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James Covey

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Name  James Covey

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James Benjamin Covey ( Kaweli; c. 1825 – 12 October 1850) was a sailor, remembered today chiefly for his role as interpreter during the legal proceedings in the United States federal courts that followed the 1839 revolt aboard the Spanish slave ship La Amistad. Covey, who spoke Mende and possibly other African languages as well as English, allowed the African passengers of the Amistad to communicate with the court and to defend themselves successfully against the charges of mutiny and murder.


Early life

Covey was born circa 1825 or 1826 in the southwestern highlands of what is now Sierra Leone, in West Africa. His African name, Kaweli, means "war road" in Mende. At the age of five or six he was kidnapped and sold to the wife of a chief of the Bulom tribe. Three years later he was sold to a European slaver and probably taken to the Lomboko slave camp. At a time when the Atlantic slave trade had already been officially outlawed, Covey was illegally shipped to Cuba on board the Spanish ship Segundo Socorro. That ship was intercepted by the British fleet and the captives, including Covey, were freed.

Covey was then put into the care of the Rev. John William Weeks, of the Freetown branch of the Church Missionary Society. He spent five years at school in Freetown before joining the British Royal Navy and embarking on the HMS Buzzard in 1838, where he served under Captain Charles Fitzgerald. Covey arrived to New York City on board the Buzzard in June 1839.

Involvement with the Amistad case

Josiah Gibbs, a professor of linguistics at Yale University who was personally committed to the abolition of slavery, sought to assist the legal defense of the Africans who had come into the custody of the U.S. federal courts after their uprising on board La Amistad. To that end, Prof. Gibbs learned to count to ten in the language spoken by most of the Africans, which turned out to be Mende, and then paced the harbor in New Haven and later in New York, until he was approached by sailors who recognized the words. In this way, Gibbs came into contact with Covey and fellow British sailor Charles Pratt in New York, in October of 1839.

Gibbs took both Covey and Pratt to New Haven, where they were housed under the protection of Lewis Tappan and the committee for the defense of the captives of the Amistad. Covey stayed in New Haven for four months, until he had translated the testimonies of three Mende-speaking captives in the Amistad civil trial in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1841. Because of his own experience, Covey was instrumental in interpreting and communicating the details of the kidnapping, terror, and eventual rebellion. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in United States v. The Amistad that the captives were not slaves, but freeborn men.

Later life

Two years after the trials, in November 1841, Covey, along with the 35 surviving Africans of the Amistad, boarded the ship Gentleman and returned to Africa. The Africans were accompanied by an American missionary, William Raymond. Covey then drifted in and out of the Christian missionary communities in Sierra Leone. There is some evidence that he became involved with a local warlord and may even have participated in an slaving expedition in 1845. After falling ill, he was shuffled back and forth between the village of Kaw-Mendi and the main mission compound, "America". Covey died on 12 October, 1850 and was given a Christian burial.

In popular culture

In Steven Spielberg's film Amistad, Covey is played by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.


James Covey Wikipedia

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