In January 1839, 53 African natives were kidnapped from eastern Africa and sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were then placed aboard a Spanish slave ship bound for Havana, Cuba.
Despite being from at least nine different ethnic groups, the Africans agreed one night to band together in revolt. Before dawn on July 2, they either broke or picked the locks on their chains. Led by Cinqué, a rice farmer also known as Joseph Cinqué or Sengbe Pieh, they then climbed up to the main deck, headed straight for the cook and bludgeoned him to death in his sleep. Though awakened by the tumult, the other four crewmembers, plus Ruiz and Montes, didn’t have time to load their guns. Grabbing a dagger and a club, the captain managed to kill one African and mortally wound another. But he was eventually slashed to death with cane knives the Africans had found in the ship’s hold. Two other crew members threw a canoe overboard and jumped into the water after it, whereas the cabin boy stayed out of the fighting altogether. Ruiz and Montes, meanwhile, were relieved of their weapons, tied up and ordered to sail back to Sierra Leone.
Having all grown up away from the ocean, the Africans depended on Ruiz and Montes for navigation. During the day, the two Spaniards set an eastward course, as they had been told to do. At night, however, they headed north and west in the hope of being rescued. After passing through the Bahamas, where the Amistad stopped on various small islands, it moved up the coast of the United States. News reports began to appear of a mysterious schooner, with an all-black crew and tattered sails, steering erratically. With little to drink on-board, dehydration and dysentery took a toll, and several Africans ended up dying. Finally, on August 26, a U.S. Navy brig ran into the Amistad off the eastern end of Long Island. Ruiz and Montes were freed at once, while the Africans were imprisoned in Connecticut, which, unlike New York, was still a slave state at the time.