Vassar College

History sets sail

It's not every day that a schooner from the 1800s sails up the Hudson River, especially one that was the subject of a Steven Spielberg film and the setting of an event that helped change the course of slavery in America. The Amistad docked in Poughkeepsie for two weekends in October as part of a program hosted by the Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project with substantial support from Vassar College. Amistad America travels with a replica of the famous ship, stopping to give tours and collaborate with colleges and communities to host re-enactments, music, and a slew of other events relating to its incredible history. The schooner is not only a monument to those who died in the Trans Atlantic slave trade, but also a symbol for today's racial and cultural struggles. On those two weekends in October, over 1700 visitors showed up for the half hour tour that was followed by guest lectures, storytelling, music and film.

The story of the Amistad is as astonishing as the schooner itself. In 1839, 53 Africans were kidnapped from Sierra Leone, West Africa, illegally classified as slaves and taken to Havana, Cuba where they were purchased and forced aboard La Amistad as human cargo, bound for a Cuban port nearly 300 miles away. Fighting shackles and the language barrier, they struggled to ask a crewmember for the coastal schooner's destination, to which the sarcastic Spaniard gestured that they were to be eaten. With no other option, the Africans banded together and rebelled, seizing control of the ship, in an attempt to sail back to Africa. Instead, they were captured off the coast of Long Island and taken to Connecticut where they were charged with mutiny and murder. An American abolitionist group formed the Amistad Committee, eventually persuading former president John Quincy Adams to represent the captives in the US Supreme Court trial. In a groundbreaking verdict, the men were ruled to have always been free and the committee eventually raised enough money to sail the remaining men home to Sierra Leone.

When Rebecca Edwards, Eloise Ellery professor of history, got wind of the schooner's Hudson journey, she jumped at the chance to get Vassar College on board. The project appealed to Edwards on many levels. Though Steven Spielberg's blockbuster hit, Amistad introduced the incident, Edwards felt this was the perfect opportunity to shed light on the history directly from the source. If visitors took nothing else away from the schooner's visit, she emphasized the importance of showing how the Amistad as a symbol of the struggle for freedom. The original schooner was only used to transport goods short distances between ports and "there was no record that the Amistad ever carried slaves," she said. Even more ironic is that the vessel's name translates as "friendship."

For another professor, Ismail Rashid, this story resonates on a very personal level. The professor of history and Africana studies was raised in Sierra Leone, where the Amistad remains a powerful symbol for the struggle for freedom and personal empowerment. "This story is a good example of how North America and Africa are linked," said Rashid. "It's an African story, but it's also a great American story. It has a significant impact in American legal and constitutional history as well as on the abolitionist movement in the northern United States." Rashid also explained the effect the incident had on the education of African Americans, including his own schooling. After the Supreme Court ruling, American missionaries traveled to Sierra Leone and established several educational institutions, including the Albert Academy, which Rashid attended.

"Dispelling many of the myths about the Amistad was one of our main goals," said Kristina Poznan '08, who was recruited by Edwards to work as the project's intern. A history major, Poznan worked with a group of students to plan dockside activities for the schooner's visit. They sent out mailings and worked with community volunteers to help organize the activities and book school groups to tour the schooner. "It was incredible to see how many people responded and wanted to volunteer. We even worked with the mayor," said Caren Peoples '07.

Visitors toured the schooner, which was only 129 feet long (still ten feet longer than the original Amistad) experiencing what life was like on board. They had a chance to explore the deck and cargo hold of the small vessel as it rocked in the wake of the Hudson. On shore, there were films, guest speakers, storytellers, discussion groups, music and other activities. The Vassar Antislavery Singers were five different quartets of volunteers from the College's choir and chorus who performed dockside. With the assistance of Christine Howlett, Director of Choral Activities, these students researched traditional antislavery lyrics that were set to such tunes as "My Country 'Tis of Thee." "It's as much a celebration of history as it is a somber lesson about it, so I tried to pick lyrics that reflected that," said Ted Fondak '08 who led one of the quartets. "The music and the other activities told the history in such an engaging context. And, at the same time, the Amistad was integrated with such familiar sites like the Mid-Hudson Bridge and the river. It was very moving."

This article originally appeared in What's Happening at Vassar, Winter 2007

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