Yale Gives $25,000 to Amistad America

To ensure a successful maiden voyage this summer for the freedom schooner Amistad, Yale University and Yale Divinity School recently donated $25,000 toward operation of the newly-built replica of the original ship.

The Amistad will operate as an ambassador for human rights and a floating classroom teaching the lessons of the Amistad incident of 1839.

The Amistad story, made into a 1997 movie by director Steven Spielberg, told the tale of fifty-three people from the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone, who had been seized in Africa as slaves, and were being taken from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba aboard the ship “La Amistad.” During the night, the slaves, led by Singbe Pieh (also known as Joseph Cinque), mutinied, killing the captain and the cook, but permitting others to escape in a small boat.

They ordered the remaining Cubans to pilot the ship to Africa, but the Cubans deceived the Mende, changing course and direction at night from east to northwest. After 63 days, the Africans landed on the shore of Long Island to get water and supplies, where they were arrested by U.S. authorities. They were held captive in the New Haven jail while their case was brought to trial. Former President John Quincy Adams, who was a U.S. Congressman at the time of the Amistad, successfully defended and helped free the slaves. All 35 survivors returned to Africa.

The project to recreate the Amistad, which in Spanish means “friendship,” brought people together from a broad range of backgrounds to embrace the American ideals of perseverance, justice and equality.

Yale played a significant role in and made numerous contributions to the outcome of the Amistad incident. Joshua Leavitt, a Yale Divinity School graduate and law student, was an abolitionist and an original member of the Amistad Committee that raised money for the legal defense of the captives from Sierra Leone who were being held in slavery aboard the ship. He was also editor of the Emancipator, a publication of that era.

Josiah Willard Gibbs, a professor of sacred literature at Yale Divinity School, talked with Cinque and learned some of the Mende language. He found two interpreters for the Mende and also gave testimony on behalf of the defense. Lewis Tappan, a leading abolitionist, hired Yale divinity students to provide religious instruction for the captives.

A statue commemorating the incident stands in the northern courtyard of New Haven’s city hall.

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