By Lestey Gist, The Gist of Freedom
Cinque’s autograph and portrait $275,000
‘Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them’ Hebrews 12.3.”
This Cinque portrait is the most famous image by John Sartain (1808-1897), the London-born artist and publisher who settled in Philadelphia. Sartain was a committed abolitionist who also engraved portraits of William Lloyd Garrison, William H. Furness, and Lucretia Mott.
Cinque (also known as Cingue, Joseph Cinquez, and Sengbe Pieh), was born in what is now Sierra Leone around 1813 and is believed to have died there circa 1879. The history of Cinque’s life from the time of his enslavement in 1839 to his return to Sierra Leone as a free man in 1841 is well-known, having been re-told numerous times and dramatized in the 1997 film Amistad, in which he was portrayed by actor Djimon Hounsou. Throughout the ordeal of the Amistad captives, Cinque was the unquestioned leader of the group, apparently not only because of his own initiative (having picked the lock of his captors while aboard ship, released his fellow slaves, and planned their rebellion), but also through his commanding presence and abilities. The entire group of Amistad captives was taught English, although not surprisingly it was the children among them who became most conversant in the language. After the Supreme Court ruled in their favor on March 9, 1841, they traveled to New York and Philadelphia as part of the effort to raise funds to provide for their transport home. On these occasions Cinque gave speeches in Mende, while a youth named Kale would speak in English. Despite the language difference, contemporary reports relate that Cinque’s charisma was such that his speeches were often enthusiastically received even before they were translated to his audience.It is difficult to determine how proficient in English Cinque became while in the United States. Records indicate that he always spoke in Mende when giving court deposition and when making public appearances.
However, the two other extant original documents signed by him, both institutionally held, may contain additional samples of his writing.
The famous Mendi Bible, which the Amistad captives presented to John Quincy Adams in 1841 in appreciation of his forceful and effective arguments on their behalf, and now held at the Adams National Historical Park, contains a letter to Adams that is signed, “For the Mendi people. Cinque, Kinna, Kale.” Some scholars believe the letter, and not just the signature, to be in Cinque’s hand.
The other signed letter is that held by the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, dated February 9, 1841, from Cinque to the prominent New York merchant and abolitionist Lewis Tappan, who was the leader of the Amistad Committee and the person most responsible for their legal defense and living conditions while they were in the United States. This letter too is believed by some scholars to be entirely in Cinque’s hand.
Aside from his three years in the United States, very little is known about Cinque, and there is no reason to believe that he had occasion to write his name after his return to Africa.In addition to the three known autographs (the two institutionally held and the one offered here), there are two known facsimiles of his autograph as well. The first is the contemporary facsimile executed by engraver John Sartain for his 1840 mezzotint of Cinque (included in this collection, see below for further details). It is likely Sartain employed a certain amount of artistic license in more neatly rendering Cinque’s signature. The second facsimile is found in a 1906 book Farmington, Connecticut: The Village of Beautiful Homes, in which local historian Julius Gay allowed his own “Autographs of the `Mendi Negroes,”” obtained in his youth when the Amistad captives were housed in Farmington, to be reprinted (p.177). The whereabouts of the original documents from which these facsimiles were made are unknown, and it is likely that one or both have long perished.
The Amistad case and the Amistad captives became a national sensation, and their time in Philadelphia (May 24 to May 28, 1841) is well documented in contemporary issues of the Pennsylvania Freemen. The June 16, 1841 issue reports that they visited four churches, at which $482.30 was raised for their return to Africa. While not as fiscally impressive, the paper also reports that $2.01 was collected by the “pupils of the colored Public School.” At the time Philadelphia had two public schools for African-American children (sometimes referred to as four schools because boys and girls were educated separately), one at Charlotte and Brown Streets, the other at Sixth and Lombard Streets. The Lombard Street School was built in 1819 as a school for white pupils. In 1828, when white students were transferred to a new building on Locust Street, it became a public school for African-American children. The school was later called the James Forten School, after the prominent African-American businessman who fought successfully to keep the school open when the school board wished to close it the year before the Amistad captives visited.While a certain amount of contemporary attention was paid to Cinque as the leader of the Amistad rebellion, comparatively little primary material exists about the other captives individually.
Foole, also known as Fuli, Fu-Li-Wa, and Fuleh, like Cinque gave deposition against their Spanish captors. In addition, it was technically he who brought suit against them (done to forestall their removal to Spanish territory in case the Amistad case itself was lost).
Foole, with Cinque and thirty-three other survivors of their ordeal, departed for their return to Africa in November 24, 1841. A facsimile of Foole’s signature exists on the Julius Gay reprint, and the Amistad Research Center holds three letters signed by Foole; we could locate no other surviving documents signed by Foole.THE SARTAIN ENGRAVING Included with the autograph collection is a handsome example of John Sartain’s engraved mezzotint print of “Cinque: The Chief of the Amistad Captives” (approximately 9.25″ x 7.5″, very lightly rubbed in one spot else fine, mounted on a stiff backing sheet).
This well-known image, commissioned by the African-American abolitionist Robert Purvis, is after a painted portrait by the abolitionist Nathaniel Jocelyn (brother of Amistad Committee member the Reverend Simeon S. Jocelyn). In March, 1841, Sartain, possibly at his own expense, sent 200 copies of the mezzotint to Lewis Tappan to be sold to help raise funds for the Amistad captives. Despite the strong pro-abolition mood of much of Philadelphia in the 1840s, the image was not universally acclaimed there. The city also had strong currents of anti-abolition sentiment from both white workers who felt threatened by the large free black workforce, and from elements of the city’s elite who had strong financial ties to the South.
This Cinque portrait is the most famous image by John Sartain (1808-1897), the London-born artist and publisher who settled in Philadelphia. Sartain was a committed abolitionist who also engraved portraits of William Lloyd Garrison, William H. Furness, and Lucretia Mott. He also published several notable works by his friend Edgar Allan Poe including “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee.” Although we could find no direct connection between Sartain and Evans, an 1843 letter from Poe to the 14-year-old Elwood Evans, sending “Mr. Dana’s” Boston address, was in the Doheny collection and sold at Christie’s in 1988. In addition to writing Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana was also an active abolitionist.
While the Jocelyn/Sartain image has been reprinted countless times (mostly from the damaged example of the mezzotint in the National Portrait Gallery), original examples of the Sartain mezzotint are genuinely rare.THE CLARKSON, HOPPER, BURLEIGH, PIERPONT, PARRISH and GIDDINGS AUTOGRAPHSThe Thomas Clarkson autograph is also on a small (approximately 4.25″ x 2.25″) slip of paper, a little soiled else fine, and mounted to a contemporary sheet. It reads in full: “Thomas Clarkson / Playford Hall – Sept. 1, 1846, aged 87 / ‘Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them’ Hebrews 12.3.”