Amid modern barbarism, Amistad replica reminds us of earlier era's inhumanity

October 14, 2001|By Michael Olesker

WITH THE country charging into its first war of the 21st century, some of us descended last week into the 19th century. The re-created cargo schooner Amistad docked at a city pier, its story of primitive barbarism unimaginable to modern sensibilities. Humanity's much different now. When we conduct barbarism today, we do it on the grand, sophisticated scale.

The original Amistad carried human beings who were considered property. New York's World Trade Center housed human beings who were considered meaningless. The Amistad's cargo was souls bound from Africa to Cuba to America. The World Trade Center held souls from all over the world, bound for oblivion because they lived in America.

The Amistad is docked for two weeks at the Inner Harbor, not far from the Maryland Science Center, where each day schoolchildren arrive to walk its deck and imagine themselves in another world. But one night last week, Howard University and the United Church of Christ invited guests below-deck - and, inevitably, the talk touched on the planet's newest war, and humanity's endless history of cruelty and barbarism and annihilation.

The Amistad story goes back to 1839, a tiny, unnoticed footnote to generations of the slave trade but for its captors' uprising. Shackled first aboard the Portuguese vessel Tecora, 49 men, a boy and three girls from West Africa were kidnapped to Havana and purchased there by Spaniards who transferred them to La Amistad, a topsail cargo schooner more accustomed to carrying sugar products than human beings.

Last week, guests descended a steep staircase into the cargo hold. The night air was chilly, but the hold quickly became warm and stuffy. Imagine such space in summer's heat. The ocean voyage would have taken four to eight weeks, visitors were told. Imagine being tossed by an ocean's whims for such a time. Visitors were squeezed onto a couple of benches by two long tables. Neither the benches nor the tables existed for the Amistad's slaves, who were shackled together and crammed into small allotted spaces.

"Getting a little stuffy," somebody noted. Maybe 30 people were in the hold. We reminded ourselves: On the voyage that would change the Amistad's history, it carried 53 slaves, who shared such space with inanimate cargo. On one of the tables sat metal shackles and a whip used to punish the captives.

Three days out of Havana, a 25-year old named Sengbe Pieh - known to his Spanish captors as Cinque - led a revolt and sailed the ship north. Who knows what they anticipated? They sailed for 63 days. Then, the Amistad and all aboard were seized - as "salvage" - by the naval cutter USS Washington near Long Island, N.Y., and towed to Connecticut.

The slaves were held in a New Haven jail on charges of murder. The case took on historic proportions when former President John Quincy Adams took the captives' case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won - the first civil rights case argued in the American court system.

Two years after the Amistad uprising, its 35 surviving captives were returned to Africa.

It was a small ripple in the tide of African slavery, and it would be another quarter-century before the Civil War ended the cruel American institution. But nothing has ended the long night of human barbarism, one war replacing another, one "crusade" launched in the name of a nation, or a religion, replacing another.

Last week, a multiracial crowd was gathered at the Amistad. Clarence G. Newsome, dean of Howard University's School of Divinity, looked at the mix of faces and said: "In America, we look at each other and see our differences. But those on the outside --- those who struck us - don't make that distinction. They just see us as Americans."

Maybe Americans are learning to see each other that way: not as the sum of our differences, but as countrymen with shared interests. President Bush alluded to it last week when he mentioned "Christian women and Jewish women" taking Muslim women shopping - offering friendship to those in our midst feeling particularly vulnerable.

As the visitors stood on the deck of the re-created Amistad, they heard the roar of a commercial airliner overhead. Two centuries seemed to gape at each other. But the appearance of an airplane over an American city now takes on new context. All memories are locked on Sept. 11.

That was history's newest act of barbarism. But the Amistad reminds us: It is part of humanity's continuing legacy of outrages against itself.

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