Minister Presents Wilberforce Slave Trade Act To Amistad Schooner

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 21 June 2007
a colour photograph of a sailing ship on a blue sea

Amistad under sail

Culture Minister David Lammy MP bid bon voyage to the Freedom Schooner Amistad on June 21 2007 as it embarked on a historic 16-month transatlantic voyage to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom and next year in the United States.

Mr Lammy was in New Haven, Connecticut, USA to present and sign a copy of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 to the Amistad’s crew, which includes five UK students from the former slave ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol. The act, championed by anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, will be signed by supporters at each of the ports it visits on its Atlantic Freedom Tour.

“In this Bicentenary year, I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to represent the British Government in New Haven and present a copy of our 1807 Abolition Act as the Amistad sets off on its epic voyage across the Atlantic,” said Mr Lammy.

“I hope its message of freedom, equality and human rights will enthuse and engage people of all ages and background at all 18 points of its tour.”

detail of a photo of a scroll of parchment with the words 'an act' written on it

The 1807 Act, written on parchment and well preserved after all these years. © Parliamentary Archives

The recreated schooner is a copy of a historic vessel that was at the centre of a remarkable story. In 1839, 53 Africans were kidnapped from West Africa and sold into the transatlantic slave trade. Shackled aboard the Portuguese slave vessel Tecora, the 49 men and four children were brought to Havana, Cuba, where they were fraudulently classified as native, Cuban-born slaves.

Purchased illegally by Spanish planters Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, they were transferred to the schooner Amistad for transport to another part of the island. Three days into the journey, led by a 25-year-old Mende rice farmer named Sengbe Pieh, or 'Cinque' to his Spanish captors, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa.

After 63 days, La Amistad and her 'cargo' were seized as salvage by the USS Washington near Montauk Point, Long Island, and towed to New London harbour. The Africans were held in a New Haven jail on charges of murder. The case took on historic proportions when former President John Quincy Adams successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the captives. In 1841, the 35 surviving Africans were returned to Africa.

The international voyage of the recreated ship will retrace the infamous slave industry triangle with stops at more than a dozen Atlantic ports that played a significant role in the trade and reflect today’s social, political and cultural character. Ports of call include Halifax, Nova Scotia; London, Liverpool and Bristol; Lisbon and Madeira, Portugal; the Canary Islands; Dakar, Senegal; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Praia, Cape Verde; Barbados; Puerto Rico, Bermuda and the east coast of the United States.

a colour photograph of five young people wearing amistad sweatshirts

The UK students who are now on-board the ship, (L-R) Michael Simon, Nadia Waithe, Saphra Ross, Chantelle Wright, Imogen Ashfield

It is due to arrive in London on August 1 to be moored at the West India Quay, close to the Museum in Docklands which will unveil a new gallery called London, Sugar and Slavery in the Autumn exposing the forgotten extent to which London profited from the transatlantic slave trade.

The Schooner will also visit the former slave port Bristol, home of the Empire and Commonwealth Museum and the Albert Dock in Liverpool where it will take an important role in the opening ceremony of the new International Slavery Museum.

The galleries of the new museum will open on Slavery Remembrance Day 2007 (23 August) a day that commemorates an uprising of the enslaved Africans on the island of St Domingo (modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1791.

"I look forward to greeting the Amistad when it arrives in London in August,” added Mr Lammy, “where it will be moored just two miles from the Cutty Sark, one of our nation’s most beloved historic ships and which was damaged last month. The significance of both ships, the stories they tell and what we can learn from them, should not be underestimated."

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