Amistad draws crowds, not controversy in New London

New London — A steady stream of visitors boarded the Amistad Saturday after it opened for free tours just before 3 p.m., hearing the dramatic story of the 1839 revolt by enslaved Africans aboard the original vessel but not about the recent drama with the schooner’s finances and management.

“Right now we’re here for Sailfest and we’re not talking about those things,” said Hanifa Washington, executive director of Amistad America Inc., in response to a reporter’s question about the organization’s financial issues. “That will come at a later time.”

The ship, a replica built at Mystic Seaport in 2000, tied up at the floating dock next to City Pier at about 1:45 p.m. Saturday, after leaving its docks in New Haven at 5 a.m. The ship will reopen for free tours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today that will include remarks from Washington urging people to become involved in current efforts to stop human trafficking, which she said is the modern equivalent of slavery.

“There are 20 million people still enslaved today in various ways,” she told a group of visitors Saturday. “This ship can connect you with your abolitionist spirit.”

David Love of Bristol said he came with his wife and two daughters to Sailfest and especially to see the Amistad, after hearing news reports about the recent financial troubles and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s statement Thursday urging Amistad to honor its commitment to come to the annual city event or risk losing state funding. At Washington’s invitation, he volunteered to ring the ship’s bell 54 times — one for each of the 53 Africans originally held captive on the ship and the 54th for people enslaved today.

“It’s a heartfelt part of the African diaspora, and I thought it was necessary for my kids to see it,” Love said.

Another visitor, Roberta Schmeiske of Tolland, said the recent publicity about the ship’s financial troubles brought the ship to her attention, and she wanted to tour it to learn more about the 1839 incident. Significant portions of the historic event took place in New London and New Haven.

Washington said that after Malloy’s ultimatum, she and the crew exhausted all their abilities to make sure the ship got to New London.

“We didn’t want to disappoint him,” she said, speaking on the floating dock as the crew readied to receive visitors. “It took a Herculean effort to get here today. When I made the call Tuesday, we didn’t have the properly licensed people or crew on board and we could not legally leave the dock. We also had safety equipment that was off for servicing in preparation for the Coast Guard inspection.”

Washington said the ability to get to Sailfest was made possible by “people coming out of the woodwork” to help them. Earlier this week, she said The Day’s coverage of the financial issues was partly to blame for the decision not to come to Sailfest, and that newspaper staff would not be allowed on board. On Saturday, however, she made no objection to a Day reporter touring the ship and speaking to crew members.

J.B. Smith served as the per-diem captain to sail the Amistad from New Haven to New London Saturday morning. He had previously sailed Amistad, Washington said.

“We are excited to be here. So much work went into making this happen, we’re grateful for the hard work of our crew and everyone that pitched in to make this happen,” Washington said in a statement released by Richard Scierka, a volunteer acting as spokesman for Amistad America. “We look forward to a fantastic weekend at Sailfest.”

The ship was originally planned to dock at City Pier, but a problem with the gangplank prevented that.

When the ship first approached City Pier, a small crowd of onlookers gathered at the pier to watch the ship motor into New London harbor with its sails furled despite the steady wind.

“The ship is gorgeous,” one man said. “It’s worth coming down here just for that.”

Others referred to the ship’s financial problems and Malloy’s strongly worded statements earlier this week.

“The governor sends his regards,” one woman said.

Christopher Maleney, a deck hand on Amistad, said the ship motored all the way from New Haven because winds were “too light” for a timely sail to New London. He and other crew members said they were aware of the controversy about the ship’s finances and on-again, off-again, on-again plans for coming to Sailfest, but declined to discuss either issue.

“We’re just here today to educate people about the story of the ship,” said Lorenzo Roberts, a crew member for the past two months. “We had a great time getting here today.”

Management of the ship’s finances have been the subject of criticism and scrutiny for months, with the state Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith announcing Friday that the state is withhold payments to the ship until a state audit is completed. Amistad America has also lost its tax-exempt status for failure to file tax returns. Amistad America has received about $8 million in state funding.

Kip Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the DECD, visited the ship Saturday after it opened for tours and spoke briefly with Washington.

“I’m just checking out to see that they were here,” he said.

Barbara Neff, executive director of the Downtown New London Association, the host of Sailfest, welcomed the ship.

“We are very happy she’s here and hope everyone will celebrate her being here,” she said.

In a statement Saturday morning, Malloy said he is glad Amistad was making it to Sailfest.

“I’m very pleased that the Amistad is making the trip to New London to take part in Sailfest,” he said. “This event draws a hundred thousand residents to the city, and by being there, the Amistad reminds everyone of an important chapter of our state’s history.”

j.benson@theday.com

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