WASHINGTON — It will be the rarest of sights: a black-hulled, two-masted replica of a slave-carrying schooner slipping into Havana's harbor flying two flags — those of the United States and Cuba.
That's how it is for the Amistad, a symbol of both a dark 19th-century past and modern public diplomacy.
The Amistad is the 10-year-old official tall ship of the state of Connecticut and a replica of the Cuban coastal trader that sailed from Havana in 1839 with a cargo of African captives, only to become an emblem of the abolitionist movement.
As a U.S.-flagged ship, the Amistad's 10-day, two-city tour of Cuba provides a counterpoint to new and lingering tensions between Washington and Havana and stands out as a high-profile exception to the 48-year-old U.S. embargo of the Caribbean island.
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For the Amistad, Cuba also represents a final link as it retraces the old Atlantic slave trade triangle, making port calls that are not only reminders of the stain of slavery but also celebrations of the shared cultural legacies of an otherwise sorry past.
When it drops anchor in Havana's harbor on March 25, the Amistad will commemorate the day in 1807 when the British Parliament first outlawed the slave trade.
The powerful image of a vessel displaying home and host flags docking in Cuba is not lost on Gregory Belanger, the CEO and president of Amistad America Inc., the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the ship.
"We're completely aware of all of the issues currently surrounding the U.S. and Cuba," he said. "But we approach this from the point of view that we have this unique history that both societies are connected by. It gives us an opportunity to transcend contemporary issues."
U.S.-flagged ships have docked in Havana before, but none as prominently as the Amistad.
The original Amistad's story, the subject of a 1997 Steven Spielberg movie, began after it set sail from Havana in 1839. Its African captives rebelled, taking over the ship and sending it on a zigzag course up the U.S. coast until it was finally seized off the coast of Long Island. The captured Africans became an international cause for abolitionists; their fate was finally decided in 1841 when John Quincy Adams argued their case before the Supreme Court, which granted them their freedom.
The new Amistad has crossed the Atlantic and wended its way through the Caribbean since 2007.