The Schooner Armistad: A Story of Survival

By Carol McCracken

It had been a beautiful weekend the likes of which we hadn’t seen since early July. The history laden Amistad schooner was docked at Portland Yacht Services – open for tours and 2 – hour sailing trips out into Casco Bay. The odds for a pefect evening sail before this schooner left town were just too great not to take advantage of – so I climbed aboard with the other seven passengers Sunday evening – one of whom was Hill resident Kathleen Bailey, owner of Finishing Touches.

Captain John welcomed us aboard this replica of a cargo ship which inadvertently and briefly became a slave ship in the mid 1800’s. This replica was built in Mystic, Connecticut where it was launched in 2000. According to the Captain, as the crew of 13 young people raised and set the sails heading out of Portland Harbor, the schooner took two years to build because the investors wanted the story of the Amistad to be told to school groups from all over the State of Connecticut. Normally it could have been built in a year.

When the sails were set and the schooner was moving at about 4 ½ knots, one freed-up crew member Brynna Scherloum, said that the Amistad was slowly sailing its way back to port in Mystic after having just completed a 14,000 mile trip in the Atlantic – it began in Nova Scotia and had just ended there. She will spend the winter in port for maintenance.

In 1839, three hundred “free Africans” were taken from the west coast, Sierra Leone, and put aboard a slave ship – the Tacora – to be taken to what is now called Cuba. In Havana, the Tacora sold 53 of them to two men Ruiz and Monteg who intended to transport them to their plantation on the other side of Cuba. To do this, the 53 were placed aboard the Armistad; the Armistad was a cargo ship – one of thousands of inter-coastal cargo ships that moved cargo among the islands. The Captain of the ship did not liking using his ship in this manner for which she was ill equipped and had never been used. Not surprisingly, there was an incident aboard causing a mutiny. Eventually, the Armisted found its way to Connecticut where the 53 were jailed. Trials began.

In time, the case wound up in the United States Supreme Court. The 53 were released – it’s considered to have been the first human rights case in our history. Thirty-six survivors of the 53 returned home to Sierra Leone.

The Armistad normally has a minimum number of passengers it requires to run a two – hour cruise in Portland Harbor. One passenger, Steve from Auburn, arrived at the Armistad just before departure time without his check book. In order to meet the minimum number required for the cruise, Steve sailed with the understanding he’d put a check in the mail to the Captain upon his return to Auburn. “ I’m a New Englander myself and I know we live by a strict honor code, so I’m not worried,” the Captain said, grinning at the conclusion of a beautiful Maine weekend.