THE TAKING OF THE AMISTAD
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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