Amistad Exhibit at Sterling Memorial Library Commemorates Inauguration of New Haven as Ship's Home Port

The schooner Amistad, a replica built in Mystic Seaport of the original ship involved in the Amistad incident, is set to arrive in New Haven harbor on Saturday, where it will drop anchor making the city its home port between educational cruises to other ports of call.

Judith Ann Schiff, Sterling Memorial Library’s chief research archivist, said that in connection with the inauguration of the ship’s berthing at its home port, original letters, documents and drawings of those who had been involved in the Amistad incident will be on view in an exhibit titled The Amistad Affair in Sterling Memorial Library, 120 High St. The exhibit in the main nave is free and open to the public during library hours.

In May of this year, Yale University and Yale Divinity School donated $25,000 toward operation of the newly-built replica of the original ship, which will operate as an ambassador for human rights and a floating classroom teaching the lessons of the Amistad incident.

“From 1839 to 1841, New Haven was the focal point of the Amistad Affair, a milestone in the long struggle to end slavery in the United States,” Schiff wrote in her article for the November 1999 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

“Amistad,” a 1997 Steven Spielberg movie, told the tale of 53 people from the Mende tribe of Sierra Leone, who had been seized in 1839 in Africa as slaves, and were being taken from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba aboard La Amistad. During the night, the slaves, led by Sengbe Pieh (also known as Joseph Cinque), mutinied, killing the captain and the cook, but permitting others to escape in a small boat.

Samuel H. Pieh, great grandson of Sengbe Pieh, played the eldest of the captives in Spielberg’s movie and was a language coach for other actors.

The captives 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 Mende 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.

Yale students, faculty and alumni joined with local abolitionists and others around the country to help the 53 Mende who were jailed in New Haven on charges of piracy and murder. The Rev. Joshua Leavitt (Class of 1814), an anti-slavery activist, arranged for the prisoners to be defended in court by attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin (Class of 1811). Baldwin went on to become governor of Connecticut and later, a U.S. senator. Josiah Willard Gibbs Sr. (Class of 1809), a professor of Hebrew and philology, studied the captives’ language and then searched the wharves of New York City until he found a sailor who could translate from Mende to English. A group of Yale divinity students, with their instructor, George Edward Day (Class of 1833), taught the Amistad captives English, Christianity and practical skills.

“You tell our judges let us free,” wrote rebel leader Sengbe Pieh in halting English to defense attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin on Feb. 9, 1841. The original of that letter is on display at Sterling Library. The Mende were acquitted, first in the Connecticut courts and, later, defended by former President John Quincy Adams in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of the Amistad has this moment been delivered by Judge Story. The Captives are free,” says another letter in the Sterling Memorial Library exhibition. This one was dashed off at noon on March 9, 1841, to let Baldwin know the outcome of the Washington trial. The letter is signed, “Yours in great haste and great joy, J. Q. Adams.”

While money was being raised to send the Mende home, they stayed in Farmington, where they continued to study with Yale students and faculty. The 35 survivors finally set sail on November 27, 1841, accompanied by five missionaries, and arrived in Sierra Leone in January. Some of the Mende who died in the U.S. are believed by some to be buried in the Grove Street Cemetery, Schiff said.

“Among millions of slaves,” wrote Schiff, “they became some of the few who were able to return home, thanks to their own courage, a quirk of fate, and the aid of those at Yale and in New Haven who were committed to ending slavery.”

A statue commemorating the Amistad stands in the north courtyard in front of New Haven’s city hall.

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