In Cuba for Amistad‘s celebration, Mystic Seaport Shipyard Director Quentin Snediker provided this update via email yesterday:
We’ve been in Cuba for a week. Saturday through Monday in Havana, then to Matanzas to greet the vessel. Arrival in Matanzas was what we have come to refer to as our “soft landing,” that is, our arriving near or outside our final destination a day or two early in order to prepare the ship for a highly visible celebratory arrival. Here in Cuba, that was important for all our usual reasons, but it was also an opportunity to visit this historical port. Matanzas is an industrial city, once referred to as the Athens of Cuba. It is just now recovering from the economic devastation caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s principal trading partner. It has been said, with the loss of Soviet trade, the Cuban economy declined 34% in the first year. Matanzas is also important historically because it was one of the leading ports for the importation of slaves. The Dewolf family of Rhode Island held one of the leading companies in that trade. We have as a partner in this expedition a descendant of this family, Katrina Browne, who recently produced a moving documentary called Traces of the Trade which broadcasted on PBS last June. In Matanzas there is a fort built in 1693 which is now dedicated as a museum to the tragedies of slavery. It is recognized by the UN as part of the Slave Route Project. Visit www.unesco.org for more information.
The people of Matanzas welcomed the vessel with unbelievable hospitality. Each night we enjoyed a different cultural program, however, the first night remains a highpoint of our visit. In a small restored 18th-century church overlooking the city a folkloric troop of musicians and dancers performed traditional drumming and dance, highlighting the African influence on Cuban culture. By the time it was over all of us were dancing together. The next night, we joined a convention of journalists for a more formal concert featuring modern dance, a violin quartet, modern classical singing, and, of course, more African-influenced drumming and dance. The caliber of these performances was as professional as any I’ve ever seen and they were all native to the city of under 200,000 people. This dramatically illustrates the commitment to cultural ideas held by the Cuban people. Our last night in Matanzas featured a reception at the Slavery Museum and included a tour of the museum, dance and music, and a wonderful buffet.
On Thursday, March 25, the 10th anniversary of Amistad‘s launch, we departed Matanzas at 04:00 a.m. to arrive at the pilot station off Havana by 13:00 p.m. For me this was one of the most fulfilling days of my life. I mentioned earlier that it has always been part of our dream for Amistad to visit Cuba because of its historic connections. My personal interest in Cuba started much earlier. As a child, during the peak of international tensions between our nations, I became intrigued by this small island nation’s influence on international affairs. My interest was further peaked by a photo in one of my favorite picture books of ships. Robert Carse, in his book on American sail, includes a rare photo of a US flag Baltimore-style schooner sailing past El Morro, the fortress at the entrance to Havana Harbor. At the time, in the mid 1960s, I never imagined I would one day be on the deck of a vessel recreating that historic image. [Photo credit the Peabody Museum of Salem, MA.] I don’t mind admitting to all that at that moment I was moved to tears. The fulfillment of so many aspects of my life came together in that one short half mile reach. My love of history, of ships, specifically American schooners, coupled with my personal political beliefs filled me with awe, pleasure and not a small degree of pride in what we have contributed to the world in our time.
Dealing with the logistical needs of ship and crew, laundry, hot showers, provisions, crew participation at events, while maintaining public visits and programs aboard is difficult under normal conditions in an American port. Here, these issues are exacerbated by language, rigid routine, security and protocol. Maureen [Maureen Hennessey, fellow Mystic Seaport staff member in Cuba] has literally spent the last two days, Friday and Saturday, March 26 – 27, doing nothing but juggling all of these challenges; yet she is still loving the experience.
For more information on Amistad, as well as a schedule of the vessel’s 2010 port visits, please visit www.amistadamerica.org.