Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Crowds flock to Sierra Leone slave ship

There was chaos at Freetown's port in Sierra Leone when a replica of the Amistad slave ship opened to the public.

"I want to know much about its history," one man shouted in Krio as a crew member appealed for patience and calm as hundreds of people struggled to gain access.

Crowds outside the Amistad in FreetownThe replica of the 19th Century trading ship has been retracing a 14,000-mile slave trade route to mark the 200th anniversary since Britain abolished the slave trade within its empire.

It sailed into Freetown - founded as a settlement for freed slaves - over the weekend.

Freedom Schooner Amistad (Copyright Amistad America)

"We have to have some way for you to get on the boat safely. What we're doing now is building a platform so you can come up and come down on the boat," the crew member shouted to the crowds, which included children on a school outing.

The history of ship is deep-rooted in Sierra Leone's history, as in 1839 some 200 Sierra Leoneans were taken to Cuba as slaves.

Some of them were sold to Spanish slavers who loaded them on to the Amistad.

Led by Sengbeh Pieh, the slaves revolted on the ship, killing many of the crew.

They however ended up in the United States where they were imprisoned.

Their case was taken up by several abolitionists, led by former US President John Quincy Adams, which ultimately led to their freedom.

"I came to look at the Amistad revolt because I want to know more about it because I read it in school and I think I saw the film [by Steven Spielberg] two or three years ago, so I wanted to see the ship where the revolt took place," said Mbalu, who was waiting to go on board.

"I would like them to show me the place where Sengbeh Pieh was sitting or maybe lying down - yes that's the particular place I've come to see," she said.

The children were allowed on board first, and then the expectant crowds.

Access problems

But after her visit Mbalu said she was disappointed not to have been allowed access to the cabin where the slaves were kept.

Crowds in Freetown queuing to get aboard the Amistad

People know little about Pieh despite him being on a banknote

"The access is very steep you have to descend a ladder," explained William Minter, chairman of the Amistad America Board of Trustees.

"For large numbers of people of all different ages, there's only one way in and one way out so it's hard to move traffic through," he said.

When Sengbeh Pieh eventually returned to Sierra Leone in 1842, he was a hero, and his face adorns one of the country's banknotes.

But 165 years on, many Sierra Leoneans know little about the Amistad or Sengbeh Pieh - at least until this week.

BBC NEWS | Africa | Crowds flock to S Leone slave ship