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Contemporary watercolor of La Amistad
La Amistad (Spanish: "Friendship") was a ship notable as the scene of a revolt by African captives being transported from Havanamarker to Puerto Principe, Cuba. It was a 19th-century two-masted schooner built in the United Statesmarker but owned by a Spaniard living in Cubamarker. After the Africans took control of the ship in July 1839 and were later captured by the United States Navy, La Amistad became a symbol in the movement to abolish slavery. The ship was taken under control by the United States, resulting in a US Supreme Court case over the status of the Africans, as importation of slaves into the US had been prohibited since 1808.

The Incident

The Rebellion at Sea

1840 engraving depicting the Amistad revolt

On July 2, 1839, Sengbe Pieh (later known in the United States as Joseph Cinqué) led 56 fellow Africans (52 adults and 4 children), the captives being transported aboard La Amistad from Havanamarker, in a revolt against their captors. In the main hold below decks, the captives found a rusty file. The captives freed themselves, and they quickly ascended the stairs to deck. Armed with machete-like cane knives, they were successful in gaining control of the ship and demanded to be returned home. The ship's navigator, Don Pedro Montez, deceived them about which direction their course was on and sailed the ship north along the North American coast to the eastern tip of Long Islandmarker, New Yorkmarker. The United States Navy discovered the schooner and took it and its occupants into custody. They took the Africans to Connecticutmarker to be sold as slaves.

Court Case

A widely publicized court case ensued in New Haven, Connecticutmarker, about the ship and the legal status of the African captives, which became a cause célèbre among abolitionists in the United States. At the time, the transport of slaves from Africa to the Americas was illegal, so the ship owners fraudulently described the Africans as having been born in Cubamarker. The court had to decide if the Africans were to be considered salvage and the property of Naval officers who had taken custody of the ship, whether they were the property of the Cuban buyers or of Spain as Queen Isabella II of Spain claimed, or if the circumstances of their capture and transportation meant they were free.

On appeal, The Amistad case reached the US Supreme Courtmarker, which in 1841 ruled in that the Africans had been illegally transported and held as slaves, and ordered them freed.

Return to Africa

The Amistad survivors returned to Africa in 1842.

The Ship

Text of the Amistad Supreme Court decision
La Amistad was a 19th-century two-masted schooner of about . Built in the United Statesmarker, La Amistad was originally named Friendship but she was renamed after being purchased by a Spaniardmarker. Strictly speaking, La Amistad was not a slave ship; she was not designed to transport large cargoes of slaves, nor did she engage in the Middle Passage of Africans to the Americas.

La Amistad engaged in shorter, coastal trade. The primary cargo carried by La Amistad was sugar-industry products, and her normal route ran from Havanamarker to her home port of Guanajamarker. She also took on passengers and, on occasion, slaves for transport. The captives whom La Amistad carried during the historic events had been illegally transported from Africa to Cuba aboard the slave ship Tecora.

More Ships

True slave ships, such as the Tecora, were designed for the purpose of carrying as many slaves as possible. The largest slave ships carried up to 400 slaves. One distinguishing feature that enabled this efficiency was the half-height between decks level. Slaves were chained down in a sitting or lying position, but the area was not high enough for people to stand in. The crew of La Amistad, lacking the slave quarters, placed half the captives in the main hold, and the other half on deck. The captives were relatively free to move about, which aided their revolt and commandeering of the vessel.

Later years

After being moored at the wharf behind the US Custom House in New Londonmarker, Connecticutmarker, for a year and a half, La Amistad was auctioned off by the U.S. Marshal in October 1840. Captain George Hawford, of Newportmarker, Rhode Islandmarker, purchased the vessel and then needed an Act of Congress passed to register her. He renamed her Ion. In late 1841, he sailed the ship to Bermudamarker and Saint Thomasmarker with a typical New Englandmarker cargo of onions, apples, live poultry, and cheese.

After sailing Ion for a few years, Hawford sold the ship in Guadeloupemarker in 1844. There is no record of what became of the Ion under her new Frenchmarker owners in the Caribbeanmarker.

Other ships with her name

Western Union

This schooner was in 1939 built by Herbert Elroy Arch, Thompson Enterprises, in Key West, Florida for the Western Union Thompson Fish Company and leased by the Western Union Telegraph Company. Used for cable repair between 1939 and 1974. In 1974 she was converted into a passenger vessel. She was used as film vessel "La Amistad", and participated the Opsail 1976 in New York. In 1984 sold to Vision Quest National, Ltd. from Philadelphia andused to redirect troubled youths. Renamed New Way. She was in 1997 purchased by Historic Tours of America, Key West, and renamed Western Union again. Used for dockside tours, day sailing trips, special charter. This ship is a National Historic Landmark.

Freedom Schooner Amistad

Between 1998 and 2000, artisans at Mystic Seaport, Mysticmarker, Connecticutmarker built a recreation of the La Amistad, using traditional skills and construction techniques common to wooden schooners built in the 19th century, but using modern materials and engines. They christened Freedom Schooner Amistad. The modern-day Amistad is not an exact replica of La Amistad, as the ship is slightly longer and has higher freeboard. There were no old blueprints of the original.

The new schooner was built using a general knowledge of the Baltimore Clippers and art drawings from the era. Some of the tools used in the project were the same as those that might have been used by a 19th-century shipwright while others were powered. Tri-Coastal Marine, designers of Freedom Schooner Amistad, used modern computer technology to develop plans for the vessel.

Bronze bolts are used as fastenings throughout the ship. Freedom Schooner Amistad has an external ballast keel made of lead and two Caterpillar diesel engines. None of this technology was available to 19th century builders.

Freedom Schooner Amistad is operated by Amistad America, Inc., a non-profit organization based in New Havenmarker, Connecticut. The ship's mission is to educate the public on the history of slavery, discrimination, and civil rights. Her homeport is New Haven, where the Amistad trial took place. She also travels to port cities for educational opportunities. The Freedom Schooner Amistad is the State Flagship and Tall ship Ambassador of Connecticut.

The Atlantic Freedom Tour

Freedom Schooner Amistad set sail on June 21, 2007, from New Haven on the " Atlantic Freedom Tour", a transatlantic voyage to Great Britainmarker, Lisbonmarker, West Africa, and the Caribbeanmarker to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in Britain (1807) and the United States (1808). The ship arrived in Bristolmarker on August 30, 2007.

Londonmarker was one of the ports of the United Kingdommarker portion of the Amistad's Tour. The schooner sailed up the Thames under the Tower Bridgemarker on August 14, 2007. She moored for several days in London Docklandsmarker and attracted great crowds and attention.

August 23, 2007, UNESCOmarker's designated International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade, fell during the ship's visit to Liverpoolmarker. Her arrival was marked by the opening of the International Slavery Museummarker in Liverpool, the first museum of its type in the United Kingdom.

La Amistad in popular culture

On 2 September 1839, a play entitled The Long, Low Black Schooner, based on the revolt, opened in New York Citymarker and played to full audiences. La Amistad was painted black at the time of the revolt.

A 1997 film, Amistad, directed by Steven Spielberg, dramatized the historical incidents. Major actors were Morgan Freeman, as a freed black man in New Haven; Anthony Hopkins, as John Quincy Adams; Matthew McConaughey, as an unorthodox, but influential lawyer; and Djimon Hounsou, as Cinque (Sengbe Peah).

Artist Hale Woodruff completed a mural depicting the events resulting from the Amistad revolt. The three-panel Amistad Murals (1938) are on display at the Savery Library, Talladega Collegemarker, Alabamamarker, together with other Woodruff murals inspired by African-American history. A depiction of the ship is part of the floor of the library. School tradition prohibits walking "on" the ship.

In honour of the described events, the name "Amistad" was given to a street in Havanamarker.

The song "My Love Is Your Love" by Whitney Houston references the Amistad: "And the chains of Amistad couldn't hold us."

Malice of the hip-hop supergroup Re-Up Gang references La Amistad in his song "20k Money Making Brothers on the Corner", from their mixtape We Got It 4 Cheap, Volume 3: The Spirit of Competition , with the lyrics: "Big chain around my neck like I’m fresh off The Amistad... We won’t stop ‘till you give us us free."

Rage Against the Machine's song "No Shelter" from the European/Australian/Japanese version of The Battle of Los Angeles calls out Spielberg's account by claiming:"Amistad was a whip, the truth was feathered and tarredMemory erased, burned and scarred."

Zack and Miri Make a Porno has the line, "This ain't Amistad", when Zack walks into the coffee shop during a conversation between his boss and an African-American coworker.

Scary Movie makes reference to the ship in a parody of a scene from Titanicmarker. It features a man on a ship claiming "I'm the king of the world!" as if he were on the Titanic, only to reveal him as a slave held on the Amistad.


  1. Tri-Coastal Marine
  2. Amistad America Inc.
  3. STATE OF CONNECTICUT, Sites ° Seals ° Symbols; Connecticut State Register & Manual; retrieved on January 4, 2007

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