American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

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Death Before Slavery

Joseph Cinquez
[James or Isaac Sheffield]
Joseph Cinquez,
The brave Congolese Chief. . .

New York: Moses Y. Beach
Lithograph, 1839
Prints & Photographs Division

In June 1839, African slaves aboard the Spanish ship Amistad, bound for Cuba, seized control of the vessel and attempted to pilot it back to Africa. They were recaptured, however, and charged with murder and piracy. The mutiny grabbed headlines and became a cause célèbre for American abolitionists. Print publishers were quick to capitalize on images of the incident, like this portrait print of Joseph Cinquez. Editors of the New York Sun sent an artist to the prison ship to sketch the leader of the revolt, and issued this portrait, "scooping" competing newspapers. In the ensuing trial former U.S. President and prominent abolitionist John Quincy Adams represented the Africans before the Supreme Court and won their acquittal and return transport to Africa.

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