Ship teaches lesson of a fight for freedom

Amistad: The Freedom Schooner Amistad, a replica of the famous ship, arrives in the Inner Harbor to provide the city with the vessel's true story.

October 06, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The many myths floating around the Amistad show that even those who think they know its history can be mistaken.

It was not a huge slave ship carting thousands to America, but a cargo schooner that set sail from Havana on June 28, 1839, bound for a Caribbean plantation.

It carried 53 Africans who had been abducted from West Africa and sold illegally.

They were never to be slaves.

One of the prisoners, Cinque, led a revolt, and the 129-foot vessel soon landed in America. After being tried on murder charges -- former President John Quincy Adams was one of their lawyers -- the captives were freed.

As thousands watched and cheered yesterday, a $3.1 million replica of the Amistad -- Spanish for friendship -- docked in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Beginning at noon today, free deck tours will be given on the boat, dubbed the Freedom Schooner Amistad. It is scheduled to be here until Oct. 18, when it is due to continue its voyage along the East Coast.

"It was a cargo ship. It was not bringing slaves from Africa," Capt. William Pinkney, 66, said in an interview after a ceremony marking the ship's arrival. Pinkney said he hopes the tours help Baltimoreans "learn the true Amistad story and the significance of cooperation between people of all races."

Exhibits will be on display adjacent to the 23-foot-wide, 91-foot-high ship. Amistad is moored atthe Inner Harbor's west wall, parallel to Light Street, between the Maryland Science Center and Harborplace.

Activities for schoolchildren are planned, but Douglass High School teacher Joe Connelly took 30 city students to the harbor yesterday to get an early start.

"I brought them here just to learn more about their heritage," Connelly said. "I'm going to try to bring them back for a tour."

Tavon Green, 14, said he had not heard of the Amistad until watching the 1997 Steven Spielberg movie in Connelly's class this week.

Neither had many of the people who vied yesterday for a good view of the ship and to take pictures. And some who had heard of it, hadn't heard the truth.

Jackie Brown, 40, was surprised at its size and wondered out loud how so many "thousands" of slaves were transported on it.

Michele Weissenhofer, 14, of Chicago, didn't know anything about the Amistad before yesterday. Her mother, Kathy Weissenhofer, who saw the movie, said: "I think it's great. It gives you a perspective. We forget they fought for their freedom."

Baltimore City Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh said the ship's presence can help the city and nation. "I think the purpose of this voyage is to send a message of unity and justice, of black and white people working together," Pugh said. "If we've learned anything since Sept. 11, it's that all of us need to work together."

She added: "I think Baltimore is at a crossroads in its own history and in recognizing the importance of diversity and the need for inclusion. This ship is here at a critical time in the history of our city."

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who spoke shortly after Morgan State University's choir sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," talked about the inequities that "led to the injustice of the trans-Atlantic slave trade."

O'Malley said the ship's revolt and its aftermath have "played an immeasurable role" in shaping the country.

Some tourists just happened upon the celebration.

Others, such as Aaron and Mary Ellis of West Baltimore, made it a point to be there.

"I came out to be a part of what I think is a beautiful and wonderful story, the Amistad," said Mary Ellis. I think we all need to know about the Amistad's background and our own background."

Pinkney, the ship's captain, said he has seen the movie Amistad several times and has a copy on board.

"It's a good movie, but it's a movie," he said. "That's what people don't understand."

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