July 2, 1839: 20 miles off the coast of Cuba, 53 rebelling Africans led by Joseph Cinqué take over the slave ship La Amistad.
La Amistad (Spanish: Friendship) was a 19th-century two-masted schooner built in Spain and owned by a Spaniard living in Cuba. While it was transporting Mende captives originally kidnapped in Sierra Leone from Havana, Cuba, in July 1839, the Africans took control of the ship. La Amistad was captured off the coast of Long Island by the Revenue Cutter USS Washington.
The Mende and La Amistad were interned while court proceedings were undertaken for their disposition. The case, United States v. The Amistad (1841) was finally decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in favor of the Mende, restoring their freedom. It became a symbol in the movement to abolish slavery.
On July 2, 1839, Sengbe Pieh (later known in the United States as Joseph Cinqué) led 53 fellow Mende captives (49 adults and 4 children), being transported aboard La Amistad from Havana, in a revolt against their captors. The Mende had been brought into Havana aboard the larger specialized vessel the Tecora and were being taken to a smaller port closer to a sugar plantation. In the main hold below decks, the captives found a rusty file. Freeing themselves, they quickly went up on deck and, armed with machete-like cane knives, successfully gained control of the ship.
When they demanded to be returned home, the ship’s navigator, Don Pedro Montez, deceived them about their course and sailed the ship north along the North American coast to the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. Discovered by the Revenue Cutter USRC Washington, La Amistad was taken into custody. The Mende were interned at New Haven, Connecticut, while the courts settled their legal status and conflicting claims regarding La Amistad’s ownership.
A widely publicized court case ensued in New Haven, Connecticut, about the ship and the legal status of the Mende captives. It became a cause célèbre among abolitionists in the United States. At the time, the United States and Britain had prohibited the international slave trade. The ship’s owners fraudulently described the Mende as having been born in Cuba to avoid the law against the international trade to the Americas.
The court had to determine if the Mende were to be considered salvage and the property of Naval officers who had taken custody of the ship, the property of the Cuban buyers, or the property of Spain as Queen Isabella II of Spain claimed; or if the circumstances of their capture and transportation meant they were free.
On appeal, the United States v. The Amistad case reached the US Supreme Court. In 1841 it ruled that the Mende had been illegally transported and held as slaves, and ordered them freed. The La Amistad survivors returned to Africa in 1842, aided by funds raised by the United Missionary Society.
●Between 1998 and 2000, artisans at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut, built a replica of La Amistad, using traditional skills and construction techniques common to wooden schooners built in the 19th century, but using modern materials and engines. They christened the ship Freedom Schooner Amistad. The modern-day ship is not an exact replica of La Amistad, as she is slightly longer and has higher freeboard. There were no old blueprints of the original.
The new schooner was built using a general knowledge of the Baltimore Clippers and art drawings from the era. Some of the tools used in the project were the same as those that might have been used by a 19th-century shipwright while others were powered. Tri-Coastal Marine, designers of Freedom Schooner Amistad, used modern computer technology to develop plans for the vessel. Bronze bolts are used as fastenings throughout the ship.
Freedom Schooner Amistad has an external ballast keelmade of lead and two Caterpillar diesel engines. None of this technology was available to 19th-century builders.Freedom Schooner Amistad is operated by Amistad America, Inc., a non-profit organization based in New Haven, Connecticut. The ship’s mission is to educate the public on the history of slavery, abolition, discrimination,and civil rights. Her homeport is New Haven, where the Amistad trial took place. She also travels to port cities for educational opportunities. Freedom Schooner Amistad is the State Flagship and Tall shipAmbassador of Connecticut.
Freedom Schooner Amistad has made several commemorative voyages: one in 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in Britain (1807) and theUnited States (1808), and one in 2010 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its 2000 launching at Mystic Seaport.
●Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, is devoted to research about slavery, abolition, civil rights and African Americans; it commemorates the revolt of slaves on the ship by the same name
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