Rerigging History

Students from Notre Dame High School raise the sails on the Amistad.

In 1839, reports of a mysterious ship with tattered sails zig zagging along the Eastern seaboard were spreading among New England towns. Later that year, this ship, a Spanish slave-trading vessel named La Amistad, was intercepted off of the coast of Long Island, New York by the USS Washington, captained by Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney. Gedney found a revolt aboard: While the ship was traveling from Havana, Cuba to a slave market in Puerto Principe, the 50-some enslaved Africans aboard overthrew their Spanish captors, killing all but two of the crew members and taking control of the ship. During the day, the freed captives directed the two remaining Spaniards to navigate back towards Sierra Leone; but at night, the Spaniards steered towards shore, hoping to get aid from the Americans. Gedney, seeing an opportunity to claim salvage rights on the ship and its valuable cargo, towed the Amistad away from New York, where captured slaves were considered free, to slave-condoning New London, Connecticut. Unwittingly, Gedney towed this ship into history; the events that followed sparked the impetus for what would be the most important Supreme Court decision on slavery up until Dred Scott.

The story of the Amistad spans continents. The legal and moral disputes that were to follow have elevated the Amistad to a sort of mythic status, particularly in the New England area, but the repercussions extended far beyond American shores. After the events, the American Missionary Association began the Mendi Mission in Sierra Leone, an extension of the American Underground Railroad that served as a frontier of abolitionism in West Africa. The case itself was deeply tied to the laws of foreign lands, and would go on to affect how both Spain and the United States regarded and regulated internationally traded slaves. As the testimony from the captives would reveal, the Amistad had been carrying slaves from Sierra Leone, brought illegally into the Spanish South American slave trade. During the case, it was Spanish law that was used in defence of keeping the captives enslaved after the revolt, but American law that would decide their final fate. The captives themselves were from the Mende people, one of the two largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. Many did not speak the same language; many had never been on the ocean before. Yet here they were, fighting for their freedom in debates about maritime and civil law, stuck between the legal posturing of two foreign powers.

When Gedney brought them to shore, he quickly cast the Amistad Africans as rebelling slaves, void of any legal protections. Sengbe Pieh, the leader of the slave revolt, voiced his own defense even before the actual trial began, retelling the story of his capture and vouching for the freedom of his fellow captives, as well as giving justification for their actions. To settle the legal dispute, the Africans were moved to prison cells in New Haven, the location of the US District Court for the District of Connecticut. The Spainards and the US Attorney for Connecticut then brought arguments framing the captives as legal slaves; President Martin Van Buren himself was anxious that the case should not upset American-Spanish relations, and put pressue on the courts to rule against the Amistad Africans. Still, the District and the Circuit Court ruled in favor of the freed captives. The US Attorney for Connecticut persisted, finally appealing the case to the Supreme Court.

In 1842, the question was finally settled by the highest court in the land, which ruled 7–1 in favor of the freedom of the Amistad Africans, requiring them to be returned to Africa. The Court ruled that, having been illegally enslaved, the former captives were indeed free and entitled to return to their homelands. By this time, however, only 35 of the original 53 Africans who began the voyage survived. Many had died on the journey to the United States, others after the ship had landed in Connecticut. In 1843, they returned to Africa with a group of American pastors, at last, free. What happened to them after this is unknown. Back in America, conversations that the Amistad had galvanized were fueling a wave of abolitionism across the North. The legal case became evidence that change was possible, and it continued to influence public opinion up until the outbreak of the Civil War.

After the case, the recorded history of the ship itself is brief. The Amistad was auctioned off in October of 1840 to Captain George Hawford, who renamed it the Ion. He sailed it for four years, using it to trade goods down to Bermuda, until he sold it again in 1844. From then on, while the Amistad case continued to live on in the memories of Americans and Sierra Leoneans, the history of the original vessel sinks into obscurity. No record of the ship exists past 1844.

Then, in 1998, a Connecticut non-profit, Amistad America, decided to construct a working replica of the ship. The replica, built using period woodworking techniques and the images of the original Amistad as reference, began sailing out of the New Haven Harbor in 2000. After facing charges of tax fraud in 2015, Amistad America closed down and sold the ship to a new organization, Discovering Amistad. The Amistad is now an educational vessel, traveling around New England ports as a moving classroom, educating students about the court case and the story of the captives aboard. Today, new winds fill the ship’s sails.

Charting A Different Course

Being on the deck of the new Amistad carries this weight of history to those who know it, even though the Amistad story itself has generally been cast rather lightly. It still mostly exists as an emblem of abolitionist success in American collective memory, cemented by the eponymous Steven Spielberg film in 1997. It is a win for good, an abolitionist checkmark. The ship became the symbol for a great alliance between the wrongfully enslaved and the publically righteous. But when on it, it becomes something very different. Both literally and symbolically, the ship has been remade. Today, this new nautical classroom has become a place where students learn a different story and a different memory. Instead, they question this type of historical glazing. There are educational stations where crew members lead exercises about dehumanization and Northern complicity in the slave trade; the whole experience aboard becomes a hands-on history lesson. The ship is an intensely critical memorial, engaging students with an intensely important question: how do we remember the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and how might we remember it better?

“One of the things we try talking about is putting the role of the Amistad into a bigger context. In trying to erase the misconception that the North somehow equals good, and understand that it’s more nuanced and complex than that” Jaclyn Levesque says, the current Assistant Director of Education at the Discovery Amistad organization. She explains how the economies of the South and the North were inextricably linked; much of the food and raw materials that fueled everyday plantation life came from the North. “Even though there were abolitionists in Connecticut, Connecticut also made a lot of money off of slavery.”

Levesque and Discovery Amistad are unusual in this sense. They explore intimately the specific human costs of slavery in a way that few other educational institutions in the state do, putting aside the court cases and the history book dates to talk about the actual experience of the people involved in the Amistad Affair. One of her focuses is retelling the story of Senghe Pieh, who led the revolt on the ship.

“Who was Sengbe Pieh, who were the kids? After he’s kidnapped, we know more about what happened to him than his wife and kids ever did. To them, Dad’s kidnapped and he’s gone. When you tell that to a group of young kids you can see them grappling with it,” Levesque says.

Sengbe’s story of loss and pain, by no means unique among the captives, is difficult to carve in stone or cast in steel. He has become an legendary emblem of bravery and abolitionism, a status carved out of the harsh reality of his life. Known as Joseph Cinqué to his Spaniard captors, Sengbe was a rice farmer from central Sierra Leone. He had a wife and three kids at the time the slave traders captured him and took him to the slave fortress of Lomboko on the coast of Sierra Leone. He would never see his family again. Sengbe is on almost every memorial of the event. Even on the replica Amistad ship there is a small portrait of him, hanging from the wall below deck — he cannot even escape the ship he was brought here on.

Sengbe finds himself on other memorials in the area as well. Visit the sculptural memorial by City Hall in New Haven, and he is there again, albeit in a context very different from the Amistad ship. The sculptor, Ed Hamilton, completed the piece in 1992. It’s a large piece of steel, a rough inverted pyramid standing 12 feet tall with Sengbe at the front and the faces of the other Amistad Africans at the sides. From above, there is another face, looking directly up, seemingly drowning into the sculpture itself. The site is rarely filled with more than one or two people. There are no benches, only a railing where people sometimes lean or eat a quick lunch.

“In New Haven, the name Amistad is everywhere. But that does not mean that people have a full understanding of the history. More support and outreach is desperately needed, especially to connect the local story to Cuba and Sierra Leone. ” Joseph Yannielli, a historian of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and a former Lecturer of History at Yale University, explains.I have taken several Yale classes on field trips to the memorial, and almost none of the students were aware it existed, despite its location directly across the Green from Old Campus.”

Facing Historical Fact

Sengbe’s face is everywhere, but not his story. Not only was the memorial a long time coming, being erected over a 130 years after the event, people simply don’t know enough about the event itself to make meaning of the memory this monument communicates. What is frustrating then, is how close potentially elucidating information is. The Beinecke holds hundreds of documents directly and tangentially related to the events of the Amistad, but Yale still has few publicly accessible resources for those interested in learning about the Amistad.

“The story is especially pertinent for Yale, an institution named after a slave trader and founded on the profits of slavery and racism,” Yannielli says. “There are many things that need to be done to atone for and repair the damage done by Yale. A fuller engagement with the Amistad, and all of its transnational connections, would be a step in the right direction.”

A model of the New Haven Amistad Memorial sits below deck aboard the Amistad ship.

While there is no dearth of historical documents relating to the affair, the most popular narratives about Sengbe lack depth and historical scrutiny. The history of the Amistad needs this kind of monument to find place for its memory, but it also needs better public understanding for the monument to become meaningful. Here, Yale has an opportunity to use its authority and resources to promote new, critical understandings of the Amistad affair, understandings similar in nature to the ones taught by the Discovering Amistad organization. The alternative to actively supporting this approach is to leave this history victim to inaccuracy and amnesia. Levesque recounts how a few years ago, misinformation was spread about Sengbe, with a report claiming that when he returned to Sierra Leone he became a slave trader. Until a group of historians checked the sourcing and proved the claims to be false, the report gained some public traction. The truth can be so easily broken when it stands on such shaky foundation. The literal hundreds of documents the Beinecke has, some of which are occasionally on display at the New Haven Museum, are for the most part buried. The few names that do emerge become tokens that get twisted and misremembered. And while the Levesque and the Discovering Amistad organization have begun to bring some of that historical detail and complexity forward, the effort is challenging, particularly because at a very basic level, what they are doing is confronting commonly held notions about Connecticut’s innocence, and about slavery in America more generally.

Yale’s absence is particularly felt on board the Amistad replica. Yannielli was the first professor to bring a full class of students aboard the Amistad last year, and this was one of the few major outreaches between the organization and the university. The university was closely involved with the original case itself– many of the abolitionists advocating for the captives were educated at Yale, as were many of the supporters of slavery advocating for the return of the captives to the Spanish.

In many ways, the history taught by Discovering Amistad is precisely the kind Yale shies away from. It is much easier to have the Amistad be text on a page, drawings in a vault, even a memorial from a well-over past, than a ship you can travel on. It is much easier to avoid complicity that way as well.

“Connecticut was the South’s friend in the North. You have to know, the big plantation owners had children who would attend Yale, and advocate for their father, and their father’s friends,” Adwoa Bandele-Astante, an educator and researcher with Discovering Amistad, says.

Rigging secured to the deck aboard the Amistad.

Bandele-Astante leads one of the onboard education stations on the slave trade and on African culture and society. She shows, in full color, how deeply tied Connecticut, and Yale, were to the slave trade, but also speaks to who exactly the enslaved people were. While accurately imagining the past is critical to an understanding of slavery today, and while scholars like Yannielli believe Yale can play a larger part in this, it is exploring the human aspect, the kinds of cultures and histories enslaved people were coming from, that deepens and complicates this story.

“For example, in West Africa you have storytellers who are very organized and undergo rigorous training to be linguistic storytellers. And why is that important? When the dust clears after the war, who tells your story? That’s why it’s important to your legacy.”

That is the same legacy of memory that Bandele-Astante carries on today in her teaching and research. The students react well to it, excited and energized by this way of learning that runs against the usual grain of textbook memorization.

“I talk specifically about the Triangular Trade and Africa. I let them know that millionaires were made in Connecticut participating in the Triangular Trade. They made ships, they made sails, they made textiles–having cheap cotton was valuable to them–they grew food,” Bandele-Astante says. “They participated full heartedly in the trade. It grew from this industry into the insurance capital of the world.”

Keeping Life Valuable

This retold story of the Amistad is about fighting that system, at the most basic human level. It’s about rebellion and organizing, in way that threatens a worldview that would rather valorize Sengbe Pieh’s heroism than discuss how his capture permanently separated him from his family. Creating this story, from the original boat to the replica, has brought a new vein of rebellion back into the Amistad story. Perhaps that’s where it’s true importance lies. Not only is it about teaching a past, but also imagining the future.

The Amistad memorials around New Haven and Connecticut are for the most part commemorative. They are conservative holders of memory, presenting a limited view of the past in a charged setting. The replica boat is much more diffuse, much more flexible in its interpretation of its memory. It’s history brought alive and brought forward as something to be reconciled with.

“It’s kind of scary. You see it in the movies and you hear about it and read about it in your textbooks, it’s another fact to memorize. When you actually come out on it, it’s the same type of feeling in a way, there were actually people on a ship like this, there were actually people being carried over miles of open ocean, just like this, just how we are right now,” Jon Katz, a senior at Notre Dame High School in West Haven says. “It really happened.”

Even though the ship is not an exact replica, and doesn’t pretend to be, many students shared this sentiment. Somehow, they were closer to history on this ship. The memory of slavery is so abstracted that it when it finally finds an actual space to be grounded in, it latches on. The breadth of the material taught on the ship activates the other memorials in new ways, and draws students back to central questions about memories of slavery.

“This was one story of one ship, [but considering] the size of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, it was this times thousand and thousands of other ships. When I feel like you can come out here and experience it, that has a deeper impact,” Katz says. “I definitely think that the monument brings that history to life, makes it a physical manifestation instead of just words. Actual monuments can change your perspective.”

That change of perspective is what Levesque sees as the true mission of the Discovering Amistad organization. With an imperfect replica and a crew of five or so, it’s not easy to weave a story like the Amistad for the consumption of teenagers, but when it is done right the results are tangible. That sound of a mental click, from seeing this ship as an educational tool to a historical bridge, can be heard even above the wind howling around the ship. Seeing the students interact with the ship, hearing them talk to each other, reveals a degree of respect for the space. Not all, of course, share the sentiment, but change still feels possible.

“They want to talk about race, even the young kids, they don’t shy away from it, they want to get into it, and that’s been an eye opener,” Jason Hine, second mate of the Amistad and a classroom educator for Discovering Amistad says. “3rd and 4th graders– they get really into the story, their imaginations bring them into it and then they start speaking as if it was the original. They’ll say, ‘Oh where was Cinque when…’ and I’ll say ‘Remember, this is a recreation.’ They’ll get into the story and they think of this as if it was the original.”

For the Amistad crew, bridging the past and the present becomes more than an exercise in producing new forms of memory; it presents a radical prescription for understanding contemporary injustices. It is, in a way, a call to action.

“I think today, you have the powers that be that don’t seem to value humanity, just like the times in slavery.” Bandele-Astante says. “Keeping life valuable, keeping the young people humane. There are challenges to that. You have to share your perspective. I tell the youth, violence without cause is brutality. People who fight for their freedom aren’t brutes. It’s people who brutalize people for no cause: that’s different.”


Rerigging History was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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