It’s been more than a century since a US Navy ship spotted what it described as a “long, low, black schooner” full of Africans near Long Island, New York, in 1839. The AMISTAD was carrying 53 Africans, mostly of the Mende ethnic group, who’d been captured by slave traders and taken to Cuba. Some time after it left Cuba, the Africans rebelled and took over the ship. When it landed in New York, they were charged with murder and piracy. Within two years, the US Supreme Court determined that the slave traders had improperly taken the Africans, and the Africans returned to what is now Sierra Leone.
A non-profit group called “AMISTAD America,” based in New Haven, Connecticut, has built a close replica of the vessel, although the new boat is about a foot longer and powered by twin engines. Each year, volunteers can work alongside professional crewmembers, as the schooner visits national and international ports teaching lessons of freedom, justice and perseverance.
Sierra Leonean Donald George is a spokesman and educator on the ship. He says the AMISTAD is a “floating museum” and “classroom” that has visited over 50 ports in the United States and Bermuda.
As part of his role as teacher in that classroom, George recounts the experience of the original ship’s captives: “If you imagine the trans-Atlantic [voyage]…[the slave traders] just chucked people in there, shackled them by their necks, arms and feet. Most of them died. But the people of America rose up to say you cannot treat people in this manner. The case was sent to the Supreme Court. It was the first human rights case in America. [Former president] John Quincy Adams took over the case and argued for the rights of [fellow] human beings created by God.”
George says most of his own people are unfamiliar with the story, but he hopes that will change. He says next year they plan to sail the ship to England, Portugal, Ghana…and Sierra Leone.
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