Amistad teaches

Famously revolting ship an educational draw

Freedom Schooner Amistad is probably the most famous of the Tall Ships, thanks to a 1997 Steven Spielberg film based on the story of the actual Amistad revolt and ensuing legal battle.

In June of 1839, about 50 Africans who had recently been captured from Mendeland (present-day Sierra Leone) took control of La Amistad, the ship that was transporting them between Cuban ports, destined for a life of slavery. After seizing control of the ship, they instructed the two remaining crew members to set sail for Africa. Instead, the crew headed for the northeast coast of the US, where the Amistad was eventually captured and all Mendeland survivors were taken prisoner again, this time by US authorities.

Over the next two years, a courtroom drama ensued. American abolitionists (including, at the eleventh hour, former president John Quincy Adams) took up the cause of the Mendeland prisoners. As it turns out, they had the law on their side. Though slavery was still a national institution in the US domestically, various treaties had rendered the international trade of slaves illegal. Both the Connecticut District Court and the US Supreme Court recognized that the Mendeland prisoners had been illegally captured in 1839 and ruled that they be set free.

Since its launch in 2000, the Freedom Schooner Amistad, owned and operated by a not-for-profit group based in New Haven, Connecticut, has been sailing the world, educating visitors and viewers about the Amistad rebellion and the slave trade in general.

One thing to keep in mind as you tour the Freedom Schooner Amistad: The real Amistad, though it transported slaves on occasion, was not a custom-built slave ship. Those were far more horrific constructions than the typical cargo ships of the era. Slave ships often had half-height cargo decks so that larger numbers of people could be chained into sitting or reclined positions for the transatlantic voyage. ---Erica Butler

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