SAYGBE, called "Cinquez" by the Slavers
Leader of the "Amistad" Uprising
Since the release of Steven Spielberg's movie, "AMISTAD," an immense interest in slavery and the slave trade has been unleashed. Accompanying this curiosity are questions raised by the movie, namely, the ethnicity of the Africans and the divisive question of culpability. Who was responsible for the enslavement of millions of Africans in the Americas? Who should be blamed for this crime against humanity? My primary objective here is to give a summary of the history of the Africans of the "Amistad", their historical ordeal in the United States; their ethnicity, names, and nationality, while offering a comparative explanation on slavery and the slave trade in Africa and the Americans.
One of the first generalities that the viewer of the movie and readers of books on the Amistad encounter is the ethnicity and nationality of these Africans. They are called Mendi in Spielberg's movie and in books on the subject, and in contemporary terms, they are called nationals of the Republic of Sierra Leone. These ethnic and national misidentification were passed on over the years for two reasons: most of the Africans spoke Mendi; and all of them were returned to Sierra Leone, the predominant home of the Mendis, after they were manumitted in the United States. To accept this nomenclature as a fact is analogous to calling British and Germans who speak French, "Frenchmen." This is what happened in the case of Africans of the Amistad, when people of various ethnic backgrounds who spoke a common language, were all called Mendi and subsequently grouped as Sierra Leonans.
In contemporary geographic terms, the Africans of the Amistad did not come from the same country. Moreover, most of them could not have been enslaved in Sierra Leone, because Britain had political control over the region. Since Britain abolished the slave trade in 1809, it had been at the forefront of abolishing this heinous trade, and had not only station war vessels to capture slave vessels along the West Coast of Africa and Sierra Leone, but it had made Freetown, Sierra Leone its operations center. Her Majesty's Government had established courts in Freetown to try persons suspected of engaging in the slave trade. The slave traders knew this and avoided Sierra Leone like the plague.
No one knew this better than the king of the slave trade in West Africa, Don Pedro Blanco and his right hand man, Theodore Canot. To avoid British interference, Don Pedro Blanco established his operations in the Gallinas and other parts of Liberia, which were under the indirect rule of Liberia, and where corrupt Liberian leaders looked the other way, allowing the operations of Blaco to proceed with impunity. One of the areas that Pedro Blanco operated was an island called "Lomboko." Lomboko was located somewhere in the Gallinas and it was from Lomboko that the Africans of the Amistad embarked on their infamous journey to the Americas.
In Theodore Canot's book, "A SLAVER'S LOG BOOK OR 20 YEARS' RESIDENCE IN AFRICA," the notorious slave trader said the following about the Gallinas: "...the notorious slave mart of the northwest coast of Africa is a river whose entrance and interior is not navigable but to boats and small crafts...The indigenes of this river, who are called Vey [Vai] were not numerous before the establishment of the Spanish factories, but since 1823 when several ships from Cuba landed their rich cargoes the neighboring cities flocked to this river, and as there is much similarity in their languages, they soon became naturalized with the aborigines of this sandy and marshy soil." It should be pointed out that part of the Gallinas was confiscated by Britain during the "scramble for Africa," but most of the land and the people remain Liberian.
If the central operation of Pedro Blanco was in the Gallinas, and if the indigenous people in this area were Vai, it follows that this was part of Grand Cape Mount County, one of the political subdivisions of Liberia. It is also logical to conclude the following: because the Gallinas was the operations center of Balnco, and since he could not operate in Sierra Leone, he had to get his slaves in the North where the Mendi-Liberians, Kissi-Liberians, Gbandi-Liberians, Lorma-Liberians, and the Mandingo-Liberians resided.
It is important to note that some of these ethnic groups are found across multinational borders. For example, the majority of the Mendi people are found in the Sierra Leone; however, one percent of the Liberian population is Mende. Similarly, the majority of the Lormas are found in Liberia, but there are Lormas in the Republic Guinea, Liberia's neighbor in the north. This multinational-ethnic identity predominates in West Africa, because the colonial powers parceled out the land among themselves, in complete disregard to the permanent separation of ethnic groups and their related families. For example, when Liberia and France delimited their borders along Liberia's boundary with the Ivory Coast in the late nineteenth century, they simply decided that the Cavalla River was the geographic boundary, even though there were Grebos on both sides of the river.
This transnational identity makes the task of determining the nationality of the Amistad captives difficult. One could use the preponderance of an ethnic group in a country, as one of the basis for placing an African in a country like Liberia or Sierra Leone. For example, since the majority of the Mendis live in Sierra Leone, I could group all the Mendis as Sierra Leoneans. In the case of the Mendis, however, this would not be logical since the British maintained control over Sierra Leone, and did not gave breathing room to the slavers. There were instances, however, when I was 99 percent sure that a particular African came from Liberia. The classic example was "Yanquoi" who was reported to have been born near a river called "Zaliba." Zaliba River is near Voinjama, where I was born; consequently, I was sure that Yanquoi's ethnicity was either Gbandi or Lorma, and that if he had lived in contemporary times, he would have been a Liberian. The national distinction is important to make because during this period, the indigenous African people who lived in this region maintained an independent-indigenous identity. They were not Liberians.