May/June Issue 248: La Amistad

La Amistad

La Amistad — ironically the Spanish word for friendship — was anything but that to the captured slaves forced onto the vessel in 1839.

It was that year that Amistad entered into history when it attempted to transport a group of African captives, held in Cuba, to a sugar plantation on another part of the island. There were 53 slaves — 49 adults and four children — all of whom had been abducted from Sierra Leone by the Portuguese and sold into slavery in Cuba. They were of the Mende tribe.

Amistad was 120 feet long, a topsail schooner of the Baltimore Clipper class that was not designed for Atlantic passages.

The slaves, under the leadership of Joseph Cinque (1814-1879), rebelled against the schooner’s crew, killing the captain, cook and two sailors but sparing the navigator and another in order to guide them back to Africa.

The Africans told the navigators to sail back toward the rising sun because the sun had been at their backs when they were taken. The navigator kept the sails slack so the ship wouldn’t make any eastward progress during the day and then turned around at night toward the coast of the U.S. mainland. The ship was seized off Montauk, Long Island, after 63 days.

The slaves were jailed in New Haven, Conn., on charges of murder.

The Spanish government demanded the return of the ship and the slaves. Slave importation was outlawed in the U.S. in 1808, so the defense team representing the slaves claimed that they were free persons who killed in self-defense.

The ensuing court case was an international sensation. The case was finally adjudicated in 1841 by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Schooner Amistad, a ruling made in favor of the slaves, which was a victory for the Abolitionist movement.

The defendants were represented by former president John Quincy Adams. Thirty-five of the former slaves returned to Africa in 1842, and the ship was sold in 1840. Named Ion, it sailed from Newport to Bermuda and St. Thomas with cargos of onions, apples, poultry and cheese.

In 2000, a replica of Amistad was built in Mystic, Conn., for sailing programs ( There was also a 1997 movie directed by Steven Spielberg.

Let’s join this ill-fated ship. It is April 10. Height of eye is 10 feet and the navigator is doing a noon sight. It’s unlikely that Amistad had an accurate chronometer, so meridian passage sights are the most the navigator would have done to establish latitude. The ship is at a DR of 36° 25’ N by 67° 40’ W. The navigator is doing a lower limb sight. Hs of the lower limb is 61°29’. I am calculating the exact time of noon using the 2018 Nautical Almanac. It is unlikely that the navigator aboard Amistad even had an almanac. This ship, after all, was involved in coastal work.

A. Calculate the time of meridian passage at GMT at the DR.
B. What is the Ho?
C. In this instance, since the time is on the half-hour, I am using half the d correction for my declination. I am adding that correction as the sun is moving northward. What is the latitude? (Based on the formulas Lat = 90°- Ho = ZD +/- declination)

A. Time of meridian passage is 16:31:40
B. Ho is 61° 41.3’
C. Latitude is N 36° 24.7’

By Ocean Navigator