James B. Covey was only fourteen years old when Josiah Gibbs found him working on the New York docks. Gibbs was one of the Connecticut abolitionists determined to free the 53 Africans, known as the Amistad prisoners, who were on trial for their lives. The captives did not speak English and no one in the state spoke Mende, their native language. Professor Gibbs desperately needed an interpreter and this young man, who had been enslaved as a child, fit the bill.
On July 2, 1839 the Africans seized the schooner Amistad from Spanish slavers who who had purchased them in Cuba. In the fight to liberate themselves the Africans killed two white crew members. The ship was captured on Long Island and taken to New London. The men were wrongly classified as runaway slaves, property, and murderers. They were imprisoned in Hartford and New Haven, and had to undergo a series of court trials, including a final appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court, before they were ultimately vindicated.
Because James Covey’s first language was Mende, also spoken by most of the enslaved men, he played a critical role in their eventual freedom. According to Josiah Gibbs:
“My knowledge of the Mende language I have acquired from James Covey in first instance, in the same manner as I derived my knowledge of the English language from my parents. I have evidence that it is the English language from my intercourse with others. I made out a vocabulary of the Mende language from James Covey, and I am now able by means of it to converse with twenty or thirty of the Africans.”
Young Covey developed a Mende/English vocabulary of 400 words and phrases for the abolitionists to use. Eventually, some of the Africans were able to speak for themselves in English. James Covey was dismissed as a “half civilized, totally ignorant African” by slavery apologists, but his record spoke louder than the slander.
Cinqué (Sengbe Pieh), leader of the captives, learned to read and write English before he and the others returned to their homeland in November, 1841. In a letter to abolitionist Lewis Tappan, Cinqué wrote: “They say we are like dogs without any home. But if you will send us home you will see whether we be dogs or not… We have a great many friends here and we love them just as we love our brethren. We want to go very soon, and go to no place but Sierra Leone.”
Professor Benjamin N. Lawrance, who has written extensively about the Amistad rebellion, emphasizes that Covey’s role as interpreter allowed the Africans to tell their own stories to defense attorneys and the court. Without that information, Lawrance argues, the defense would have had to rely on their captors and the documents they forged to show that the captives were Spanish slaves when in fact they were kidnapped Africans. (Lawrance also more accurately places Covey’s age at fourteen when he was enlisted to help the captives).
The young interpreter’s work also uncovered a motive for the Africans’ mutiny that neither the court nor the public would have otherwise known. The Amistad’s cook taunted the captives, leading them to believe that the crew intended to kill and eat them. They had no way of knowing it was simply a cruel joke. Cinqué and his comrades, their lawyers realized, were acting in self defense.
Covey’s assistance also helped Cinqué contradict the falsehoods about him that were being spread by pro-slavery newspapers. The prosecutors attempted to use his background as a way to discredit his case, including rumors that he had several wives and had been a slave trader. With the teenager’s help, Cinqué could refute the claims in court and in the press.
Despite his youth, Covey provided an authentic voice for the captives. In the process, he established his own identity beyond that of an orphan and former slave. His Mende name was Kaweli. He was known as Covie in Sierra Leone after he had been liberated by a British naval ship. He later named himself James Benjamin Covey.
History does not tell us why he chose Benjamin. Perhaps the name derived from the “B” burned into his flesh, Lawrance suggests, a brand that labeled him as property before he was nine years old. When the exonerated Africans finally sailed back to Sierra Leone in 1841, James Benjamin Covey went with them as a free man.