Cinque was born the son of a Mendi village leader in the village of Mani in West Africa. He was trained to assume his father's leadership role from childhood, learning the Mendi way of life and laws of the Mendi people. But Cinque was never to lead his people.

Cinque's fate took a different path when he was taken captive by African tribesmen of the Ley people, due to impatience of a creditor for payment of a debt owed by Cinque. Cinque was taken to a "slave factory" in Gallinas where he was sold to a Spanish slave trader. He was subsequently resold and placed on the Tecora, a slave trade ship.

The Tecora sailed to Havana, Cuba, where Cinque was briefly held. He was subsequently sold to Pedro Ruiz, along with 49 other men and four children. The 53 Africans were placed aboard the Spanish coasting vessel La Amistad (The Friendship) to be taken to Porta Prince.

The Amistad sailed on June 27, 1839 with a crew consisting of the Captain, two Spanish crewmen, a Creole slave, and a mulatto slave (cook). The two new "owners" of the slaves, Montes and Ruiz, were also aboard. The journey was expected to take two and one half to three days, however, storms slowed the progress of the Amistad and, recognizing the journey would be longer than anticipated, the Captain had provision rationing begin on the third day. The crewmen also became abusive to slaves who asked for more food and began flogging several of them. On the fourth day the cook told the some of the Africans that they would be killed and eaten on arrival at Porta Prince. Cinque and the others already feared such an act and, on receiving this information, Cinque resolved to take the ship, if an opportunity arose.

Cinque spoke with several of his comrades and, although all were not of the same tribal heritage and could not completely understand one another, the entire group of men agreed the ship must be taken. Cinque located a loose nail in the decking of the Amistad when he was taken on deck to eat. He concealed this nail and later used it to unlocked the shackles which bound him below deck. He freed the others from their chains and they proceeded to the cargo hold where they found sugarcane knives in crates. The Africans armed themselves and under Cinque's leadership moved against the Captain and cook, who slept on deck. The Captain awoke and briefly fought the Africans before being killed by Cinque. The cook was also killed. The two Spanish crewmen fled the ship aboard a skiff.

Cinque took command and managed to convey to Montes that he wished the ship steered east to Africa. Montes steered east during the day and northwest, toward the United States, at night. Cinque maintained command of the vessel, sometimes through use of force, until it and all survivors were taken captive by the crew of the U.S. Washington on August 26, 1839. Cinque had been ashore foraging with others when the Washington approached and was taken captive as he returned to the Amistad.

Cinque was identified as the leader by Ruiz and Montes. He was subsequently taken aboard the Washington, as he attempted to arouse the Africans to rebel against these new captors while on board the Amistad. An arraignment was held before then Circuit Judge Judson and the Africans were ordered held for trial without bond based on the testimony of Ruiz that they were slaves who, during mutiny, had murdered the captain and cook.

The Africans were taken to New Haven where they were held in jail with Cinque being separated from them to prevent him from stirring them to rebel. Cinque continued to be recognized as the group's leader throughout the court proceedings associated with the Amistad Africans. He learned a great deal of English while in the U.S. as well as learning about Christianity.

Cinque returned to Africa with missionaries and the remaining Amistad survivors. After his return he discovered that his family could not be found and his entire village had been destroyed. It is suspected that his family was taken and sold into slavery. He became frustrated with the missionaries and eventually left the mission. He later returned, shortly before his death in 1879, instructing the missionaries to provide him with a Christian burial.

Documentation of Personal Encounters with Cinque

A phrenologist was brought to the jail where the Africans were held in New Haven, shortly after their imprisonment, to examine their skulls and characteristics. One reported the following relating to Cinque:

Cingque [sic] appears to be about 26 years of age, powerful frame, bilious and sanguine temperament, bilious predominating. His head by measurement id 22 3/8 inches in circumference, 15 inches from the root f the nose to the occipital protuberance over the top of the head, 15 inches from the Meatus Auditorius to do, over the head, and 5 3/4 inches through the head at destructiveness.

The development of the faculties is as follows:

Firmness; self-esteem; hope - very large.

Benevolence; veneration; conscientiousness; approbativeness; wonder; concentrativeness; inhabitiveness; comparison; form - large. Amativeness; philoprogenitiveness; adhesiveness; combativeness; destructiveness; secretiveness; constructiveness; caution; language; individuality; eventuality; causality; order - average. Alimentiveness; acquisitiveness; ideality; mirthfulness; imitation; size; weight; color; locality; number; time; tune - moderate and small. The head is well-formed and such as a phrenologist admires. The coronal region being the largest, the frontal and occipital nearly balanced, and the basilar moderate. In fact, such an African head is seldom to be seen, and doubtless in other circumstances would have been an honor to his race.

Lewis Tappan described Cinque after their initial meeting as follows:

He is with several savage-looking fellows, black and white, who are in jail on various charges. Visitors are not allowed to enter this stronghold of the jail, and the inmates can only be seen and conversed with through the aperture of the door.

Towards evening, we made a visit to Shidquau [sic] and conversed with him a considerable time. He drew his hand across his throat, as his room mates said he had done frequently before, and asked whether the people here intended to kill him.

He was assured that probably no harm would happen to him - that we were his friends - and that he would be sent across the ocean towards the rising sun, home to his friends.

His countenance immediately lost the anxious and distressed expression it had before, and beamed with joy. He says he was born about two days traveling from the ocean; that he purchased some goods, and being able to pay for only two-thirds of the amount, he was seized by the traders, his own countrymen, and sold to King Sharka for the remaining third.