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New London - The 175th anniversary of La Amistad's arrival in New London is an occasion not just to remember the extraordinary events that unfolded after that day in 1839, but also to recognize the struggles for freedom and against human slavery that still go on today.
So said speakers at a ceremony Monday on board the replica of the 19th century schooner that captive Africans took control of before being captured by a U.S. revenue cutter off Montauk, N.Y., and brought to shore in New London on Aug, 25, 1839. They were ultimately declared free by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that was one of the first victories for the anti-slavery movement in the United States. A New London grocer and abolitionist, Dwight P. Janes, was credited with bringing the cause of the captives to the attention of other abolitionists and leading the fight for their freedom.
"One in 10 (slave) ships had some sort of insurrection, but there was no one at the other end to help them," said Susan Tamulevich, director of the Custom House Museum and New London Maritime Society, the organization that organized the anniversary ceremony and raised $300 in donations to cover fees for the 79-foot schooner to dock downtown. "Dwight Janes is a true New London hero."
She noted that the original ship was docked at the Custom House for two years as the case made its way through the courts, after which it was eventually auctioned off. State Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, also made note of that fact in declaring his intention to bring the replica back to the city on a regular basis. After it was built at Mystic Seaport in 2000, the ship was homeported in New Haven until 2012 before being moved to Maine.
"I will do everything in my power to make sure it's docked here in New London," he said.
The ship arrived in the city on Saturday, and took about 60 passengers for three-hour sailing excursions in New London Harbor that afternoon and on Sunday.
Monday's ceremony, which drew about 50 people, came four days after a state-appointed receiver took control of Amistad America Inc., the owner of the replica ship that was built with a mission to tell the story of the rebellion and civil rights victory. The takeover, initiated by Attorney General George Jepsen, came after state audits of the organization showed it had defaulted on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts, lacked sufficient cash flow and exhibited weak recordkeeping.
Attorney Katherine B. Sachs, the state-appointed receiver, said the state's mission now is to "provide resources and stability to advance Amistad's mission." The ship, she said, has had some "business problems which it will move past, because theirs is an enduring mission."
The state and Amistad's board of trustees, she said, agreed to the receivership after "a lot of thinking and negotiation." The state has given the organization nearly $9 million over the years.
The ceremony began and ended with a performance by SOUND Affect, an a cappella chorus based in New Haven that raises awareness through song about social injustice here and abroad. One of the singers, Sam Taubl, said he has traveled to Haiti and met enslaved children there, so is very grateful that his group is working with Amistad to bring attention to the issue.
"It's raising awareness," he said.
Christopher "Kip" Bergstrom, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said the ship is Connecticut's official tall ship and good will ambassador because its story "represents our state's finest moment." By educating people about the events of 1839, he said, the ship can inspire "a new abolitionist movement" against human trafficking and other modern forms of slavery.
Toward the end of the ceremony, Hanifa Washington, director of Amistad America, read the names of the captives on the original ship, directing the audience to repeat each name to emphasize the individual lives involved. The ship's bell was rung 53 times for each of the captives, and once more to remind the audience "not to take our freedom for granted," Washington said.
"Fifty-three souls, that's why we are here today," she said. "It was Connecticut and its abolitionists and its ordinary people who took a stand."