NEW HAVEN — The Freedom Schooner Amistad entered Cuban waters this week as part of the United Nations commemoration of March 25 as the global Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
The Amistad entered Cuban waters Monday for a 10-day, two city Cuba tour that will culminate its recent Caribbean Heritage Voyage. The ship will first visit Matanzas, site of a new UNESCO-affiliated slavery museum. On March 25, the Amistad will sail into Havana Harbor to commemorate the historic “triangle of trade” connections between America, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. The next day, the vessel will host a three-hour simulcast about the shared slave trade heritage, connecting Cuban students to classrooms across the Atlantic Ocean and at the UN in New York. In addition to public tours of the boat and academic panels on its history, the Cuba visits will focus on the impact of the slave trade on our transatlantic cultural heritage – including religious ritual, film, music, dance, poetry and visits to former plantations.
When Amistad sails into Havana on March 25th — the 10th anniversary of her launch at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut — she will bear an ambassador of the United Church of Christ. The Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith, senior pastor of the First Congregational Church UCC of Norwalk, has been a volunteer sailor and interpreter aboard the Amistad for seven years, and spent his 2008 sabbatical aboard, visiting Sierra Leone and the Cape Verde Islands.
“Two years ago, the crew all talked about how exciting it would be to take the schooner to Havan on our next major cruise,” said Bryant-Smith, who will spend five days in Cuban waters before returning to lead Palm Sunday services at his church. “Now that that dream is a reality, I am honored to be able to represent the United Church of Christ.”
Bryant-Smith offered his gratitude to First Congregational Church for their willingness to lend their pastor to Amistad as Lent draws to a close. “The congregation is also celebrating our common ministry of justice work,” he said. Though planning for the Cuba visit has been in the works for a long time, final approvals arrived only recently, requiring considerable flexibility and responsiveness from pastor and church leaders.
He has promised to bring the story and photos of the historic visit home to Connecticut; watch ctucc.org and September’s ConnTact for his accounts.
“The sale of the Amistad captives in Havana was a small transaction in the thriving international slave trade,” said Gregory Belanger, president of Amistad America Inc. “But the resulting events arguably turned the tide against slavery itself – and the historical connections across the modern African diaspora are direct and profound.”
“This visit is especially poignant because Amistad’s own story began in Cuba,” said Belanger, noting the original ship was built in Cuba. In 1839, the Amistad sailed from Havana, the center of the illegal slave trade. This will be the replica’s first visit to Cuba since her launch.
The Amistad is a 129-foot replica of the two-masted black schooner that was at the center of the 1841 slave rebellion case argued successfully by John Quincy Adams, leading to the first US Supreme Court case freeing African captives. The replica Amistad has visited 70 domestic and international ports as a symbol of this human rights milestone.
In 2008, the Amistad undertook a 14,000-mile transatlantic sail to Africa. On March 25 of that year, the Amistad was linked via satellite directly to the UN as the General Assembly voted to commemorate that date as the bicentennial of the pioneering British act that first outlawed the slave trade. Students from six countries sailed legs of the Africa voyage. Soon thereafter, the Amistad was designated as floating ambassador for the UN Permanent Memorial to Honor the Victims of Slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade. The vessel’s most recent port of call was Santo Domingo, for a week of programs for youth from the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Following the current Caribbean tour, the vessel will visit five cities historically linked to the 19th century slave trade: Savannah, Charlestown, Norfolk, Washington DC and Baltimore. The next heritage tour will include visits this summer to Boston, Halifax and seven Great Lakes ports, culminating in Chicago. In December, the Amistad sails back to Africa.
Read about Boys in Hats, a band Bryant-Smith belongs to, here.