A photo essay by RJ LeBlanc
As the good ship Amistad pulled away from the wharf, Captain Bill Pinkney gave his order, "Fire in the hold," three times. Then our ears were shocked by the sound of a cannon blasting across the water. And, ship was away with the tide. For a single day we were lucky here in Middletown to have her as a guest. We came to the wharf in droves, many folks, black and white, standing in the rain for hours for the opportunity to walk down her gangplank and onto the deck of this vessel from the past.
The Amistad represents a part of the history of our American people, the black folks who were brought here as slaves. But this story is different. Those captives, natives of the Mende region in Africa were captured by Spanish slave traders and treated as less than human by their captors. From Africa they were shipped to Havana, then reshipped on the Amistad and headed toward slavery, working on the plantations in Cuba.
A West African named Cinque became their leader. Together he and the other slaves planned their escape, broke loose from their chains and took over the ship in a bloody mutiny. Now in command of the Amistad these "self-liberated" people proclaimed their freedom and headed for the open sea on their way back to Africa. Unfortunately none of the Africans were seamen. They set sail for home, steering toward the sun as it rose. But their plans were wrecked by the Cuban sailors still alive. During the night the crew reversed the course of the ship and headed it back toward land. In this way the ship sailed back and forth but went nowhere for the next two months.
Eventually, in the course of their journey, they came to Long Island were they were boarded by and captured by the U.S. Navy off the coast.
This was in 1839 and the 53 Africans were taken to Connecticut and charged with murder and piracy. There in New Haven there occured a lengthy court trial. Lewis Tappan with Roger Sherman Baldwin as part of the Christian abolitionist movement with the assistance of former President John Quincy Adams defended the West Africans. Here, the rebels successfully argued their case before the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Now they were free to return to their homes in Africa. .
As we stand on the wharf, looking down at this small vessel the thought goes through my head, "How did 53 people and crew fit aboard such a small ship?" The conditions of their passage must have been inhuman. Yet, after all of the suffering and deprivation from the voyage, these people still they had enough strength and courage to stand up against the Spanish slave traders and take command of the boat and their lives.
I watch young people come down to the ship; there is pride in their eyes as they think of the story of this brave band of people and of the manner in which they struck a blow for their own freedom and at the same time for the freedom of all. Did you know what the word Amistad means "Friendship?"
The lines are cast off now as the Amistad seeks the channel to continue her journey north.
Goodbye Captain Pinknee. Goodbye Amistad. Thank you for coming.
The baby almost seems to say, "Why can't we go sailing too?"
But Grandma knows better. "She only wants her bottle," she says.
Final preparations are made to castoff.
Captain Pinknee, a tall man with a mission.
Setting the lines
I wish we could ride with her to Hartford
Is she really going. We want her stay longer.
Captain Pinknee gives orders to "cast off lines!"
She heads toward the bridge
I lift a hand and wave farewell, not only to Captain Pinknee and his crew but to the spirit of the folks who made her the symbol of freedom that she has become: Our people, one and all. Yet a sadness drifts across my eyelids as the ship dwindles in size while she glides away from us. This is a sadness, almost like losing a new friend who is moving away too soon, too soon . . .
Fair weather dear friends. Bon voyage, Captain Pinknee, Good Journey Amistad . . .
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