The chance to experience a voyage on a schooner while reflecting on the circumstances that brought free people into the imprisonment of slavery was an opportunity I could not miss. On Saturday and Sunday high winds cancelled the river tours aboard the Freedom Schooner Amistad, but by Monday the breezes died down, and we were good for a launch from the Independence Seaport Museum’s dock. The Freedom Schooner Amistad, a replica of the original La Amistad, has collaborated with international organizations throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the former British empire and the United States abolishing the slave trade in the first decade of the 1800s.
Before starting the sail on the Delaware River, I had to get “onboard” with some research on the history of the La Amistad.
In 1839, Portuguese slave hunters kidnapped Africans from Sierra Leone and sent them to Cuba, a center for the slave trade. Treaties at that time banned the practice; nevertheless, Spanish planters purchased 53 Africans, including four children, who were shipped toward a plantation in the Caribbean aboard the schooner La Amistad. The Africans seized the ship, killing the captain and ordering the planters to sail to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the La Amistad was seized off the coast of New York, and the Africans were imprisoned on charges of murder. Despite having the charges eventually dismissed, the Africans were held in prison because of the issue of property rights. The case went to the Supreme Court; the justices ruled in favor of the Africans, and 35 survivors were returned to Sierra Leone. The Amistad case advanced the abolitionist movement, which eventually led to the abolition of slavery.
Julia Weathers related the story in her own words . . .
Films and Books
Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film, Amistad, popularized the story and received mostly positive reviews. Roger Ebert wrote,
What is most valuable about Amistad is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims.
The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom by Marcus Rediker, published in 2012, retells the story from the point of view of the slaves. An article in the Philadelphia Tribune offers a detailed description of this book. Previous films and books centered on the legal battle and interplay of the politicians, abolitionists and judges rather than on the rebellion and the experience of the Africans. By taking this short voyage on the Amistad, I could imagine how the first sparks of rebellion were ignited against those who had the audacity to believe they could enslave another human being.
Twelve members of the crew are part of the Ocean Classroom Foundation, an organization that offers programs of sea education to students. Watching the students do their tasks was amazing as they climbed the rigging and hoisted the sails. What was great about the experience was the crew encouraged passengers to take part in helping out with some of these chores. Passengers pulled the ropes in unison to bring the sails into the wind. A student assisted my friend, Frances, in stacking the rope in a pattern of thirds. It then occurred to me that this is where the expression “learning the ropes” came from.
The Amistad, built in 2000, is a 129-foot Baltimore Clipper and a replica of the original vessel. Classified as a Sailing School Vessel, the schooner is equipped with modern navigation equipment and is certified to make international voyages.
The rig and construction are authentic; and as I walked the deck, I admired the wooden pulleys, steering wheel and mast, which retained that old-world feel of craftsmanship, the wood shining with the richness of spar varnish.
The original ship has been long-lost somewhere in the Caribbean, but the Freedom Schooner Amistad will not let the story of 53 determined freedom fighters be forgotten.
“Dry Your Tears Afrika,” written by John Williams, is from the movie, Amistad.
Thanks to Abi Iverson for rearranging our tickets and providing additional information for the blog.