Pride II stands in for slaver in film Ship: Director Steven Spielberg is using the replica of a 19th-century Baltimore clipper ship to represent the Amistad.


Capt. Bob Glover stood on the dock at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut at nightfall on a cold March day and watched as director Steven Spielberg filmed Africans disembarking from the slave ship Amistad.

"It was incredibly hard to watch," he says. "It was so moving. Even though you knew it was all fake. But the way the actors portray it and the way they acted it out was so real you almost wanted to yell and scream and stop it from happening."

Glover was watching the Africans come off his ship.

Glover and Capt. Jan Miles share command of the Pride of Baltimore II. The replica of a 19th-century Baltimore clipper, it travels the world as a seagoing trade and tourism ambassador for Maryland. The Pride stands in for the Amistad in the new Spielberg movie, which is called simply "Amistad." It opens Dec. 12 at the Senator Theatre.

Like Pride II, the Amistad was a topsail schooner of the Baltimore clipper type. Baltimore clippers were sleek, fast, agile ships that established a glorious record harassing British shipping in the War of 1812. They made Baltimore the most feared privateer port during the war.

The clippers were at the cutting edge of boat-building technology in 1812. Built originally in boatyards around the Chesapeake Bay, the "sharp-built" schooner design spread across the Atlantic. They were fast, stable under a large sail area and agile sailing into the wind. They often simply out-sailed the British navy.

After the war many of the Baltimore clippers were sold off, frequently to buyers in South American and the Caribbean; many went to Havana. Some became slavers.

The Amistad may not have been built in a Baltimore or Chesapeake Bay shipyard. But Glover says the slaver "represented a very typical Baltimore clipper."

"The Pride is the only example of a Baltimore clipper of the 1812 era in existence," Glover says. For the movie, the set decorators painted out the gold stripe along the Pride's hull, added a golden eagle figurehead made of Styrofoam, altered the nameplate to Amistad, raised torn sails and frazzled lines and gussied up the deck with debris.

The revolt

The film tells the story of a shipboard rebellion of Africans bound for slavery on sugar plantations in Cuba and the subsequent legal maneuvers that ended in one of the first great civil-rights cases decided by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Led by the charismatic Joseph Cinque, the Africans seized the Amistad four days out of Havana. The ship's cook had made a bad joke that turned fatal. He told them that when they reached land they would all be eaten.

With the aid of a single nail, Cinque was able to pry loose his chains and then free 52 comrades. Armed with machetes from the cargo holds, they attacked the crew. The cook and captain were killed. Two crewmen abandoned ship. Two Spanish slave owners and the slave cabin boy were allowed to live. Ten Africans died in the uprising.

The Africans had hoped to return home by sailing east into the sun. But none were seamen. At night they left navigation to one of the Spaniards who had been a sea captain. He tried to sail back to Havana, but prevailing winds and ocean currents brought them hundreds of miles north to the U.S. coast.

"Suspicious and piratical," reported seamen who sighted the boat south of Norfolk, then again near the Delaware Bay. By the time it neared New York harbor, the Amistad had been at sea two months, growing more disheveled and bedraggled, its sails blown, its hull green and foul.

On Aug. 26, 1839, in Long Island Sound near Montauk, the Amistad was apprehended by the Washington, a U.S. revenue cutter, a kind of customs boat. The ship and the people on board were brought into New Haven, Conn.

In the movie, Mystic Seaport, a kind of shipbuilding village museum, becomes New Haven as Pride II becomes Amistad.

The Spanish slave owners were treated as victims, and they claimed the Africans as their property. The Africans were called pirates and murderers. The Africans were hauled from the ship and taken to jail.

"So they shot this," Glover says, "this sequence of the town marshals and the politicians and soldiers coming down to the wharf, presenting the warrant and stepping on board and gathering all these folks and manhandling them off the boat against their will, all chained together, men, women and kids. They actually had kids in this. It was at night, so they had their torches lit."

As the Pride's crew stood out of camera range, watching this sequence unfold, the scene took on a kind of reality for them.

"These chains go from neck to neck and then there's a trailer piece that comes down to their wrist," says Glover. "They can't move their arms. They're being shoved and pushed and they'd be falling down and choking themselves. Really, really almost choking themselves. They're yelling and screaming. It was too much to watch. It was really too much to watch.

"And you knew it was powerful because it had the same effect on everybody else on the set. You could feel the tension in the people filming it and even in Spielberg's face."

Legal wrangling

Almost immediately after the Amistad landed in 1839, legal wrangling began. The master of the Washington sued for prize money. President Martin Van Buren wooed pro-slavery Southern senators by siding with the Spanish slavers. The Africans just wanted to go home.

"Here you've got a Spanish-owned ship in American waters with a third-party nationality of these Africans being tried in a U.S. court," Glover says. "It was an incredible political battle."

Ally in Adams

The legal case had turned in part on whether the men of the Amistad had been brought illegally from Africa or had been already enslaved in Cuba. The courts ruled consistently they were free men kidnapped in Africa and transported to Cuba against U.S., international and even Spanish law.

John Quincy Adams, who had been the sixth president of the United States, argued the cause of the Africans before the Supreme Court -- in an eight-hour oration spread over two days. He was then a member of the House of Representatives and determinedly anti-slavery. Anthony Hopkins plays Adams in the movie, which is more courtroom drama than high-seas adventure.

The Amistad Africans won their freedom in what was probably the first human-rights case decided for people of color. They became among the very few Africans of the millions enslaved in the New World who were returned to their homeland.

In Spielberg's film, Joseph Cinque -- pronounced sin-KAY, a Spanish version of Singbe, his African name -- is played by Djimon Hounsou, a 33-year-old actor-model from Benin in West Africa.

The original Cinque was an imposing figure. In September 1839, the Baltimore Sun, reporting on a jail-house interview with Cinque, said that "his bearing was like another Othello."

Cinque fueled the abolitionist movement and remained a potent symbol of black power a century later to the Black Panthers and the Symbionese Liberation Army. A famous portrait, painted by Nathaniel Jocelyn in Cinque's jail cell, depicts him as noble as a Roman senator in a kind of toga with a bamboo staff.

Cinque and other Africans aboard the Amistad were almost all Mende people from Sierra Leone, where the Mende still make up the largest ethnic group. Most of the actors who play them are Africans.

Team players

Spielberg filmed for two days aboard the Pride II, then on a third day at a cove near Newport, R.I., for scenes of the revenue cutter taking the Amistad.

Tall-ship sailors sometimes have had uneasy encounters with filmmakers. The sailors often do a lot of historical research into why the ships sail the way they do.

But Spielberg was understanding and appreciative of their knowledge of what the ship could or could not do. "And he was not arrogant at all," Glover says. "He didn't have this 'I'm the mighty filmmaker, don't bother me' attitude. He understood that we were trying to be a part of his team."

The role of Amistad was split between Pride II and a ship on the West Coast named Californian. All the dockside scenes were shot on the Pride, but except for the discovery of the Amistad off Montauk, the sailing sequences were shot on the West Coast ship.

"A good sailor will recognize the difference between the two ships," Glover says. "I don't think the casual moviegoer is going to."

He and Jan Miles actually sailed the Californian together from San Francisco to Hawaii and back in 1986. The Californian was designed by Melbourne Smith, the naval architect from Annapolis who built the first Pride and a veritable fleet of traditional tall ships.

But Pride II is far more authentic as the Amistad than the Californian, which in fact might be more historically correct as the revenue cutter Washington.

A few days after the Amistad was apprehended, The Sun reported: "The schooner is of Baltimore clipper build, about 170 tons burden, 6 years old, and was called the Friendship, which being Hispaniolized, means Amistead." The Sun would later correct the spelling.


The Amistad never made the notorious middle passage from Africa to the Americas, says Quentin Snediker, a Marylander coordinating a project to build a replica of the Amistad at Mystic. It was a coasting vessel that took Africans from the slave markets in Havana to the sugar plantations where they would work, frequently to death.

In the inhuman accounting of the slave trade, an African bought in Sierra Leone for $20 was worth $450 in Havana and $1,200 if smuggled to New Orleans.

Snediker doesn't believe the Amistad was a Chesapeake-Bay-built Baltimore clipper. He says an 1839 account describes the Amistad as being built of West Indian hardwoods, with a mahogany deck and Spanish cedar sides.

"Woods not typically used in Baltimore shipyards," he says.

Pride II is nonetheless an excellent stand-in for Amistad.

"Of all the vessels that exist," Snediker says, "she's the best."

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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