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Amistad is sailing back to where its story began

Havana - Over a breakfast of melon, eggs and thick, dark Cuban coffee, Quentin Snediker, Maureen Hennessy and William Pinkney seem barely able to stand the wait for the coasting schooner Amistad and its crew to arrive in Cuba.

It is a wait older than the ship itself, says Snediker, who was the project coordinator of the design and construction of the Amistad for Mystic Seaport.

"To complete the story, we always felt the vessel had to return here," he said on Sunday morning, as he and Pinkney, who was the first in command of the ship when it launched nearly 10 years ago, prepared for a press conference at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes to announce the Amistad's impending historic visit to Cuba.

"Here" means Havana, the Cuban capital and trading center, where the African captives who would make the Amistad famous were auctioned illegally in 1839 as slaves in violation of the Spanish and English treaties banning the international slave trade, and bound for the eastern agricultural districts that made Cuba a power in the sugar and coffee trade.

Brought to Havana on a slave ship after being taken captive in Sierra Leone, the 53 men and boys were transferred to the Amistad, a modest vessel that transported goods and freight along the Cuban coastline.

In an ornate, wood-paneled room at the Museo Nacional, Cuban historian Miguel Barnet, Pinkney and Snediker took turns reviewing the subsequent twists of the Amistad story for a crowd of about 45 journalists from the Cuban national press, American TV networks and the BBC.

Despite the 1807 passage of the Wilberforce Act - whose anniversary, now the United Nations' international day of commemoration for victims of the slave trade, the Amistad will mark with its formal arrival in Havana on Thursday - Cuba's booming sugar and cattle businesses precipitated a dependence on human slavery.

It was a case of "negocios sucios," or "dirty business," Barnet said, but one into which leaders in Cuba and in its colonial patron, Spain, felt driven by necessity.

"Both the Spaniards and the Cubans needed fresh hands," he said.

The Amistad never reached its destination. The leader of the captives, known as Cinque to his Spanish-speaking handlers, led a revolt that would change not just the history of slavery in Cuba and the Spanish empire, but also in the United States.

Picking the locks of their shackles with a nail, the captives seized the ship and killed most of the crew, including Captain Ramon Ferrer, with machetes. The remaining crew members were ordered to steer the Amistad back to Africa - away from the setting sun.

But as those crew members tried to sabotage Cinque and the Africans, the Amistad zig-zagged up the east coast of the United States until it was captured off Montauk and towed into the Custom House in New London.

The captives, initially put on trial for the killings, would eventually be freed, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that since they had been taken from Africa in contravention of international treaties banning the slave trade, they could not be property.

Instead, the court ruled, Cinque and his countrymen were necessarily men, with a right to defend themselves against those who kept them captive.

The Amistad's visit resonates not just with its historical legacy; it is also, Hennessy noted, a rare opportunity for open interchange between the Cuban and U.S. nations, at a time when their respective governments remain at uneasy odds.

Hennessy, who, like Snediker, was taking time off from her work at the Mystic Seaport to meet the Amistad and its crew as they arrive in Matanzas today, said the group met over the weekend with officials from the Cuban Ministry of Culture.

The ministry plans to broadcast Steven Spielberg's 1997 film "Amistad" on one of the state-run television channels Tuesday night, in an attempt to drum up popular interest in the ship's visit.

As the press conference concluded Saturday morning, journalists descended on the Amistad representatives, particularly Pinkney, wanting to know if this combined diplomatic effort of the State Department, United Nations and Cuban officials represented a new thawing in mutual relations.

The visit comes months after the incoming Obama administration relaxed travel restrictions and other facets of the nearly 50-year U.S. embargo of Cuba, but significant tensions still persist.

Billboards on the highway into Havana from Jose Marti International Airport depict the mug shots of Cuban prisoners held in the United States - without cause, according to the Cuban government. And U.S. commentators continue to raise questions about the Cuban government's policies, including its economic system and approach to dissidents.

But the Amistad represents shared strands of history, said Barnet, the Cuban historian and writer, and the American visitors agreed.

While interviewers continually asked him variations of the question "can this be a step" toward normalization, Pinkney said, this visit transcends the political considerations that have divided the two countries.

"Now they're completing the Amistad story by coming into Havana, where it all started," he said. "Here, we have nothing to express but the solidarity of humankind."


FULL COVERAGE: Amistad: Voyage of Remembrance Special Section


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