Cubans celebrate Amistad’s arrival in historic slave-trade port

The black-hulled schooner Amistad was unmistakable, sailing into the deep, long harbor of the port of Matanzas, Cuba, bright main and foresails taut in the steady breeze. The ship made landfall in Cuba Monday at a working pier stacked with oil drums and watched over by customs and security officials, the first stop of the Connecticut-based schooner’s friendship visit to the country that shares with the United States intertwined histories of slavery, exploitation, family bonds and conflicted emotion. A delegation of local government and cultural officials, historians and writers, dancers and drummers all welcomed the Amistad to the port city that at its height admitted tens of thousands of African captives to be enslaved in Cuba’s booming 18th-century sugar and coffee plantations, and that still imports so much of this nation’s petroleum that a port official, chuckling, compared it to Houston.

If arrival in Havana is expected to be a bigger event – the boat will arrive March 25, the tenth anniversary of its launch, as well as the international day of commemoration for victims of the international slave trade – its first arrival in gritty, historic Matanzas was more personal for some, both onboard and ashore. “When the keel was laid for this vessel back in 1998, the dream back then – and back then it was only a dream – was to one day bring this vessel to Cuba,” Captain Sean Bercaw said after the ship had been secured and just before a celebratory performance from a drum and dance ensemble from nearby Cardenas. “That dream has come true today.” The ship arrived with a crew of 18, including 12 professional crew and five students and a professor from the University of Massachusetts – Boston, who joined the boat in the Bahamas last week for the sail to Cuba.

The Amistad was built at Mystic Seaport as a nearly exact replica of the Cuban schooner Amistad, which was overtaken by the African captives held on board in 1839, shortly after departing Havana for the plantation regions in the east of Cuba, farther past Matanzas on the island’s northern coast. The ship eventually reached the coastal waters off Montauk before being captured. After a series of trials, the Amistad captives were found by U.S. courts to be free people, not slaves, in a landmark decision that came decades before America’s tortured debate over human bondage and its economic and political ramifications plunged the country into civil war.

Welcoming the Amistad sailors, a local historian of Matanzas, Ercilio Vento Canosa, described the surging demand for labor in the sugar plantations in the years just before the Amistad captives were nearly sent to work in the Cuban countryside. In 1836, some 20,000 slaves died in an outbreak of disease in Matanzas, Canosa said. By the following year, they had been replaced with twice that number: 40,000 new slaves to work Cuba’s lands. The city, whose culture of poetry and music gave rise to the musical forms of son and rumba and the nickname “the Athens of Cuba,” rose to wealth on the sugar industry, Canosa said, “and that wealth rested mainly on the backs of the slaves.”

The Amistad will remain in port in Matanzas until its departure for Havana early Thursday morning.

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