The Amistad sails into Rockland
Rockland — The Amistad, a 129-foot Baltimore clipper based in New Haven, Conn., is visiting Rockland Harbor and will offer free deck tours this weekend, May 31 and June 1, from 1 to 4 p.m.
The ship's second officer and historian, Jesse Doucette, encourages all to come aboard for a visit. Traveling south from Nova Scotia most recently, The Amistad has been in Rockland Harbor since late Wednesday to pass through U.S. Customs and complete minor maintenance.
Also called The Freedom Schooner Amistad because of its non-profit mission to promote peace and education focused on awareness of slavery's unfortunate legacy, the ship was constructed between 1998 and 2000, Doucette said. It is a near-replica of another schooner, The Pride of Baltimore, that was featured in Steven Spielberg's 1997 historical film "La Amistad."
According to the schooner's official website, amistadvoyages.org, “The vision of Amistad America Inc. is to foster unity among people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, and to promote the legacies of leadership, cooperation, perseverance, and social justice inherent in 'The Amistad Incident' of 1839.”
July of this year marks the 175th anniversary of “The Amistad Incident” that was the basis for Spielberg's film and one of the U.S. Supreme Court's first cases involving civil rights. Doucette said the international slave trade had been outlawed by 1807, meaning Africans living in nations such as what is now Sierra Leone were not to be captured and sold as slaves.
This differed from the ongoing existence of slaves in the United States, Doucette said, where the children of slaves were still considered slaves.
But Portuguese slave traders violated the law and took 53 Mende people (in what is now Sierra Leone) to Havana, Cuba, where the Spanish ship La Amistad was to sail them on to a Cuban plantation. One of the Mende broke loose from his iron shackles, freed his people, and they stormed the deck, killing the captain and cook, and holding the crew captive, Doucette said.
La Amistad drifted all the way to Montauk Point in New York before a U.S. Navy vessel was dispatched to retrieve it. The Navy captain took the Mende to Connecticut as prisoners, realizing their value in “salvage rights,” and the Mende were later charged in court as mutineers.
“The Amistad Incident” involved the converging of abolitionists, individual nations' disputes over “property,” and civil rights, Doucette said. The Spanish made a false argument that the Mende were born in Cuba and thus legitimate slaves. But their inability to speak Spanish or have any knowledge of Cuba was a give-away to falsehood.
The Mende were ultimately defended in the U.S. Supreme Court by former President John Quincy Adams, whom Doucette said passionately asserted their rights to be free following illegal capture. The Mende were allowed to return to their homeland.
Doucette said The Amistad and other Baltimore clippers classed as square topsail schooners were actually used as coastal cargo vessels during their heyday in the early to mid 1800s. True slave ships were much larger and had huge cargo holds, he said. But on many occasions, schooner captains would be under contract to transport whatever cargo they received, legal or otherwise.
The Amistad has a top sail height of 102 feet, and can reach speeds up to 14 knots. During the winter months, it is stationed in the Caribbean, Doucette said. This includes this past winter, where it was featured in the “Blackbeard” television series starring John Malkovich.
“It's not very often you get to see a movie star on your dock,” said city of Rockland Harbormaster Ed Glaser.
Courier Publications reporter Larry Di Giovanni can be reached at 594-4401 x. 117, or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.