William Pinkney, the first African American to sail solo around the world, will captain the Amistad. Hartford Courant photo
"Ladies and gentlemen," beamed Sierra Leone ambassador John E. Leigh, "what a great day for Africa and the United States."
Traditional African drums echoed across the Mystic Seaport grounds in response as thousands of spectators cheered the launch of a recreated 19th century Cuban schooner that figures heavily in African-American and United Church of Christ history.
"Remind us, O God," prayed the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC President, at the blessing of the ship, "that we are here today because mothers, fathers, children and elders were taken from their land, their culture, their loved ones, to be sold into slavery for the convenience and enrichment of others. Remind us."
The original Amistad was a coastal cargo vessel carrying 53 kidnaped Africans who had been sold into slavery until they broke their chains and seized the ship. Thinking they were sailing for home and freedom, they were tricked by the pilot and apprehended off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. Brought to New Haven, Conn., they were jailed on charges of mutiny and murder.
The story might have ended right there if it hadn't been for a courageous band of Congregational, Baptist and Presbyterian abolitionists who fought the charges all the way to the Supreme Court, which set the captives free on the grounds that they had never been slaves.
Out of that struggle, the abolitionists formed the American Missionary Association, which today is a unit of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.
"The Amistad has been my story for 25 years," said George M. Bellinger, chair of Amistad America, which owns the ship, at the launch ceremony. "It has been the United Church of Christ's story for 160 years." The UCC is a major sponsor, with a gift of $225,000 from the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries and $20,000 from the Connecticut Conference toward construction costs of $3.1 million.
There might never have been a new ship if it hadn't been for Warren Q. Marr, who started dreaming about the Amistad the day he went to work for the American Missionary Association in 1962.
"I'm having a hard time to keep from crying," said Marr. "I've waited so long for this to come into being."
During the launch ceremony, Marr was invited to break the chain binding the Amistad to land. Then actress Ruby Dee christened the ship by smashing the traditional bottle over the bow. The bottle was filled with water from Africa, Cuba and the United States.
Marr then led off a string of dignitaries tolling the ship's bell once for each of the original 53 souls. While the bell tolled, the dock cradling the ship was slowly lowered into the water. It was difficult for the dockside crowd to know exactly when she floated free for the first time until a great cheer arose from the flotilla of kayaks, canoes and small craft hovering just off the dock. The HMS Rose, a replica of an 18th century British warship, fired off a three-gun salute.
Amistad ("friendship" in Spanish) is not yet ready to sail. Masts and rigging must be put in place, and she must go through sea trials and be certified by the Coast Guard. All of this will be completed in time for her to take her proud place in the Tall Ships 2000 parade over the Fourth of July weekend in New York City. Designed to be a floating Civil Rights museum, the Amistad will cruise the East coast with crews of young African-American youth. The youth will learn something about their history while being involved in the teamwork and camaraderie of running a ship.
For the Amistad and all those who will sail on her, an old mariner's prayer comes to mind: "May she have fair winds and a following sea."