Amistad. Spanish for “friendship.” Wikipedia explains that it’s a friendly relationship or connection. Examples of usage given on spanishdict.com are:
Nuestra Amistad ha sido fuerte y duradera—Our friendship has been strong and lasting. Or,
Hacer o trabar amistad con—to strike up a friendship with or become friends with.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?
But the word “Amistad” goes down in history not for warm, fuzzy images of best buds. La Amistad was a two-masted schooner owned by two Portuguese businessmen. It was a cargo ship used for trade but they made some adaptations to the sturdy boat. Using shackles and bars, they transformed it into a slave ship that could make some money off the trade in Cuba. Sailing out of the Havana harbor on June 28, 1839, it was loaded with 53 captives. Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez had purchased them and they were anxious to move their “cargo” to another part of the island.
The Africans had been kidnapped in Sierra Leone and were part of the Mende tribe. Though they didn’t understand the language of the crew, they knew that their best hope for freedom came while on the water . With determination one of the prisoners, a 25-year old named Sengbe—or Cinque to his captors–managed to escape from his manacles and plot an uprising. Grabbing machetes stored on the boat, they stormed the crew, killing the captain and other sailors. They kept Ruiz and Montez alive and demanded that they sail them back to Africa. The Mende knew what direction the ship should be pointed based on the position of the sun. So the men cooperated during the day, sailing east as the Africans moved about freely on the ship. But, at night while they slept , the slave traders sailed the boat north, hoping for rescue. After 63 days of zig-zagging through the Atlantic Ocean, the ship grounded near Long Island. The United States Federal government took charge of the vessel and its “property”. They charged the Africans with piracy and murder, then sent them to prison to await trial in Hartford.
La Amistad. Friendship. Really?
The Africans inadvertently landed in a favorable setting. The Abolitionist movement was in full swing on the East Coast. Local justice advocates rallied around these unexpected celebrities who sat in the New Haven City Jail. The American anti-slavery advocates paid for their defense and translation services. The Amistad cause became symbolic in our country of the evils of slavery. Meanwhile various players in the drama put dibs on them. Queen Isabella II of Spain, aged nine at the time, pressured President VanBuren to return the slaves to Spain since their sale in Cuba, a Spanish territory, determined their rightful ownership. Slavery was legal in Spain–as long as it could be proven that the prisoners sold were Spanish.
However the slave trade was illegal in the United States. Those defending the 53 individuals had to prove that they were not Spanish. If they were African or some other nationality, they were free. In addition to Montez and Ruiz, who had “bought” them and transported them in The Amistad, there were two men who had helped overtake the ship when it came into the American harbor. They had legal salvage rights, like reward money offered to those who help to apprehend criminals. Since the Africans were being tried for mutiny and murder, bringing them successfully into the U.S. justice system entitled the two rescuers to take their share of the value. It was a high visibility case with great import beyond our American borders. Cinque became the leader of the group. He was able, through a translator, to tell their harrowing tale of being kidnapped then sailed across the ocean on a deadly journey. President VanBuren favored the return of the captives to Spain. But an unlikely advocate emerged when the case was advanced to the level of the Supreme Court. Former President John Quincy Adams became involved and requested all the paperwork from the lower court rulings. He argued before the Supreme Court for more than eight hours, passionately defending their innocence. He gave Cinque a chance to talk before the judges about their terrifying abduction. The decision reached in 1841 was that the Mende citizens of Sierra Leone were Africans and had, therefore, been illegally transported and held as slaves. Thus they had been within their rights to fight against their captors for their freedom. The very public decree was that they were to be freed and returned to their homeland as soon as possible. It is a remarkable moment in the ugly history of slavery when release was granted to the captives.
Our denomination, The United Church of Christ, played a role in this justice battle for the Africans to be freed. The Congregationalists in New Haven provided them with housing, tutoring and legal aid during the trial. Once they were liberated the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Farmington offered to meet their needs. They housed and clothed them. They paid for teachers to tutor them and helped to pay for their return to their homeland. James W.C. Pennington, a Congregational Minister and fugitive slave in Brooklyn, worked to raise funds for their trip to Sierra Leone. When everyone’s claim of ownership legally dried up, it was our denomination that walked alongside of these friends to bring them home. La Amistad. Friendship. Really!
My first stop on the trip out east this summer was in New Haven where there are several places in the town that hold part of the Amistad story. We traveled to Farmington the next morning because my father’s cousin has served as the Music Director at the First Church for more than 50 years. He offered a personal tour of their historic church facility to our vanload of family members who had traveled in from the Midwest. Although the building was constructed in 1771, the congregation was formed in 1652! The early leadership of the parish was no modest list! The first pastor was the son-in-law of Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford. Noah Porter was an early minister. He is heralded as the founder of American’s first foreign missionary society. His daughter, Sarah, was the founder of the still prestigious Miss Porter’s School, situated across the street from the sanctuary. Her rather austere portrait hangs in a commons area of the church building. I get the sense that her success was due in part to a no-nonsense approach to education! She offered girls an outstanding education in an era when boys were prioritized for higher learning opportunities. Noah Porter, Jr. became the President of Yale University.
The congregation, representative of our Congregational Church roots, worked for justice in different areas of American life. It was a central stop on the Underground Railroad and opened a “Sabbath School” to teach the local Tunxis Indians about the Christian faith. When they learned that a band of controversial Africans needed help raising funds to get back to their homeland, it was only natural that they would make the sacrifices necessary to accomplish this. We drove around to various spots in the vicinity of the church that relate to the Mende presence in Farmington in the early 1840s. Noah Porter, the pastor, opened his home to one of the Mende girls, Margru. Samuel Deming provided dormitory space for some of the men on the second floor of his store. This space became a school for them later. Church women met at the Union Hall to sew clothing for their new African friends.
Most meaningful to me was the ongoing indicators of the African presence still in the First Church of Christ, Farmington. My dad’s cousin, Ed, was able to show us where the newly-freed men and women sat in one of the upper balconies. My nieces and nephews sat there to enter briefly into their world. How amazing for this congregation to have their worship space sanctified by the presence of these kidnapped Africans almost 175 years ago! In this sacred space the Mende practiced their music, led by church choral leaders. The baptismal font and communion table both are crafted with wood that comes from Sierra Leone. They have a special relationship with a ministry in that part of Africa today, rejoicing that the love of Christ unified them when other efforts worked to enslave them. The Africans raised money for their return trip by putting on concerts. Their signature piece was one I hadn’t heard of before: From Greenland’s Icy Mountain. The first verse undoubtedly spoke to them and their audiences of their unlikely journey into the Christian faith from the unimaginable starting point of being abducted:
From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand, where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand; From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain, they call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.
I can’t imagine being violently torn from my family, people and land, brutalized every step of a long journey, fought over like cattle in a lengthy court proceeding in another country in a language I don’t understand. It seems impossible that I would then worship God in a foreign church and put on concerts of Christian music to audiences that don’t look like me just to get back home! Clearly the Spirit was at work in the lives of the Amistad men and women, who were listed as cargo on the ship christened “Friendship.” These “savages” from Africa were the civil ones while their captors were the barbarians.
In 1842, one year after our Supreme Court declared them innocent of all charges and worthy of an escort to their homeland, they set sail for Sierra Leone. Just 35 had survived from the initial number of 53. Several Americans voyaged across the ocean with them as some of the first missionaries to tell of the saving power of Christ in a new land. One of the Mende young women returned to her family in Africa but later came back to America to do missionary work in our country. When God is at work, the natural order to things is inverted: the last are welcomed first and strangers become friends!
We’re still learning some basic lessons that the Amistad captives taught our American ancestors 170 years ago. No one owns another person. No one race is inferior to another or deserving of poor treatment. Abusers of power must be held accountable. You’re never done serving—even if you already retired from your term as POTUS—and you can’t just sit back on your laurels! God calls us to action. When the Spirit is at work prisoners are freed and foe becomes friend.
La Amistad. Friendship. Really.