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From Mutiny to Freedom

In 1839, Joseph Cinqué led 52 fellow captive Africans, recently abducted from the British protectorate of Sierra Leone by Portuguese slave traders, in a revolt aboard the Spanish schooner Amistad. The ship's navigator, who was spared in order to direct the ship back to western Africa, managed instead to steer it northward. When the Amistad was discovered off the coast of Long Island, N.Y., the United States Navy hauled it into New London, Conn.

Prince Cinqué by Romare Bearden African and Middle Eastern Reading Room (Area Studies)

President Martin Van Buren, guided in part by his desire to woo pro-slavery votes in his upcoming bid for reelection, wanted the prisoners returned to Spanish authorities in Cuba to stand trial for mutiny. A Connecticut judge, however, issued a ruling recognizing the defendants' rights as free citizens and ordered the U.S. government to escort them back to Africa. However, the government appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

Following two years' internment in the U.S. awaiting the verdict of the courts regarding their “revolt,” the captives eventually received their freedom on March 9, 1841. The Amistad Case was an episode far better known in the U.S. than on the other side of the Atlantic. But the incident had a far-reaching impact on both sides, influencing the course of American history and especially the development of Afro-American culture, while, in Sierra Leone, leading to the inauguration of American missionary activity that trained many of the elite group that led that nation’s movement to achieve independence from earlier colonial rule.

The Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) maintains a portal about Sierra Leone, including resources on its history, language, government, culture and more. A haven for freed slaves, the country remained under British rule for more than two centuries.

AMED was created in 1978 as part of a general Library reorganization and combines three sections—African, Hebraic and Near East—covering some 70 countries and regions from Southern Africa to the Maghreb and from the Middle East to Central Asia. Volumes about Africa and the Middle East were in one of the first major purchases by the Library of Congress, the 1815 acquisition of the Thomas Jefferson library. Today, the division is recognized as a major world resource center for Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

In the spring of 1997, the division moved from the John Adams Building to its present location in the Thomas Jefferson Building. The new reading room houses a 10,000-volume reference collection and a rotating display of current events journals, arranged and maintained by each of the three sections.

A list of countries represented by AMED lead you to the “Portals to the World” guide that is part of the Library’s Global Gateway, a list of links, databases and resources that provide an entry point to the scale and depth of the international collections held by the Library. The list also includes information on country studies from the Library and staff to contact for further information.

Further reading on the Amistad case can be found at the online presentation “African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship.” There you’ll find accounts from the freed captives, records of the Supreme Court decision and an affidavit from Cinqué.


A. Prince Cinqué by Romare Bearden. 1971. Prints and Photographs Division. SUMMARY: Prince Cinqué, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front; rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad in foreground below. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZC4-6168 (color film copy transparency); Call No.: Unprocessed in PR 13 CN 1997:015.3329 [item] [P&P]

B. African and Middle Eastern Reading Room (Area Studies). Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. 2007. Photo by Carol Highsmith. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-highsm-03194 (original digital file); Call No.: LOT 13860 [item] (ONLINE) [P&P]