The kids come running down the gangplank and bounce onto the deck with anticipation. "Oh," they squeal, "is this a pirate ship?" "No," comes the reply. "This is a freedom ship. This is the Amistad."
John Kamara should know. A lifelong resident of Freetown, Sierra Leone, he thinks some of his ancestors were among the 53 captives who took over the original Amistad in 1839 rather than be sold into slavery in Cuba.
"I first heard about the Amistad from my grandfather when I was six," says Kamara. "He told it to me through the eyes of Koi, a little Mendi boy about my age who was the first in his village to come into contact with whites."
Now John Kamara is a volunteer on the present-day Amistad, sponsored by the Volunteer Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Amistad America, Inc. He is the first of what it is hoped will be a succession of nativeborn residents of Sierra Leone to serve. The UCC is a founding partner in the construction of the freedom schooner Amistad, which is owned and operated by Amistad America, Inc. Kamara was discovered by a Connecticut delegation to Sierra Leone when he ferried the group out to an island from which slave ships sailed.
Johnny, as the international crew members call him, has been busy since September learning the ropes of running a 129-foot, topsail schooner: hauling up the sails, standing watch, manning the wheel. "This is the ship I always dreamed of sailing," he says. "I was so excited when I first saw her. She was so big. When I went aboard, all I could say was ÔPraise the Lord.'"
While Kamara hasn't quite yet mastered the art of working the sails on a swaying mast 150 feet above the deck, he has learned quickly to be an ambassador for what the Amistad represents. She was built not only as a living memorial to all those Africans kidnapped to be slaves in the New World but as a floating classroom, traveling throughout the United States to teach the historic lessons of people of different races working together for justice.
All crew members help tell the story to visiting school children and church groups that troop aboard at ports of call, and Kamara has taken a special interest in sharing with African-American children a part of their history they know little about.
"They find it hard to believe this ship carried human cargo under the most horrible conditions," he says. To demonstrate what it was like, he lines the youngsters up on a bench in the main hold, like peas in a pod, with their knees drawn up tightly into their chests. "How do you feel?" he asks. "Oh, it's not good," they respond. The original captives were chained together this way for weeks at a time, but after five minutes the modern day cargo starts to squirm. "They suddenly know what it was like and there is a stillness," Kamara observes.
He tells the story of Sengbe Pieh, who led the revolt on the original Amistad, and how the captives forced the crew to sail the ship toward the rising sun—Africa—in the daytime but the crew turned back at night. After 63 days of zigzagging, the ship was apprehended off Long Island, N.Y., and the captives thrown into jail on charges of murder. Connecticut attorney Roger S. Baldwin and former president John Quincy Adams successfully argued for their release before the U.S. Supreme Court, and the defendants were returned to their homeland. It was the first victory at the U.S. Supreme Court level for people of African descent.
"I feel I am an ambassador to this history," Kamara says proudly. Indeed, the modern day Amistad has a powerful pull for African Americans. When I joined the ship for the two-day sail from St. Petersburg to Key West, Fla., the middle-aged, black cab driver pulled up to the dock where the ship was berthed and just sat there staring. Finally, he said, "Oh, my God; Oh, my God," and a tear rolled down his face. Later, in Key West, several black shopkeepers, spying my Amistad cap, asked if I had been on the ship and what she was like.
Kamara winds up his presentation with the story of Margru and Kali, "two children like you," who were returned to Africa. He says that rather then turning on those who had sold them into captivity, including Margru's father who had sold her, they were determined to make life better for their people.
"I tell the American kids they can change things the way these two did," he says.
William C. Winslow is a free-lance writer from New York.