In Cuban port, a living lesson in history

Buy Photo Sean D. Elliot/The Day Amistad deckhand Staci Detwiler, right, answers questions from students from the Escuela Vocacional de Arte Alfonso Perez after the Amistad docked in the Cuban port city of Matanzas on Tuesday.

Matanzas, Cuba - Under a hot, late-morning sun, Staci Detwiler sat on a bulkhead of the schooner Amistad, surrounded by children in the maroon uniforms of the Escuela Vocacional de Arte Alfonso Perez.

The schooner rocked against the huge black bumpers of the industrial pier, and when one of the children began to turn slightly green, Detwiler, a deckhand who has worked on the Amistad for 10 months, offered to continue the lesson on land.

"It's OK," said Alejandro Morales Leon, the general director of the school, through a translator, mimicking the rocking of the boat. "She can dance the reggaeton, so she's used to it."

For the sailors who have brought the Amistad to Cuba, Tuesday morning's visit of school children to the vessel was affirming, Detwiler told the group. Her guests agreed.

"You are making us believe history," Morales said. "It's a great place for us to look at where the slaves used to be."

When Amistad returns to the United States, Morales asked that the crew convey "a message to the American people of friendship and solidarity."

"These kinds of cultural exchanges - the way we are doing it now in Matanzas - these contacts have been stronger lately, and part of it is what you're doing," Morales said.

"That," Detwiler said, "is why we're here."

As they spoke, students aged 8 to 14 stared at Detwiler, ran their hands along the lines of the Amistad's complex rigging and shifted with the rocking of the ship. Back aft, where Carlos Canario was leading a tour for older students from the school, the children broke into song.

Later in the day, an Amistad crew member who has been shooting his own documentary footage of the voyage reported an even more serendipitous meeting: A member of a small Afro-Cuban group that toured the ship said he was an ancestor of one of the 53 West African captives who rose up and captured the Amistad's namesake in waters not far from Matanzas in 1839, triggering a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that freed the men from captivity in 1841.

An uncertain visit

These moments may have been why they're here, but the Amistad's arrival in Cuba - through the logistical challenges of a Caribbean voyage and the diplomatic bows and feints of U.S.-Cuba relations - never seemed like a sure thing.

"I didn't believe we were actually coming until I put my feet on the soil," Detwiler said.

Focus, as always, has been on the tense politics of an American institution's visit here, despite the U.S. economic embargo. To make the trip, Amistad America, the nonprofit that operates the schooner, needed clearance from the U.S. State Department to avoid stiff penalties on vessels making stops at the island, and further clearance from Cuban officials. Other challenges were of the more basic, logistical variety, including delays in obtaining promised funding from government sponsors of the vessel, including the state of Connecticut.

Morales, the school director, said he wished he could have used photographs of the ship in future lessons about the Amistad incident and the history of slavery in Cuba, the Caribbean and the Americas, but that government officials had forbade them to bring cameras aboard. As the children waited aboard, a half-dozen customs and port security officials watched the visit and checked the names of visitors as they came on and off the vessel.

Cultural excursions

The pressure eased somewhat on Tuesday under a blazing sun in Matanzas. Crew members wandered the streets and shops around Parque de la Libertad in the center of this city of about 200,000, sampling ice cream and, in a couple of instances, locally made cigars. Others from the American delegation that helped greet the ship toured the Museo de la Ruta de los Esclavos (the Museum of the Slave Route), which now sits inside the colonial Castle of San Severino, tucked in among the oil drums, cranes and train tracks of the Matanzas port, steps away from where the Amistad is now docked.

Later in the afternoon, crew and students from the University of Massachusetts at Boston took a chartered bus to the outskirts of the city, up the Rio Canimar, to La Dionisia, where tourists can wander the grounds of a former coffee plantation that once enslaved roughly 200 Africans.

A guide, Fernando Chacon, walked the group through the ruins of a three-room stone building where coffee beans were once separated by grade - the largest being the most sought after. Competing tourist groups cooed at a quiet, unimpressed pony hitched to a replica of a horse-powered mill. The Amistad crew, UMass students and a reporter laughed in amazement as Chacon poured a small tin of water down the stone mouth of a well to demonstrate its 57-meter depth. Tour groups competed for space at a small leaf-thatched hut that sold small tazas of freshly made Cuban coffee, cerveza Bucanero and tall mojitos.

But other attractions quieted the groups. When Chacon held up a neck shackle and chain that was unearthed on the grounds, then demonstrated its use by closing it around his neck, crew members grimaced. Around the next building stood the stone ruins of a building in which the plantation's owners forcibly bred female slaves with a small number of male captives selected for size and strength.

Living on an island

Afterward, local reporters once again crowded around Quentin Snediker of the Mystic Seaport Museum, who served as project coordinator for the design and construction of the Amistad starting in 1998. Interest is growing in the ship's visit here, especially after Monday night's broadcast of "Amistad," the 1997 Steven Spielberg film dramatizing the captives' revolt and their subsequent Supreme Court victory. (While officials from the Ministry of Culture had originally told American visitors the movie would be shown on Tuesday night, that night would have conflicted with a concert by the Puerto Rican reggaeton group Calle 13 in Havana, which tourist guides here say could draw more than 200,000 people, it was unclear if that was the reason for the programming change.)

The film's version of the historical record is "abbreviated," Snediker advised the reporters, but its rendering of the contemporaneous attitudes about race and slavery "does give modern people a very good sense" of the late 1830s and early 1840s in Cuba and the United States.

Back on the boat, Detwiler's student charges eventually grew bolder, and hands shot up to ask questions. Did she ever go up to the top of the forward mast, which towered over the group?

"All the time," Detwiler told them through a translator, a remark at which several of the girls closest to her first gaped in astonishment, then looked back up at the topsail furled along the yard, far above the deck.

"You do things on the boat that you never thought you were capable of doing," she told them. "You can be scared, but you don't have a choice. You have to do it."

How does it feel to be surrounded by water, a small boy with a deeply solemn expression asked as he ran his hand along one of the lines that tighten the stays on the schooner's aft mast.

"It's beautiful," Detwiler said, and the translator repeated. The boat makes its own water, carries its own food, houses bathrooms and a kitchen and places to sleep.

It is, they told the children, a little bit like living on an island.

The Amistad sails to Havana on Thursday.

t.mann@theday.com

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