Monday, July 02, 2007

Halifax an integral part of Amistad’s freedom tour

MARJORIE WAS standing on the foredeck of our little ship Magnus, in Hampton, Va., talking on the phone to her aunt in England. She turned around, and gasped.

"What?" asked her aunt.

"There’s a schooner gliding down the harbour," said Marjorie. "And it’s the Amistad."

She shivered. And no wonder. For anyone who saw Stephen Spielberg’s powerful 1997 film about the Amistad incident, the ship is a potent symbol indeed.

The original Amistad was a Spanish coastal schooner sailing between Havana and provincial ports in Cuba. In June 1839, she was chartered to carry 53 Mende people kidnapped from what is now Sierra Leone. The Mende had arrived in Cuba aboard the Portuguese slave ship Tecora, and had been sold to the owners of Cuban sugar plantations.

Four days out, the Mende rose up and seized control of the ship, directing the Spanish navigators to carry them back to Africa. The navigators sailed east during the days, but north and west at night. Eventually the ship reached New England, where the Africans’ cause was taken up by American abolitionists.

The Africans’ case for freedom was eventually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by former president John Quincy Adams. Although a majority of the justices were slaveholders, the court ruled in favour of the Mende, who were ultimately returned to Sierra Leone.

It was a landmark decision, recognizing that people of colour had the same rights as other people and that the courts had a duty to sustain those rights. The event has since been the subject of novels, plays, an opera — and, of course, the Spielberg film. And in 2000, a replica of the ship itself, the Freedom Schooner Amistad, was built at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut to serve as "a maritime ambassador for racial reconciliation and human rights education and to foster cooperation and unity among people of diverse backgrounds."

That ship — the one which made Marjorie shiver — is in Halifax right now.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament ending the slave trade, an enactment due largely to the tireless efforts of an indefatigable backbencher named William Wilberforce. Although the ban was enforced by the Royal Navy, the slave trade persisted, as witness the voyages of the Tecora and the Amistad more than 30 years later. But it was a dying institution, as was slavery itself.

Amistad is making an Atlantic tour, carrying a copy of the historic Act of Parliament to be signed by dignitaries all along the route. From Halifax she sails to London for the 200th anniversary of the Abolition Act, and to Liverpool for the opening of the International Slavery Museum on Aug. 23, the day designated by UNESCO as Slavery Remembrance Day.

The name is not well-chosen; slavery is far from dead. The U.S. government’s annual Trafficking in Persons report estimates that 800,000 people are "trafficked" across international borders annually. The International Labor Organization contends that 12.3 million people are trapped in "forced labor, bonded labor, forced child labor, and sexual servitude" at any given time. Other estimates run as high as 27 million.

But at least, as the Anti-Slavery Society notes, no nation today legally recognizes a claim by one person to a right of property over another. That slavery persists is appalling. The battle against racism and oppression never ends. But we have our victories, and we are right to celebrate them.

After Liverpool, Amistad will visit Bristol and Lisbon en route to the west coast of Africa. In December she’ll arrive in Sierra Leone, the original West African homeland of the Amistad captives. And here another circle closes.

Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, was founded by emigrants from Nova Scotia — Black Loyalists whose ill-treatment here had induced them to follow Lt. John Clarkson, the British naval officer tasked with finding settlers for Sierra Leone. Fifteen merchant ships from Halifax, carrying more than 1,100 settlers, dropped their anchors in Freetown in March 1792. This historic moment was painted by Clarkson’s secretary, John Beckett.

That painting now belongs to a Toronto collector named Robert G. Kearns. A copy of it hung in the Freetown City Hall for many years, but it was destroyed during Sierra Leone’s recent civil war. The Amistad will bring a replacement copy. A copy will also be given to Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis, the first black Nova Scotian to hold that office.

At 2 p.m. today, at Sackville Landing, the Amistad and her mission will be blessed by clergymen representing the Mission to Seafarers and the African Baptist churches. A traditional African libation ceremony will be performed by Donald George, a descendant of one of the leading Nova Scotian founders of Sierra Leone.

Triply blessed, the Freedom Schooner will head seaward, sailing in the service of remembrance and liberation. May all of our blessings go with her. May she sail safely with her cargo of hope.

Visit Silver Donald Cameron’s blog at sailingawayfromwinter.blogspot.com

Nova Scotia News - TheChronicleHerald.ca