then both ships broke anchor and sailed across the sound to New London on the Connecticut shore.