In 1839, a young black sailor named James Covey held the key to freedom for 53 Africans who appeared in a Spanish ship off Long Island.
They couldn’t speak English. They spoke in a strange language no one understood, at least in Connecticut. And there, in a New Haven jail, they awaited a trial to determine whether they were free or slaves.
The U.S. Revenue Service had seized them and their schooner, the Amistad, in August 1839. Two Spanish plantation owners aboard the vessel, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, claimed they owned the Africans and wanted them back. The Amistad had carried them from Havana to the Spaniards’ plantations when the Africans mutinied, killed the captain and three crew. They had only spared the Spaniards’ lives because they could navigate the Amistad to Africa.
The trial that followed hinged on one question: Were the Africans Spanish citizens, in which case they were legally the property of Ruiz and Montez? Or had they been kidnapped in Africa, taken illegally to Cuba and sold there as slaves? In that case they should regain their freedom.
Because James Covey spoke their language, he could answer that question.
James Covey was a long way from home in the fall of 1839. Born as Kaweli in what is now Sierra Leone, he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. His kidnappers took him to the notorious Lomboko slave factory on the coast. Then, shackled on a slave ship, he headed for Cuba and a lifetime of servitude.
Though slavery was legal in North America, importing kidnapped Africans was not. The British West Africa Squadron patrolled the sea in search of illegal slavers. Fortunately for James Covey, a British warship hunted down his slave ship, Sgundo Secorro, and freed him.
He returned to Sierra Leone and learned English in a missionary school, where people called him Covie. Then he enlisted in the British Royal Navy as James Benjamin Covey. Perhaps the “Benjamin” came from the “B” branded into his flesh. He served aboard HMS Buzzard, which hunted down and captured slavers.
In the fall of 1839, the Buzzard was moored on Staten Island. Covey, working on the dock, suddenly heard someone babbling loudly on the wharf. Then he recognized the words — “Eta,” “fele,” “sauwa.” Someone, a white American, was counting to 10, over and over, in the Mendi language – his language.
He approached the man, Josiah Gibbs.
Josiah Gibbs, a minister, taught sacred literature at Yale College. He had a passion for languages, and knew Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and several American Indian tongues.
Gibbs also hated slavery. He knew about the prisoners in New Haven jail. Everyone knew about them. They had been marched up the street from Long Wharf to the jail as people lined the streets watching. The jailer charged a shilling to get in and view the captives.
Josiah Gibbs belonged to a network of wealthy, well-connected abolitionists who mobilized behind the captives of the Amistad. Lewis Tappan, a wealthy New Yorker, headed the committee to defend them. Tappan hired good lawyers (including John Quincy Adams), raised money and promoted the cause of the Amistad captives.
There were 53 of them, including three girls. They had been tricked by the two Spaniards, who sailed the Amistad east by day, but then switched course at night and headed northwest.
The captives had figured out what happened by the time they reached Long Island. The Spaniards feared they’d be killed, but then the Revenue Service arrived and rescued them.
News accounts described the participants in the drama: “Jose Rues [Ruiz], is very gentlemanly and intelligent young man, and speaks English fluently. He was the owner of most of the slaves and cargo, which he was conveying to his estate on the Island of Cuba.
Pedro Montes, 50, owned three slaves. Formerly a shipmaster, he navigated the vessel since the Africans mutinied.
Some of the Africans had decked themselves “in the most fantastic manner in the silks and finery pilfered from the cargo.” Others, in a state of nudity, lay on the decks, emaciated to mere skeletons. Cinque, their leader, 25 or 26, seemed “unusually intelligent, evincing uncommon decision and coolness.” Strong and well-built, he would command $1,500 at auction in New Orleans, the newspaper reported.
The three little girls, aged eight to 13, the newspaper described as “the very images of health and gladness.”
Ruiz and Montez filed a claim in court, demanding the return of their property– the ship and its human cargo. The Spanish government weighed in as well, asking the United States government to return their property.
The abolitionists disputed the Spaniards’ claims, saying the captives had clearly been kidnapped in Africa and illegally taken to Cuba. Therefore they were free.
The U.S. Attorney for Connecticut asked the judge to determine if the Africans came from Africa or Cuba. If Africa, he asked the court to return them to Africa.
But how could the Africans prove they came from Africa, since no one in Connecticut could understand them?
Gibbs had gone to the jail with a handful of pennies. He counted them out, one to ten, in front of the captives. Nearly all the captives spoke Mendi, and they taught him to count to 10 in that language.
After he found James Covey, the captain of the Buzzard gave Gibbs permission to take him to New Haven. Covey brought excitement and confusion to the captives when he walked into the jail speaking their language. He spent the next weeks and months with them, taking down their stories and helping Yale students teach them English. From his own experience, he knew without question they came from Africa.
Singweh, for example, said he’d been taken to Lomboko, as had James Covey. A vessel with two masts had taken him to Cuba, he said.
Cinque told him four Africans had kidnapped him while he worked on a road near his wife and three children.
The captives knew of the same rivers in Africa James Covey knew. And they gave them a reason for their mutiny aboard the Amistad: The cook had told them the white men would kill them and eat them when they reached land.
The trial date was set for Nov. 19, 1839 before U.S. District Judge Andrew Judson. He had prosecuted Prudence Crandall six years earlier for the crime of opening a school for black girls in Canterbury, Conn.
The abolitionists bought James Covey a new suit for his courtroom appearance. During the trial, Covey gave a deposition:
I have conversed with these Africans separately in the presence of Dr. Gibbs, and they are consistent in their history of the place from which they sailed in Africa, and of their voyage to Havana, the events which happened there, and their voyage to the United States.
Based on the captives’ “language and manner and appearance, I am sure they are native Africans,” he said.
Covey then accompanied Cinque to the stand during the highlight of the trial. Cinque, wrapped in a blanket, told of his kidnapping in Africa, his voyage to Cuba and his capture on Long Island. At one point he sat on the floor to demonstrate how his captors had manacled him during his voyage on the slave ship Tecora.
The judge ruled in favor of the Amistad captives, but the Spaniards appealed the case. It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams argued on the captives’ behalf.
In the end, the court ruled in favor of the Africans. Free to go, most of them boarded a ship, Gentleman, and sailed back to Sierra Leone. James Covey went with them.
Today, you can see a replica of the Amistad at Mystic Seaport Museum. Or you can watch the film of the same name by Steven Spielberg.
Amistad replica By Rhvanwinkle, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36402773. With thanks to Steve Thornton and his Shoeleather History Project for bringing our attention to this story.