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Filmmaker and Boat Builders Hew Lessons in Human Rights

Steven Spielberg and the Mystic Seaport, Conn., collaborated in their separate 'Amistad' ventures.

By now, most people are familiar with the true story behind "Amistad," Steven Spielberg's film that opened in American theaters last week. It centers on a group of abducted Africans who mutiny against the slave traders shipping them into bondage on a Spanish ship (La Amistad) in 1839. Much of this important event has been left out of history books.

But now that Mr. Spielberg and his DreamWorks studio are involved, it's almost guaranteed that the story will never again be threatened with obscurity. He hopes that by depicting both the best and worst of men's intentions in the treatment of other human beings, his picture will provide a valuable history lesson.

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These goals resemble those of the Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn., home of the nation's leading maritime museum, which owns the largest collection of boats and maritime photography in the world.

Even before the "Amistad" cameras began to roll, the Mystic Seaport was making plans to build a full-size replica of this same Spanish ship. The vessel, which is now under construction and is scheduled to be completed in two years, will be a floating classroom visiting various ports to help teach lessons of history, leadership, and the importance of human rights.

When Spielberg and the Mystic Seaport learned of each other's ventures, they worked out a unique collaboration. Some of the location filming and research for "Amistad" was done at the Mystic Seaport, located only seven miles from where the schooner La Amistad was first brought into custody by American authorities - the harbor town of New London, Conn. (It was citizens of New London who were most responsible for bringing the plight of these Africans to the attention of those who could work for their freedom.)

The Mystic Seaport's 1800s outdoor village - with historic homes, trade shops, and tall ships - was used by Spielberg and his crew to help re-create the Connecticut seaport town of New Haven in 1839 and 1840.

The plan to build a full-size replica of the 81-foot ship is an ambitious undertaking, administered by Amistad America Inc., a not-for-profit educational foundation. It will sail with both a professional and an apprentice crew and be skippered by Capt. William Pinkney - a black American with a distinguished record of sea adventures.

For the next two years, visitors to the Mystic Seaport will be able to view its construction, which Revell Carr, Mystic Seaport president and director, describes as "the transformation of wood and metal and fabric into a handsome ship that will carry this important story from port to port and give people a physical way to experience the pivotal event." When completed, the ship's home port will be New Haven, Conn.

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At the Mystic Seaport Shipyard, Quentin Snediker's team of experienced shipbuilders will also be looking for a little extra help in this rare - if not almost extinct - process of building a large wooden ship. A hundred years ago, such talent would be easy to find. But now ships are made of metal and fiberglass, which require a different set of skills.

As workers in the shipyard mill large sections of live-oak trees into planks of different sizes and shapes, Mr. Snediker has on his desk applications from skilled boat builders in Maine, Virginia, and California. Relocation to another part of the country is a price some are willing to pay to work on this unique project.

Many different types of wood will be used in the ship. Snediker describes live oak as a type most important to use when building a wooden ship. "Live oak comes in natural curves that are very much like the shape of a ship's structure," Snediker says. "It's very hard to come by and was donated to us by the state of South Carolina. We put live oak where the ship will need the strongest and most durable wood - in the frame and structure of the ship." He adds that he'll use white oak for the ship's planking and deck beams.

The museum has a network of people throughout the US that is looking for the needed materials. Some of the oak already acquired for the ship's structure is actually 125 to 200 years old, which means there is the possibility the winds blowing through that once-young oak tree were the same winds blowing the schooner La Amistad on its fateful course up the East Coast in 1839.

The strength of the oak tree itself may be an appropriate symbol for the uncommon strength of the brave Africans who survived their Amistad ordeal.

Snediker says that the Amistad project here has an important legacy that goes beyond the ship itself. "The Amistad ship we are building is a symbol of the struggle for human rights in the country and is a relevant example of where people of different backgrounds came together to achieve a common goal. Blacks and whites worked together in 1839 to achieve the right to freedom for these African captives, and that's a lesson that we can take for today."

* For further reading, take a look at 'Mutiny on the Amistad' by Howard Jones (1988, Oxford University Press). For a full review of the film, see the Monitor dated Friday, Dec. 12.

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