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

By Ted Mann

Publication: TheDay.com

Published March 23. 2010 9:43AM   Updated March 24. 2010 8:13AM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
Dancers with the folkloric group "Colombia Del Puerto" perform as part of welcoming ceremonies for the Amistad at the port of Matanzas, Cuba, Monday, March 22, 2010.

Editor's Note: Reporter Ted Mann and photojournalist Sean D. Elliot are in Cuba with Amistad, the reproduction schooner built at Mystic Seaport. In 1839, the original Amistad was homeported in Cuba when it was sent to ferry kidnapped Africans bound for slavery.

Matanzas, Cuba - The black-hulled schooner Amistad was unmistakable, sailing into the deep, long harbor of this industrial port, 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.

The impending Amistad visit seems to have been virtually unknown in Cuba before this week's formal announcement to the press. Still, it has triggered deep curiosity in the country, where many residents feel deep and close personal connections to ancestors who were enslaved (Cuba did not outlaw slavery until 1883) and where even an explicitly non-political interaction with a U.S. organization like the non-profit Amistad America provokes questions about the future of Cuba's fraught relationship with the United States.

Watching the crew of the Amistad secure the ship upon arrival, Mario Marcelino Hernandez Cortina smiled and said to a reporter, "mi corazón siente contento" – my heart feels content.

The 81-year-old Hernandez is the founder of Colombia del Puerto, the troupe that was waiting patiently to perform for the Amistad crew. A native of Cardenas and a descendant of slaves himself, Hernandez said he hoped that the arrival of the American ship would mean the revival of the robust trade between the U.S. and Cuba he remembers from his early days working in the ports in Matanzas.

"What I would like to see before I die is that same kind of familiarity and relationship that I used to see 70, 80 years ago," Hernandez said, through a translator. "When I used to work in the ports and we had the vessels coming down, and the relationships with the Cuban crew and the Cuban family, I'd like to see that happening before I die, as I saw it 70 years ago."

"Yo también, señor," said Capt. William Pinkney, who served as the first captain of the Amistad upon its launch in 2000, and who accompanied former crew and builders of the ship to Cuba for the historic visit.

Hernandez also drew the attention of Katrina Brown, a descendant of the De Wolf slave-trading family of Rhode Island who produced a 2008 documentary on her ancestors' business called "Traces of the Trade."

In addition to their trade in slaves, the family expanded into agriculture, she said.

"They also bought coffee and sugar plantations," Brown said. "They were exploiting in every way that they could. It was horrible."

That bloody legacy is never far from the surface in the discussion of the Amistad and its reasons for visiting Cuba.

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 reception for the American delegation was rousing and warm, if occasionally constrained by strict security measures in the port.

But political questions and tensions, if they haven't marred the upbeat tone of the Amistad visit here, remain close to the surface. Surrounded by a crowd of local reporters from Cuban media on the pier steps away from the Amistad, Cuban historian Miguel Barnet, president of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists, said he thought the visit could prove to be "una fisura" (a crack) in the barriers between the U.S. and Cuba.

"It's a symbol of the entreaties between the two countries," he said through an interpreter. "It's also a sort of a crack in the cruel blockade which has been terribly enforced on our country for so many years."

The performance of Colombia del Puerto was a more disparate message. The group sang and played as members of the Amistad crew, reporters, girls from a local school and others watched. Women bobbed and ducked, shaking their bright skirts. Men pranced and dove chest-first to the ground, others danced with machetes and knives, pumping them in time.

Near the close of the performance, the group broke into a bilingual chorus: "Beautiful, my friend/que bonita el Amistad."

But the lyrics also praised "mi comandante," an apparent reference to Cuban President Fidel Castro, denunciations of racism and capitalism in the same breath, and invocations of revolution and the Communist Party.

The political subtext wasn't lost on Jaresiah Desrosiers, one of the students from U-Mass Boston who was snapping photos and taking in the sights of the pier Monday afternoon.

"I've always said I've wanted to be the type of person that's making history, not in statistics, and this is making history," Desrosiers said.

The visit of the Amistad, he predicted, is "our extension of friendship and soon it will be followed politically.

"The United States has to," he said. "They really have their hands tied behind their back, and whether they like it or not, it's what the people want."

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

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