U.S. slave ship replica sails into Old Havana harbor

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by Will Weissert

HAVANA (AP)—A U.S. replica of the 19th century Cuban slave ship Amistad glided into the millpond-calm waters of Havana Bay and docked March 25, a reminder of the countries’ intertwined past and perhaps a small gesture toward a brighter shared future.

Cuba-US-Slave-Ship
HISTORIC SHIP— U.S.-flagged vessel Amistad arrives to the port of Havana, March 25. The ship is in Cuba to observe its 10th anniversary and commemorate the day in 1807 when the British Parliament outlawed slave trade.

Built in Connecticut, the black-hulled, two-masted re-creation of the schooner, whose name means “Friendship,” flew the flags of the United States, Cuba and United Nations. It was one of the few times a ship under Cuba’s flag and the Stars and Stripes has called on the island in 51 years of estrangement since Fidel Castro took power.

As the Amistad neared shore, the crew of 19 mostly students—all Americans except for one from the African nation of Sierra Leone—lowered the sails, taking the U.S. flag down with them. Once the ship docked, however, the flags of both nations again flew high.

“Sorry, I don’t speak much Spanish,” a grinning Capt. William Pinkney said in grammatically correct, if halting, Spanish, as he stepped ashore. Pinkney, Amistad’s captain emeritus, led the journey into Havana.

A group of Cuban dignitaries headed by parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon greeted the vessel, along with Cuban preteens in red-and-white school uniforms, leaders of Cuba’s Santeria religion, which mixes Catholicism with the traditional African Yoruba faith, and a band pounding conga drums.

Director Steven Spielberg made the story of the original Amistad famous with his 1997 Hollywood film of the same name. The ship set sail from Havana carrying a cargo of captives from Sierra Leone in 1839. The Africans rebelled and seized the ship, sailing on a zigzag course up the U.S. coast until it was seized off the coast of New York’s Long Island.

The captured Africans became an international cause for abolitionists, and their fate was finally decided in 1841, when former U.S. President John Quincy Adams argued their case before the Supreme Court, which granted them freedom.

“For us it’s something indescribable,” said Miguel Barnet, a leading Cuban ethnographer who has written extensively about the island’s African roots. “This replica is very important because it recalls events that are dramatic and sad …history’s longest holocaust.”

Indeed, the tale of the original Amistad was an inspirational ending to an otherwise sinister historical period—and some who helped bring the Amistad replica to Havana hope its arrival could signal hope for improving frigid U.S.-Cuba relations. But the ship arrived as international tension over the island’s human rights record has intensified since the Feb. 23 death of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after a long prison hunger strike.

President Barack Obama said March 24 that Zapata Tamayo’s death was “deeply disturbing” and shows that, instead of entering a new era, Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of its people with a clenched fist.

On the same day the ship arrived in Havana, Cuba-born pop star Gloria Estefan led a march in support of a top Cuban dissident group through the streets of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Thursday commemorated the day, March 25, 1807, when the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade. It also marks the 10th anniversary of the replica’s rechristening. The new Amistad left Virginia and sailed to Bermuda, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas en route to Cuba, first arriving at the island Tuesday, at the port of Matanzas, 60 miles east of Havana. Two days later, mostly calm, blue-gray seas made for a smooth sailing into the capital’s port, passing Morro Castle, a Spanish fort built in 1859 that guards the sea entrance to Havana.

The Amistad hugged the storied waterfront, passing the iconic Hotel Nacional before reaching a modern cruise ship dock on the edge of the city’s historic harbor district.

Using high technology hidden in its wooden frame and rigging, the new Amistad has crossed the Atlantic and wended its way through the Caribbean since 2007 as part of UNESCO’s Slave Route Project. It measures 139 feet from top to bottom and 22 feet across, and is made of wood from Sierra Leone. The replica was built without most comforts of modern ships—including air conditioning.

It will offer public tours while in the capital, remaining for six days near the warren of narrow, cobblestone streets and gracefully decaying homes and apartment buildings with colonial-era courtyards and terraces that comprise Old Havana.

On March 26, an educational simulcast linked high schoolers in Havana with an auditorium of 300 students at U.N. headquarters, as well as youngsters who have studied the real Amistad in Gambia, Britain, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Jamaica.

From Cuba, the Amistad will head up the U.S. East Coast with a stop in Washington, and remain in U.S. waters until August, telling the tale of its stop in Cuba all along the way, Belanger said.

Washington has periodically approved Cuba stops for semester-at-sea educational programs for American students, and authorized U.S. shiploads of exports under agriculture and medical exemptions to the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the island.

The Amistad required permission from the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments to make the voyage—authorization that did not always appear it would be forthcoming.

“There isn’t a license category for a 19th century slave ship,” Schwadron joked.

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