Samuel Hingha Pieh grew up in Sierra Leone along with his fivebrothers; and sisters in a small city on the West African country’scoastal plains called Taiama.
As a youth, Pieh, who is now an assistant biology professor at theState Technical Institute at Memphis, remembers hearing tantalizingtales about long dead relatives. His father and the village paramountchief (whose role is akin to a village historian) would speak ofancestors who had been snatched away, disappearing into the sea, neverto return again.
It wasn’t until years later when Pieh came to live in the UnitedStates, that he discovered one of his ancestors was a hero — a heromany people are talking about these days.
Pieh’s progenitor, Sengbe Pieh, is the central character in theground-breaking movie epic, Amistad. In it, director Steven Spielbergand producer Debbie Allen tell the story of fifty-three Africans whowere kidnapped from their homeland, shipped to the Americas for sale,and then transported from one end of Cuba to the other by the crew ofthe Spanish schooner, La Amistad, in 1839.
During transport along the Cuban coast, the Africans, led by Sengbe– or Cinque, as he was called by the Spaniards — broke free of theirshackles, slaughtered most of their captors, and took control of theship. They ordered the remaining crew to return them to Africa, butwere tricked and eventually captured by an American ship off the coastof southern New England, where they were imprisoned and put on trialfor the murder of the crew.
The Spielberg/Allen movie depicts their plight as the court casemoves through a stubbornly political American judicial system.
“The Amistad is a name that was not in my vocabulary,” Samuel Piehacknowledges. “But we did know something about a captured vessel.”
It wasn’t until Pieh went to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1992 forthe unveiling of a statue commemorating Sengbe that he connected hislineage with the Amistad protagonist.
“I saw pictures that looked like me,” he recalls. “That’s when we definitely linked it to the Amistad.”
The Amistad Research Center
Pieh then went to Tulane University in New Orleans, which housesthe Amistad Research Center. There, he began to piece together theamazing story of his ancestor.
Founded by Dr. Clifton H. Johnson in 1966, the Amistad ResearchCenter now holds more than 800 pieces in its collection. It began as arepository for the records of the American Missionary Association,which was formed by the Amistad Defense Committee — a group ofnorthern abolitionists who took up the Africans’ cause.
The association helped raise money for the Amistad mutineers toreturn to Africa. It also kept in touch with them through missionswhich were established in Sierra Leone. Letters written from thereturned Africans to the association, which are now at the researchcenter in Tulane, helped Pieh put the pieces of his family’s historicalpuzzle together.
“I started tying in the stories from my father and the paramountchief along with the information that I learned at Tulane,” Pieh says.”And that’s when it all culminated.”
According to Pieh, Sengbe is his great grandfather.
Pieh says that after being freed by the U.S. Supreme Court, Sengbereturned to Sierra Leone, where the Amistad survivor found his son,Colima — Pieh’s grandfather. The pair then searched for Sengbe’s wifeand two daughters, who had been separated from Sengbe’s only son amidsta civil war that ravaged the country.
Later, Pieh says, Sengbe and Colima got separated, Colima neverheard from Sengbe again, but went on to marry and have children — oneof whom was Pieh’s father, Peter Prestor Pieh.
The Claim Challenged
While Pieh has recounted his tale on two national television shows,researchers familiar with the Amistad story cast doubts on his claimsof direct descendance.
Johnson has studied the plight of the Amistad Africans at length.He also has studied their subsequent correspondence with severalAmericans after their return to Africa. The scholar, who met Pieh atthe research center in 1992, says Pieh told him at that time that hewas uncertain of his exact relationship to Sengbe,
“I was very surprised the first time I saw him on TV saying that hewas Sengbe’s great grandson,” says Johnson, who adds that he does notdoubt that Pieh is somehow related to Sengbe.
But Johnson contends that he is unfamiliar with any research thatindicates Sengbe was ever reunited with any family members upon hisreturn to Sierra Leone. In addition, he says, an 1840 book by John W.Barber called A History of the Amistad Captives, names Sengbe’s onlyson as Gewaw — not Colima. Barber got the information for his bookfrom James Covey, who translated Sengbe’s native language, Mende, forthe Amistad Africans’ legal defense team.
Still others question the legitimacy of Pieh’s claim because theydon’t believe the ages and dates match up correctly. Pieh is 49, makingit unlikely, they say, that he would have had a great grandfather whowas in his mid-twenties in 1839 — the year Sengbe was on trial in theUnited States.
Pieh refused to discuss the issue other than to say that Africanmen have been known to have children into their sixties and seventies.
What everyone does agree on is that in much of Africa, history isan oral — not a written — tradition, making it difficult to disputelineage claims with complete certainty.
The Creative Process
Allen, the movie’s producer, is confident that Pieh is related toSengbe. She asked him to serve as one of the dialect coaches for thefilm because he grew up in Sierra Leone and was familiar with the Mendedialect and culture.
Dr. M. Douglas Call, the president of State Technical College atMemphis, gave Pieh a leave of absence from his job at the10,000-student school to help out with the film.
“It was a sacrifice for me because I was not getting a paid leaveof absence,” Pieh says. “But I wanted to do it anyway because gettingthis story told was so important to me.”
After a month of being on the set, Pieh says Spielberg approachedhim and asked if he would play the role of Suuleh, one of the elderAmistad Africans.
“I had never acted before, but Spielberg said, `Just be yourselfand don’t look at the camera,'” says Pieh, a shy man who says he wassomewhat intimidated when he had to sign papers giving his consent fora nude scene.
The college instructor says about 80 percent of his scenes ended upon the cutting-room floor, a fact he shrugs off as “the way they dothings in Hollywood.” Nevertheless, several scenes are burned into hismemory, including those depicting the Middle Passage — the torturoustrip from Africa in the ship’s cargo holds.
“We were not only physically naked, but psychologically naked aswell,” he says. “It makes you feel very dehumanized…. It was ahumbling experience.”
Pieh says at first he tried to appeal to Allen to exclude thenudity from the scene because he wanted everyone, children included, tobe able to see the movie.
“Debbie and I particularly talked about that a lot,” he recalls.”But she said she wanted to recreate the real scenario, and in the endI couldn’t argue with her that the scene came out painfully andbrutally honest.”
Allen agrees that the Middle Passage scenes were tough, saying: “Wewent through the pain and the agony. And when they shot that scene itwas truly one of the most difficult.”
Pieh says he would have liked the film to include more translationof Mende to give the audience a better grasp of what the Africans weresaying and going through.
Another scene he appeared in, but which was eventually cut, wouldhave lent more insight into African culture because it explained howSengbe assumed leadership among the Amistad Africans.
“There was a consensus from the elders that Sengbe was the naturalleader” he explains. “In true African cultures, the wise advise of theelders is a highly respected thing.”
A Man with a Purpose
Overall, Pieh believes the movie is a brilliant portrayal of hisancestor’s moving story and says being a part of it is an experience hewill always treasure.
“Inasmuch as there’s a temptation for me to personalize the movie,it’s beyond that,” Pieh says. “This story transcends the individual.”
Not only does he hope that the movie raises the awareness level ofthe Amistad story, but he also hopes that it brings some attention andgoodwill to his native country of Sierra Leone.
“There is a statue of Sengbe in Freetown that is eroding becausethey don’t keep it up,” he says. “This might bring some blessing to thecity. It might give it a facelift.”
Pieh also has his own plans for carrying on the Amistad legacy. Hehopes. to take another leave of absence in the spring to go on a speechtour to educate the country about the Amistad. And he plans to write abook about the Amistad with his brother. While he was pleased with howthe movie came out, he says he feels a responsibility to tell his ownstory.
“I have seen what they have done,” he says. “Now I have something to do my self.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Adams’s Amistad Legal Brief Available Online
The initial pages of John Quincy Adams’s legal brief from the 1841Amistad Supreme Court case are available online as part of the Libraryof Congress’s permanent exhibit, “American Treasures in the Library ofCongress.”
The original brief, in the small but legible handwriting of Adams,is also on display as part of the library’s “African American Odyssey”exhibit (see Black Issues, January 8, 1998) — as is the affidavit ofSengbe Pieh, who led the African mutineers.
In his brief, Adams noted that there was little official sympathyfor the plight of the Africans and plenty of it for their Spanishenslavers. He argued that the Africans should be treatedsympathetically because they were free people who had been kidnappedand illegally enslaved and “were entitled to all the kindness and goodoffices due from a humane and Christian nation.”
By 1839, when the Amistad incident took place, the slave trade wasprohibited by a treaty between Spain, Portugal, and Great Britain.Although it was permitted to buy and sell humans who were born slaves,it was illegal to kidnap free persons and sell them into slavery.
The eight pages of Adams’s brief can be viewed online at
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