James Covey: The African sailor who helped the Amistad captives win freedom

James Covey and a painting of the Amistad
Left: James Covey, illustration from A history of the Amistad captives, 1840, by John Warner Barber. Right: An oil painting of the Amistad.

One hundred and eighty years ago this month, a ship left New York City for Sierra Leone. Onboard were 35 African former slaves who had been freed by the Supreme Court of the United States and were headed home. This was the famous case of the ‘Amistad incident’.

Another passenger on board that ship, the Gentleman, was a teenager from West Africa who had played a pivotal role in the Amistad affair.

His name was James Covey.

The Amistad Case

In the early months of 1839, 500 African slaves were illegally transported from West Africa to the Spanish colony of Cuba, on board a Portuguese slave ship. Due to the brutality and horrific conditions on board the ship, only two-thirds of these men, women, and children made it to the Caribbean island. Enslaving and transporting Africans across the Atlantic was illegal at the time, so the surviving captives were illicitly passed off as Cuban-born slaves.

In June 1839, the Spanish ship Amistad set off from Cuba with 53 of these captives, bought from the slave market in Havana: 49 men and four children.

A few days later, the Africans aboard the Amistad revolted, killing the captain and taking over the ship. The slave leader, Cinque, demanded the ship sail them back to Africa. The two Spanish slave owners tricked the insurrectionists and the ship ended up near New York City, where it was seized by the US Navy and taken to New Haven. This bloody mutiny was memorably brought to life by Steven Spielberg in his 1997 film Amistad.

Spain wanted the slaves’ heads for murder, the two Spanish planters, Ruiz and Montes, insisted they were the rightful owners, and a group of American abolitionists discovered and then sought to expose the truth of the matter – that they were illegally-acquired slaves and were, therefore, in revolting on the ship, undertaking legal self-defence.

How would the defence prove that the men were in fact born in Africa? How would they win the support of the court? They needed the Africans to tell their story. But there was a small problem. None of the captives spoke English. Or Spanish, or French. Nobody, to begin with, was able to converse with them at all.

Accidental Meeting

On a windswept October day in 1839, a long-haired middle-aged man was creeping about the docks in New York City, shouting out numbers in an obscure language he barely understood. Two sailors in a British brig of war, moored in the harbour, popped up and accosted the man, telling him that they had heard the words and that they understood them. The man was Yale boffin Josiah Gibbs and the two mariners were Charles Pratt and James Covey. The language they heard was that of their mother tongue, Mende.

Who was James Covey?

James Benjamin Covey was born Kaweli in about 1825 (though an account of 1840 said he was ‘about 20’).

He hailed from a woody highlands region of what is today the area of the borders of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.

He was kidnapped and enslaved around the age of five or six. In 1833, he was aboard a ship, the Segundo Socorro, as an illegal slave, when the ship was seized by the Royal Navy and Kaweli was freed. After five years of school in Bathurst, Sierra Leone, where he took the name of James Covey, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and participated in missions that captured several illegal slaving vessels.

The Trial

Gibbs secured the services of Covey and gained a working knowledge of Mende from him, and once the trial began in earnest Covey was subpoenaed to act as a live interpreter for the defendants in court. His role became crucial during the part of the trial where the captives told their personal stories to the courtroom.

One testimony Covey gave to the court included the following conclusions:

'They all have Mendi names and their names all mean something… They speak of rivers which I know. They sailed from Lomboko… two or three speak different language from the others, the Timone language… They all agree on where they sailed from. I have no doubt they are Africans.'

There were other translators who helped play a part in the case, but what made Covey hugely important was his expertise and experience in, tragically, all sides of the Atlantic slave trade. He had been enslaved in West Africa by a regional tribe, later by Europeans and was a captive at a slave fortress. Then the tables turned when became a crewmember of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, hunting down and capturing slave ships.

Covey’s efforts were at the time, and for many decades afterwards, a footnote to the case. The truth is that his translation and evidence was fundamental to the success of the defence in that famous case nearly two centuries ago.

In the struggle for the abolition of slavery personal narrative was key. People needed to know the plight of the victims and to hear directly from them the horrors of their experiences and the lives they had left behind.

In the Amistad case Covey provided an essential voice for Cinque and the others, who were on trial for their lives.

Freedom

In early 1841 the case ended up at the US Supreme Court, and in March of that year, despite enormous political pressure and the formal protestations of the Spanish government, the court found in favour of the Africans.

The win was momentous, but the journey home was not immediate. The US government refused to assist the Africans in getting home, so the abolitionist movement had to raise funds for a ship to repatriate the victors of the Amistad case. The former slaves went on a speaking tour of America, telling their story in what little English they’d learned and securing the money they needed for the epic trip across the Atlantic.

On 25 November 1841, the Gentleman sailed out of the harbour at New York City, out into the mighty Atlantic, and in January 1842, Cinque, 34 other survivors, and James Covey landed in Sierra Leone. The facts of the remaining years of his life in Sierra Leone are not clear, but he is recorded as having died on 12 October 1850.

Written by:

James Brigden