Slave Ship Saga Recalled in Cuba

Patricia Grogg

Replica of The Amistad - photo:

HAVANA TIMES, Mar 24  (IPS) — A replica of the historic Cuban slave ship Amistad, which was taken over by the Africans aboard in 1839, is visiting Cuba, where academics and community leaders have begun to publicly debate the problem of racial discrimination that has not been stomped out in Cuban society.

After docking in Matanzas, a port in the region of the same name where large numbers of slaves once worked the sugar plantations, some 100 km east of Havana, the schooner will drop anchor in the capital Thursday, where it will stay through Wednesday, Mar. 31.

The 42-metre long black-hulled, two-masted schooner, built in Mystic Seaport in the eastern U.S. state of Connecticut, sailed from the Dominican Republic to Cuba Monday.

The U.S.-flagged Amistad is the official tall ship of Connecticut.

It is an almost exact replica of the Spanish merchant ship that was the scene of a revolt by 56 slaves who seized control of the vessel and demanded that the crew sail them back to Africa.

But the ship’s navigator fooled them and took them up the North American coast instead, where the Amistad and its occupants were taken into custody in New York. The slaves were then taken to Connecticut to be sold.

However, after several high-profile trials, a court found that they had been illegally imported from Africa because the U.S. Congress had banned the international slave trade in 1808. The landmark decision declared that they were free people, and 35 survivors returned to Africa in 1842.

The incident was a milestone in the abolitionist movement.

The schooner’s visit, which coincides with the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, commemorated on Mar. 25, was described by Cuban writer and ethnologist Miguel Barnet as a healthy, constructive forger of bridges of friendship – the meaning of the Spanish word Amistad – between the people of Cuba and the United States.

Platform for denouncing inequality

William Pinkney, the first captain of the reproduction Amistad, known as the Freedom Schooner, told reporters that the vessel could serve as a platform for denouncing inequality and recalling the “great feat by the brave captives” who were born free and fought for their right to freedom.

The 1997 Hollywood film “Amistad”, about the slave mutiny, directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou and Matthew McConaughey, was shown again on Cuban TV Monday night.

The schooner’s crew of 18 people will visit historic sites in Cuba linked to slavery, and will offer visits on board to the public as well as academic talks and other activities.

In Barnet’s view, the ship’s arrival in Cuba also represents a “crack” in the nearly five-decade-old U.S. embargo

The port of Havana played a key role in the slave trade in the Caribbean, as a stop-over point for slave ships, even after the importation of slaves was banned. The British parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1834, while slavery was not abolished in Cuba until 1886.

Debate continues over racism in Cuba

The Amistad Freedom Schooner made landfall in Cuba a day after the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Mar. 21, which was commemorated in this country by intellectuals and citizens concerned about the persistence of the problem of racism.

“The issue is gaining visibility, which gives us hope that progress will continue to be made,” Norberto Mesa, founder of the Cofradía de la Negritud (CONEG), a “brotherhood” or association of black people aimed at raising awareness about the problem, told IPS.

According to CONEG, racial inequality is a growing problem in Cuba, where the latest census, from 2002, indicates that of a total population of 11.18 million, 7.2 million were white, 1.13 million black, and 2.78 mixed-races, based on self-identification. However, scholars estimate that the Cuban population is actually around 60 to 70 percent black or mixed-race.

“We foment debate at the community level because we know that solutions will start to emerge, as a result of citizen participation,” Mesa added, after a day of cultural activities organized by the Casa Comunitaria (community centre) in the Havana neighborhood of La Ceiba.

During the activities that day, the Cofradía awarded its annual prize to Eric Corvalán, a Cuban filmmaker who filmed the first documentary on racial discrimination in this country, “Raza” (Race). The 2008 film helped launch the fledgling debate on racism.

“That was the message, the idea, but I am not satisfied. The debate should be at a national level,” Mesa commented.

CONEG wants a Cuban parliament commission to focus on the question of racism. It is also pushing for the issue to be included on the agenda of the next congress of the Young Communist League (UJC).

“What could divide us is precisely the failure to deal with this problem,” said Mesa, referring to the socialist government’s official stance in the 1960s, when the Cuban revolution considered the issues of racism and discrimination solved, and saw any discussion of the matter as a threat to unity and social cohesion.

Cuban writer and academic Esteban Morales said in an earlier interview with IPS that “despite the radical nature of the process that got underway in 1959, the country’s social policies failed to take skin color into account,” in spite of the fact that “the color of one’s skin in Cuba is a significant variable in social differences.

“White people came to Cuba by their own free will, as colonizers, with goals that they very often achieved. Black people were brought here by force and turned into slaves. These are very different starting points that cannot be forgotten or ignored, and that continue to have an impact today,” he added.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was brought to a close with a celebration of rumba – a drum rhythm, song and dance that originated in this country as a combination of Spain’s flamenco and the musical traditions of Africans brought over as slaves – in the Havana neighborhood of California, which is home to some 36 black families.

California was the site of the implementation of the first project by the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) “aimed at directly and openly working against racial discrimination,” said the initiative’s coordinator, Gisela Arandia. “The project includes the improvement of the living standards of the local population.”