A double dose of history hit New Haven Saturday morning when the president of Sierra Leone made his first trip to the city for the dedication of a headstone to six captives of the Amistad slave trading ship who died in New Haven in 1839.
Sierra Leone’s President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah joined Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and other local political figures at the Grove Street Cemetery for music, libations and other expressions of hope, in commemoration of the six men’s sacrifice. The headstone is intended to remind people that, as uplifting as the Amistad story was, not all of the men who came to New Haven lived to “enjoy freedom and return with their compatriots to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1841,” as its inscription reads.
Just inside the cemetery’s entrance, Alfred Marder, president of the Amistad Committee, welcomed guests with a brief speech that hit on the historical responsibilities of Americans in compensation for the “horrible legacy” of slavery and racism, stating that it was “about time we move to eliminate that cancer from our society.”
Afterwards, nearly 30 Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School students, known as The Connecticut Singers, serenaded a small audience that included, among others, Kabbah — the first African president ever to visit New Haven. The first song, “Make Us Free,” was inspired by the words of 11-year-old Kapeli, the fourth of the six Amistad captives to die.
The cemetery was chosen as a site for the headstone because at least one historical source states that the men, Fa, Tua, Weluwa, Kapeli, Yammoni and Kaba, were interred in the New Haven burying ground, which later became the Grove Street Cemetery.
Over 160 years ago, the Amistad ship became a symbol for the fight against slavery that inspired novels, poetry and a feature film.
A group of captives taken from Sierra Leone revolted on the ship La Amistad while on their way from Cuba to Connecticut. Although the they eventually won their freedom — after several months in the New Haven jail, or present day City Hall — six of them had arrived in New Haven “gravely ill from the voyage’s privations” and died shortly thereafter, according to the headstone inscription.
Clifton H. Johnson, director emeritus of the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University, recounted the immense impact the Amistad events had upon the arts. He commended the Amistad Committee of New Haven for its unceasing diligence in keeping the memory of the Amistad alive.
At the conclusion, Kabbah, who was on a tour of Connecticut this weekend, condemned the terrorist acts in New York and Washington.
“Today, we should be talking about love” and not fear, he said.
The Amistad Committee gave Kabbah several parting gifts, including a bowl made of wood from his homeland etched with the words “– cementing the historical ties between our people.”