c 1986 by Ronald Gordon Ziegler

I. The Ship Long and low, with a hull of black, the schooner beat its weary way along the Cuban coast at night, black and starless. The moon played with the heavy veil of clouds, trying to break through the pall at midnight of July the first; drenching rain commenced to fall, moving in from the formless horizon and smothering its valiant quest. The ship pitched in the winds and sea and the fitful wind just pressed a headwind to those trimmed sails. Discomfort reigned below her decks among the crew and guests, but it was comparatively, even so, a pleasure cruise for the two wealthy planters aboard who slept uneasily, for in the hold beneath these Cubans was kept a cargo that was black gold to they who would trade in flesh -- despair and desperation reigned among the fifty-three men pressed cramped into the cargo bay and chained neck, hands, and feet in the bowels of this hell ship, one of the devil's private fleet. Four days had she been at sea, out of Havana she had crewed on a two day trek to Puerto Prince. Mutiny and murder now were brewed as nothing had gone by the book on this ship called ironically the Amistad, for friendship; she sailed the choppy seas. 2. The Slaves In the hold of this flesh ship, on this night of this storm, the slaves were engaged in a silent struggle formed in the desperation of their plight. Kidnapped but recently from the land of Sierra Leone, their home in the Mendi, they had survived the agony of the Middle Passage chained in a hold measured four feet high so that their muscles pained, for they could barely half stand and they were packed so tight that their sweat ran together. Spirited late at night through the streets of Havana, barracooned, examined, and sold -- having been checked as cattle, toes and teeth. But that told them nothing of the brutality that the Amistad had laid for them these last four days as its terrible path was made. With the daylight, they had been allowed above on the deck where one of the captives transgressed by helping himself to some water -- but the dipperful had been struck from his hand and he was lashed until his back streamed red in bloodied bands. Vinegar and gunpowder had been rubbed into the flesh, raw of the wounds inflicted upon him, before the rest. 3. A Cannibal's Fare? Apprehension filled the Africans who wondered at their fate -- shock added to their terror; savagery to the weight of the horror of their situation. The ship's cook, a mulatto, was asked through gestures they made, and in ghoulish jest, Celestino drew a hand across his throat and motioned toward his bubbling pot, giving them the understanding that all among their lot would be eaten by their captors, these strange and cruel white men, these savages from another world who had captured them. A cannibal fare prospective worked to make their hearts to burn, and locked below in the hold, dark and foreboding, they would turn to the impassioned urgings of one who emerged to lead this sorry cast from the sad lot they felt destined to, indeed. 4. Cinque He was, by any standard, a most remarkable man, possessed of a powerful build on his five foot ten inch stand; with a proud bearing and intellect befitting the son of a chief, which he was, born to lead -- before he met this grief. Yet, now in this ship's bowels, he would lead, as well, and their despair created anxious followers to rebel. Cinque need but to hold out a glowing hope. For did they want to die beneath the lash or be eaten along the way by these white men devils? When, in misery, they moaned, he urged them to break free, take the ship, and sail for home. And Cinque's exhortations whipped the slaves into frenzy; what was there they had to lose? And they knew the remedy! 5. Stirrings The long and heavy iron chain that held the neck of each together was the first barrier which they would have to breach. A padlock was all that held it fastened at the end, and they all struggled with it, and finally could bend it enough to pry it open and throw the chain aside. One by one, the other shackles were cast off. They pried open the nearby cargo hold of the Amistad and found several bales of cane knives which they quickly unbound -- square bars of steel an inch thick with blades of two feet long; razor sharp machetes with which to right the wrong. 6. Revolt On cat feet came the cargo; undetected, unbound, they slipped from the hold like seeping waters, quietly; in frenzy whipped. Their hearts were pounding mightily, and muscles strained beneath black skin, veins swelled in anticipation and their blood rushed tense within. The passengers and crew aboard had no cause to be suspect -- no premonition stirred them -- as the horde slipped above the deck as the fourth hour of the day passed on the ship which plowed through the dark and murky waters. Cloaked by the night time shroud, Cinque led his group of followers. On deck, the Captain stood -- Ramon Ferrer -- with his slave, his hand to his wheel of wood, seeking his way without the stars, hidden beyond the veil of clouds, and anxiously awaiting morning's light and a lifting of the shroud. With them out upon the deck, Antonio Gonzales, a mulatto cabin boy, went about his chores. Meanwhile, Celestino, the cook, slept in his galley; at the one end sheltered there, while two sailors, one Jacinto, and Manuel Pagilla performed their share. 7. Taking the Ship The two Cubans were sleeping aft; planter named Don "Jose" Ruiz who had purchased 49 of the slaves at Havana for at least $490 each, and Don Pedro Montez, who owned the other four slaves aboard the vessel. Cinque crept to Celestino's door, and sprung upon the sleeping cook and buried his machete deep into his cruel jesting body in thumping blows, repeatedly. The cook died without a movement, a groan, or even a cry, and the band of armed and desperate men swept aft, cane knives held high. "Throw them some bread!," the captain shouted to his cabin boy, Antonio, as the enraged wave of men was about to engulf him. The mulatto, had no chance to fulfill the order. Before the words were out, the first of the slaves was on the captain, flailing away amongst his shouts. Ferrer eluded the blow and felled the man with his blade, but then Cinque was upon him, and in one great stroke he laid his head free of his shoulders. The Captain crumpled to the deck. His death unnerved the others who saw that their prospect for survival was nonexistent. The two sailors quickly fled to aft and leaped overboard to swim ashore that their blood not be shed. 8. Pleading With the Captors Now only Ruiz and Montez were left aboard to oppose the rioters -- reaching deck, Ruiz grabbed one of those oars nearby, swinging it, as he watched the Captain fall, shouting, "No!," but quickly decided to withdraw back into his cabin, sensing the futility of struggling with the slaves. Montez, waking up when he heard the blows to Celestino, stumbled then onto the deck, grabbed a club and a knife, and swung them to inflict his mark upon the rebels. But in an instant he found himself facing Cinque. One slashing stroke came down of Cinque's powerful machete -- it tore a gash across one side of his head, and then a second ripped his arm open wide. With that, he dropped his weapon and sought refuge in the hold, eluding Cinque for a moment in the darkness. He would fold himself within an old sail. Behind two barrels he hid. Cinque was a skilled huntsman, and hunt his quarry he did. Above, Ruiz surrendered on the promise he'd be spared. And he pleaded with his captors for Montez' life. Down there, in the hold, Cinque had found him, and was striking out to kill. Barely in time, they reached him to grab his arm that it be stilled. 9. Gypsy of the Sea Thus, the mutiny was ended, but it was just a prelude to the fantastic odyssey and challenge that this brood of men, unused to sailing, would now have to endure. They knew not one rope from another; of but one thing they were sure: if they kept the sun to starboard, they could plot their journey east and eventually return home. But when storm clouds reached horizon to horizon, or nighttime veiled the sky, they had no sun to guide them. It was for this cause why, with the aid of the machete Cinque brandished in his fist, they imposed upon the man Montez to give assistance in this. He had once commanded a ship, but he duped his captors well; sailing against the sun with day, at nighttime, he would sail without their knowledge, northwest -- this zigzagged course pursued, edged them erratically toward the American mainland. Their food and water waned with the swells. Seven Africans had died, by the time late in that August, that they neared Long Island tide. 10. Free or Slave? As they sighted ships out of New York, one traded to provide provisions to keep them going -- fear spread far and wide, for stories there circulated of armed African pirates. They slipped by ships sent out for them, and on Sunday, the 25th, tied up and sent a party to buy provisions with gold doubloons found aboard. Led by one of them called Banna who knew a few English words, they were able to buy a few. Then Cinque went back to land to get water from a stream. While there, he met white men with whom he tried to communicate as to what land they were in -- Free or slave? Was it Spanish? Could one of them, Captain Green, steer them to Africa? Confused, frightened, then intrigued, the Captain weighed the proposal. They could pay him well, indeed. But the wanderings of Amistad had brought a Navy rig about to investigate its presence, and before they worked it out, it sailed into the harbor. Amistad was quickly seized. The rebels were put back in chains -- no one listened to their pleas. 11. Against the Sun Cinque had rushed back to the ship and then dived into the sea. They fished him out and shackled him. Thus ended the Amistad mutiny. The sun may have been against them, as Cinque said on that day, but, after being held captive to a nation-wide political fray, John Quincy Adams took their cause, and the former President won in 1841, their release -- this was a more friendly sun. This brood of freedom fighters now finally set free, was sent to school and then returned to Africa and their Mendi. Cinque found that his family had all be sold away into slavery in his absence. He soon took to the bush to stay. Old Mr. Adams had beaten Van Buren, who sided with Spanish claims that these were mutinous pirates, and that even without such blame, they were owned by the Spanish. Adams and the Whigs both won, as did Cinque, but all lost quickly -- it was 1841. 12. Liberty or Death! In the hold of our flesh ship, the ship of state, precariously sailed through troubled waters. Cinque was indeed free, but he had returned to nothing. The Whigs won and then lost when Tippecanoe died suddenly. Liberty's stars were crossed. Oh Liberty, what power is this that seems to fancy thee, that makes severest winter even out of thy victories? Alas, it is our own failure -- it has not been ours to give -- though it has been ours to choose -- is man morally fit to live? Prometheus, Prometheus, it is better to live free or die in the trying, than to sacrifice liberty. And we have seen tomorrow and have felt the devil's breath. Their struggle has been America's -- Give me liberty or give me death! Return to Beginning of POeTRY