News / USA

Slavery Saga Lives On in Connecticut

Story of Amistad slave ship is told in northern museum

A replica of the Amistad sails past Manhattan in New York Harbor.
A replica of the Amistad sails past Manhattan in New York Harbor.

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Ted Landphair

In 1839, African slaves bound for a Cuban sugar plantation escaped their shackles.

They killed the captain and cook aboard the schooner Amistad and ordered their two slavemasters to sail to Africa. Instead, the slavers steered the ship into U.S. waters.

The slaves were recaptured off Long Island and tried for murder in the northeastern state of Connecticut - one of the few northern states that still permitted slavery.

Now, the Custom House Maritime Museum in New London, Connecticut, offers a permanent exhibition on the saga.  

It tells the story of the criminal and appellate trials of the mutinous slaves, including their leader, Cinque, a 26-year-old Mende tribesman from what is now Sierra Leone.

The trials became the rallying cry for abolitionists as various courts decided whether they were pirates, murderers or simply property.  If property, how could they be guilty of crimes?

Children who visit the Amistad exhibit make their own version of the ship, which includes outlines of the chained slaves inside the hull.
Children who visit the Amistad exhibit make their own version of the ship, which includes outlines of the chained slaves inside the hull.

The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where none other than former president John Quincy Adams took up the slaves’ defense. 

But the U.S. attorney general argued that the Africans should be sent to Cuba - the Amistad’s destination - as the property of Spain.

Almost two years after the 38 slaves aboard the Amistad had been captured, six of seven justices voted to free them.

But they were far from home. Abolitionists raised money for their return to Africa. Cinque made it back to his village in Africa, only to find that his entire family had also been captured and sold to owners and nations unknown.

The Amistad tale has become almost a cottage industry in Connecticut. In addition to the maritime museum exhibit in New London, there are tours of the trial sites and places where the slaves were jailed.  

And Mystic Seaport on Long Island Sound has built a replica of the Amistad, aboard which visitors can visualize life on a slave vessel more than 170 years ago.

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