The 129-foot Freedom topsail schooner Amistad was the celebrated guest of the Vineyard community this weekend, and will be back for another visit. Capt. William (Bill) Pinkney said on Sunday the community welcome received by the ship and her crew went beyond everyone's expectations. As a result, they hope to return.
"The response here was just exceptional," the captain said.
The vessel from New Haven left this morning loaded with memories of warm support over a busy Labor Day weekend. The ship arrived Thursday morning from New Haven for a four-day visit. Through the long weekend, hundreds boarded the vessel for tours. Some paying guests went for an evening sail.
Two public receptions were held for the visiting vessel and her friends. The crew and captain were given a reception on Thursday evening at the Sail Martha's Vineyard headquarters on Main street in Vineyard Haven. A second reception was held on Saturday night and was sponsored by the regional school system, members of the Vineyard's own African-American Heritage Trail and Island chapter members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Amistad is among the youngest of wooden vessels in the worldwide fleet of tall sailing ships, and this was her first visit to the Vineyard. She was built in two years in Mystic, Conn. and launched on March 25 of the year 2000, at a cost of $3 million. In her maiden voyage, she participated in the parade of sail in Operation Sail 2000 in New York city.
The ship is only partially like the original Amistad; she is better built with wood from around the world. She is built as a floating museum and meets the strictest of U.S. Coast Guard regulations to carry passengers. On board, volunteers with the nonprofit foundation shared the history of the original Amistad and talked about the mix between the past and present. Tour guides spoke at the bow and stern, while another guided visitors below deck.
Troy Bent, a volunteer from Bronx, N.Y., was among the many who spoke about the history of the replica ship and its part in the maritime trade. Mr. Bent came from the Schomburg Collection, a museum with the largest collection of African-American historical artifacts in Harlem.
Mr. Bent talked about world events leading up to the Amistad incident of 1839, a shipboard rebellion which earned international attention. It began as a struggle for freedom by 53 kidnapped Africans from the Mende country. These were slaves who had been kidnapped despite even the most liberal of international slave agreements.
Three days into their journey from Havana, en route to another port in Cuba, one of the captives named Sengebe Pieh led a revolt.
They killed the captain and began a troubled 63-day trip up the Eastern seaboard.
According to information provided by the Amistad team: "The desperate Africans ordered Ruiz and Montez to use the sun as their guide to sail east toward Africa. By night, however, the two Spaniards [who knew how to sail the vessel] would secretly change course back toward Cuba and southern United States."
The end result was a ship with few sailors, zig-zagging its way up the eastern seaboard.
Months after leaving Cuba, she was seized by a United States naval revenue cutter near Montauk Point and towed to New London, arriving there on August 28, 1839.
In that age of sail, the passage earned worldwide attention. The legal battle to determine the fate of the Africans took considerably longer than their trip. Former president John Quincy Adams argued the case before the United States Supreme Court, a difficult struggle, and won in the years long before the Civil War.
A total of 35 of the remaining living Africans were returned home three years after their illegal capture. Others died while in jail. There were no women, but there were four youngsters: a boy named Kali, and three girls named Margru, Teme and Kagne.
On the bulkhead, below deck on the Amistad, are pen drawings of each of the original Africans, putting names and faces to an event that happened more than 160 years ago.
A black silhouette against the bulkhead depicts slaves chained with iron shackles. A guide explained that the conditions below deck were far worse than they are now. There was little light and little air circulation. The captives were chained with shackles.
Mr. Bent described the slave trade in the early 1800s as a big business, one which would make ship owners very wealthy if they met with success at it.
Mr. Bent said the original Amistad was not a slave ship, but was a fast-moving ship used for the transport of cargo.
Capt. Pinkney, a 66-year-old resident of Chicago, said that in that period of maritime history, ships would be engaged in the Middle Passage, a triangular route across the Atlantic. Vessels would carry their product from the United States shore to Europe and from Europe to Africa. On the trip back to the Americas, many ships carried slaves. "The dark side is not the vessel but what these vessels carried," Captain Pinkney said.
Long before becoming captain of the Amistad, Mr. Pinkney said, he was involved in piecing together the history of that time.
The captain said the retelling of the Amistad incident is a part of history woven deeply into the story of this and other nations. "It is not like a painting, where we take away the color. The Amistad story is the fabric of the painting. You can't take it away, it is well rooted in who we are. It is uniquely American," he said.
"Our mission is to bring people together to talk about this story. We are more alike each other than we are different. This is a story that all of us should know," the captain said. "This is a heritage that makes us so unique."
The Amistad's visit to the Vineyard is the farthest east the vessel has gone. "We plan to go anywhere that is at least 12 feet deep," he said. He plans to take the vessel up to the Great Lakes and as far south as Cuba.
Among the crew members aboard the ship this past week was Arthur Hardy-Doubleday, 21, of Oak Bluffs. He is a junior at Trinity College in Hartford. His mother, Marie Doubleday, said of her son: "He had a wonderful time."