clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Sea voyage pays homage to slaves
American sailor traces route taken by his ancestors

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Bill Pinkney's ancestors came to the Americas as human cargo, chained in a sweltering ship's hold.

This week, the retired businessman and adventurer wound up a cathartic six-month odyssey, retracing their passage at the helm of an 85-foot yacht.With children from more than 1,000 classrooms in the United States following his progress via the Internet, Pinkney hoped to deepen appreciation of the slaves' suffering and their largely unsung role in the New World's progress.

The trek was a lifetime goal for the self-described former "bum." He once worked as a limbo dancer in Puerto Rico before joining the Navy and moving on to a successful marketing career that allowed him to retire at 50.

"If you have a dream, prepare for it with education, then act! In that there is power, spirit and magic," the exhausted Pinkney said Wednesday, a day after returning to San Juan, his point of origin at the hub of the Caribbean islands that were the destination of more than half the slaves taken by Spanish, British, Danish and Dutch colonizers.

From the 1400s until the 1800s, millions of Africans were kidnapped from West Africa and put on ships that carried them to Europe, Central and South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Many died in slave camps before leaving Africa and in the overcrowded ship holds. Roughly 10 million survived to become slaves.

"Without African slaves there would be no North America or South America as we know it today, because the economic impetus developed by slaves, the sale of slaves, the work of slaves and the fortunes that were amassed thereof were the fuel that allowed the industrial revolution," Pinkney said.

To encourage donations for his most recent adventure, the third-generation Chicagoan sailed alone around the world from 1990 to 1992, the first black American to do so.

On that trip, Pinkney promoted his pet goal of quality education by using a satellite phone, computer downlinks and videotapes to give science, geography and social studies lessons to 30,000 participating students.

During this journey, with the advantage of the Internet and accompanied by alternating fellow travelers, including teachers, he focused on the links between Africa and the Americas.

Pinkney and his crew left Jan. 24 and sailed to Brazil, the largest slave importer, and then Ghana and Senegal, the points of embarkation for many on forced voyages.

When rough seas damaged the sails, students at Highland Middle School, in Chicago's affluent, mainly white Libertyville suburb raised $303 at a "bake sail" and sent a message saying they wanted to give something back because they had gained so much from following the journey.

Pinkney's voyage was highlighted on the Web site