What Was It Like on the Amistad?




The Amistad set off from Havana, Cuba, for Puerto Principe, Cuba, on June 28, 1839, for what appeared to be a routine voyage. Puerto Principe lay several days sailing away. In addition to Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the owners of the slaves, the ship carried Captain Ramon Ferrer, his cabin boy Antonio (a sixteen-year-old slave), two crew members, a mulatto cook named Celestino -- and of course the 53 slaves Ruiz and Montes had purchased illegally in Havana. The vessel also carried a cargo of assorted merchandise -- wines, raisins, medicines, cloth, crockery, cane knives, and so on.

The Amistad was a schooner -- narrow, maneuverable, built for coastal trade. On deck, the vessel was only about 65 feet long; these 60 people were traveling, living and working in a space roughly the size of tractor-trailer truck.

The slaves were kept in the hold. From time to time they were permitted on deck, in small groups, to escape the stagnant heat of the hold. The weather was stifling. And on the second day out the wind shifted. Now facing a longer voyage than he had anticipated, the captain cut the slaves' rations to one banana, two potatoes, and a small cup of water a day. Some of the Africans tried to drink more than their ration. Ruiz had them strung up on deck and flogged by the crew, and their wounds rubbed with gunpowder and vinegar.

Cinque was still fighting to find out what was happening to them. He approached the cook, asked in sign language, and got a horrifying response: the man gestured toward a barrel of beef, signing that the Spaniards planned to slaughter and eat the Africans.

Then came the turning point. On the third night out, Cinque found a nail on the schooner deck. Once back in the hold, he used the nail to work open the lock securing his iron collar, then turned to free his fellow captives. Above them, a storm was occupying the crew; no one on deck picked up on the activity in the hold, where the Africans were arming themselves with steel sugar cane knives from the schooner's cargo.

At 4:00 a.m., the Africans struck, bursting from the hold and quickly overpowering the captain and crew. Captain Ferrer gave some resistance, and managed to kill one of the Africans before he went down. The Africans also killed Celestino, the cook. The two other members of the crew either died in the melee or escaped overboard. Ruiz and eventually Montes were captured and brought to the quarterdeck, where the Africans ordered them to sail the vessel into direction of the rising sun -- back to Africa.

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