Setting a new course for the Amistad

Attorney General George Jepsen should be exploring legal pathways to returning control of the Amistad to the state and placing its maintenance and operation in the hands of the Mystic Seaport, where it was built.

The state has made the case that in recent years the operation of the replica ship has been mishandled by the organization charged with its operation from the start - Amistad America. An audit conducted on behalf of the state from 2009 to 2012 determined that the organization, which lost its nonprofit status for failing to file tax returns, defaulted on tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Despite failing to file required annual audits, and though its board was not functioning, Amistad America continued to receive annual state stipends in excess of $400,000, ostensibly to drive economic development in the state, though the ship and its crew has spent little time in Connecticut. Only recently did the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy suspend the grants as the investigation continues.

Now, pushed by lawmakers, auditors are taking a look at the years 2013 and 2014 when the ship was operated by the Ocean Classroom Foundation of Maine, under an agreement with Amistad America. Ocean Classroom has had its own problems and will soon close down.

This provides the right opportunity to set a new course for Amistad. Exactly how the state might regain control we cannot say, but given what appears to be a history of unaccounted spending of state dollars, Connecticut and its attorney general, Mr. Jepsen, should have some legal advantage.

In a letter to The Day, former Congressman Rob Simmons suggests potential seizure by eminent domain. That may be a stretch, but with some legal creativity, Mr. Jepsen should be able to find a means to the desired end.

On March 25, 2000, more than 10,000 people filled the Seaport and lined the banks of the Mystic River to watch the Amistad as it was lowered into the water following two years of construction. That would seem to be the right home base for the ship.

As a replica, and not a historic vessel, the Amistad does not meet the classic mission of the Seaport, but it would enrich the experience of museum visitors. And as the Seaport showed with the recent voyage of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, it knows how to use visits to other ports to promote the museum.

On Wednesday, Stephen C. White, Seaport president, sent a clear message the museum is interested.

"Obviously the Amistad means a lot to us and the Mystic Seaport is interested in helping to the extent that we can," said Mr. White in statement issued through a spokesperson.

But the state and Amistad America need to decide what to do with the ship "before we can have any discussions," Mr. White said.

The Amistad story began in 1839 when 53 captured Africans, being transported along the coast of Cuba to the slave market, rebelled. The ship wandered up the East Coast before a revenue cutter captured it off Montauk, Long Island and brought the Africans to New London.

They were jailed in New Haven as the courts sorted out what do with them. Several trials followed. Abolitionists came to their aid and enlisted the help of former president John Quincy Adams, who represented the Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled the Africans were free and those that survived the ordeal returned to their homeland in what is now Sierra Leone in 1842.

This is the story Connecticut needs to tell. Instead the story of the Amistad replica now focuses on the abuses that can result from poor state oversight. It's a mess, but one the state should be able to clean up if it becomes enough of a priority.

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