Capt. Bob Glover stood on the dock at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut at nightfall on a cold March day and watched as director Steven Spielberg filmed Africans disembarking from the slave ship Amistad.
"It was incredibly hard to watch," he says. "It was so moving. Even though you knew it was all fake. But the way the actors portray it and the way they acted it out was so real you almost wanted to yell and scream and stop it from happening."
Glover was watching the Africans come off his ship.
Glover and Capt. Jan Miles share command of the Pride of Baltimore II. The replica of a 19th-century Baltimore clipper, it travels the world as a seagoing trade and tourism ambassador for Maryland. The Pride stands in for the Amistad in the new Spielberg movie, which is called simply "Amistad." It opens Dec. 12 at the Senator Theatre.
Like Pride II, the Amistad was a topsail schooner of the Baltimore clipper type. Baltimore clippers were sleek, fast, agile ships that established a glorious record harassing British shipping in the War of 1812. They made Baltimore the most feared privateer port during the war.
The clippers were at the cutting edge of boat-building technology in 1812. Built originally in boatyards around the Chesapeake Bay, the "sharp-built" schooner design spread across the Atlantic. They were fast, stable under a large sail area and agile sailing into the wind. They often simply out-sailed the British navy.
After the war many of the Baltimore clippers were sold off, frequently to buyers in South American and the Caribbean; many went to Havana. Some became slavers.
The Amistad may not have been built in a Baltimore or Chesapeake Bay shipyard. But Glover says the slaver "represented a very typical Baltimore clipper."
"The Pride is the only example of a Baltimore clipper of the 1812 era in existence," Glover says. For the movie, the set decorators painted out the gold stripe along the Pride's hull, added a golden eagle figurehead made of Styrofoam, altered the nameplate to Amistad, raised torn sails and frazzled lines and gussied up the deck with debris.
The film tells the story of a shipboard rebellion of Africans bound for slavery on sugar plantations in Cuba and the subsequent legal maneuvers that ended in one of the first great civil-rights cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Led by the charismatic Joseph Cinque, the Africans seized the Amistad four days out of Havana. The ship's cook had made a bad joke that turned fatal. He told them that when they reached land they would all be eaten.
With the aid of a single nail, Cinque was able to pry loose his chains and then free 52 comrades. Armed with machetes from the cargo holds, they attacked the crew. The cook and captain were killed. Two crewmen abandoned ship. Two Spanish slave owners and the slave cabin boy were allowed to live. Ten Africans died in the uprising.
The Africans had hoped to return home by sailing east into the sun. But none were seamen. At night they left navigation to one of the Spaniards who had been a sea captain. He tried to sail back to Havana, but prevailing winds and ocean currents brought them hundreds of miles north to the U.S. coast.
"Suspicious and piratical," reported seamen who sighted the boat south of Norfolk, then again near the Delaware Bay. By the time it neared New York harbor, the Amistad had been at sea two months, growing more disheveled and bedraggled, its sails blown, its hull green and foul.
On Aug. 26, 1839, in Long Island Sound near Montauk, the Amistad was apprehended by the Washington, a U.S. revenue cutter, a kind of customs boat. The ship and the people on board were brought into New Haven, Conn.
In the movie, Mystic Seaport, a kind of shipbuilding village museum, becomes New Haven as Pride II becomes Amistad.
The Spanish slave owners were treated as victims, and they claimed the Africans as their property. The Africans were called pirates and murderers. The Africans were hauled from the ship and taken to jail.
"So they shot this," Glover says, "this sequence of the town marshals and the politicians and soldiers coming down to the wharf, presenting the warrant and stepping on board and gathering all these folks and manhandling them off the boat against their will, all chained together, men, women and kids. They actually had kids in this. It was at night, so they had their torches lit."
As the Pride's crew stood out of camera range, watching this sequence unfold, the scene took on a kind of reality for them.
"These chains go from neck to neck and then there's a trailer piece that comes down to their wrist," says Glover. "They can't move their arms. They're being shoved and pushed and they'd be falling down and choking themselves. Really, really almost choking themselves. They're yelling and screaming. It was too much to watch. It was really too much to watch.