Amistad sets sail to mark the end of slavery

Considering what happened to the original captain of L'Amistad, William Pinkney is a brave man. His 19th- century counterpart died a gruesome death at the hands of his cargo of African slaves, who mutinied in an attempt to get back home.

But a replica vessel piloted by the 71-year-old from Chicago set sail from the east coast of the United States this week on an altogether less controversial mission: to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

The modern-day L'Amistad's 18-month, 14,000 mile journey retraces the slave route from Europe to west Africa to America. Arguably the highlight of the trip will be when it docks in Sierra Leone, the homeland of many of the original captives.

"I'm confident I'll avoid my predecessor's fate. The only thing I'm concerned about is how to cope with the rapturous welcome we're going to get," said Capt Pinkney, who will be guiding the boat into harbour in Freetown later this year.

The story of L'Amistad, which means The Friendship in Spanish, was popularised in the 1997 film, directed by Stephen Spielberg.

Four children and 49 men were kidnapped from the west coast of Africa, forced into shackles and sold into the transatlantic slave trade in 1839. Just off Cuba, the slaves, led by a 25-year-old Mende rice farmer nicknamed Cinque, overran the schooner, killed the cook and the captain and ordered the rest of the crew to sail them back to Africa.

The geography went a little awry, however, and the slaves found themselves off Long Island, soon to be captured by a US warship, carted off to jail and charged for murder and mutiny. American abolitionists took up their cause and, after a personal intervention from the former US president John Adams, the Supreme Court eventually granted them their freedom in 1841.

A letter written by Cinque shortly after the ruling shows the liberated Africans had just one simple wish: "Some people wicked people here laugh ... They say we are like dogs without any home. But if you will send us home, you will see whether we be dogs or not. We want to see no more snow. We no say this place no good but we afraid of cold. We want to go very soon, and go to no place but Sierra Leone."

Finally in January 1842, almost three years after they were seized, the 35 who had survived made it home.

As the replica ship left New Haven this week, descendants of the Mende slaves were on the quayside to wave it off. "It was really emotional, to be honest," Donald George, who hails from Freetown, said. "My mother was descended from the Mende, and I was just welling up."

The double-masted replica boat, known as the Freedom Schooner Amistad, was built using skills common to 19th-century shipwrights, although the two Caterpillar diesel engines would not have been at their disposal.

Joining the crew on board are 10 schoolchildren who will send out live webcasts and correspond by email as the schooner makes it way around the "slave triangle".

It is due to arrive in London on 1 August and will also dock in Liverpool and Bristol, coinciding with British commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the Abolition Act passed by Parliament.

And for those taking part, the voyage is as much about the future as the past.

"It's important for us to remember that the enslaved peoples were not willing victims, that there was resistance," Capt Pinkney said. "And even now we have to be willing to fight against injustice, to step up and not lie in a dark corner."

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