Update: The Alabama Historical Commission concluded that the ship found does not match the measurements of the Clotilda. Read below to learn about the history and continued search for the last American slave ship.
A few weeks ago, environmental reporter Ben Raines of Alabama made a discovery that many reporters and historians dream of. For years, Raines had been studying the disappearance of America’s last known slave ship, the Clotilda. Thanks to a recent storm, he thinks he might have found it.
While I was living in Alabama and reading about the state's coastal history, the story of the Clotilda made an impression on me. When historians or locals reference the Clotilda, it’s not mentioned proudly. On the contrary, the ship is typically referred to as an example of the continual defiance of wealthy southern plantation owners – not only regarding slavery, but also federal and international law.
Almost from the nation's beginning, the South’s growing reliance on slavery was in direct conflict with the new “revolutionary” ideals of liberty and human equality. While many of the Founding Fathers were not abolitionists, they were overwhelmingly anti-slavery. John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson began anti-slavery campaigns as early as the mid-1700s, and eventually President Jefferson would succeed in outlawing the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808. In a speech, he explained their hope that the law would stave off the slave industry and eventually result in its elimination – and he also acknowledged his fears if it failed to do so:
“It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly […] If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect.”
Rather than take these concerns seriously, some plantation owners welcomed the challenge. Even decades after Jefferson's outlaw of slave importation, slave smuggling continued in small numbers. Around 1860, well-known plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could successfully smuggle an entire ship of slaves past the federal guards and into Mobile Bay, AL. To do so, Meaher retrofitted an 85-foot cargo ship used for carrying timber and hired Captain William Foster to take it to West Africa, where he exchanged $9000 of gold for African tribal war prisoners. Once the ship returned to Alabama, the surviving 110 slaves were delivered to various plantations and the ship was steered to a secluded spot and burned to destroy the evidence.
For more than 150 years, there has been wide speculation as to the location of the remains of the burned Clotilda. Reporter Ben Raines collected numerous written and oral stories about the ship, including the captain’s records, but it wasn’t until this winter that a “bomb cyclone” caused water levels to drop 2.5 feet and gave him a rare opportunity to hunt for it.
"It was actually breathtaking and I thought, 'This might be it!'" he said.
He described his initial view of the site: "With the tides more than 2 feet lower than normal, I saw this big sort of dinosaur backbone almost, arcing up out of the mud along the shoreline." (NPR)
Though he’s not certain, Raines is working with other experts to find any evidence that would rule out the ship. However, so far they’ve found only similarities, including the burnt and charred framework:
“Like the infamous slave ship, this one also had two masts. ‘Then you look at how the ship was rigged with iron fasteners that are commonly found in lumber trade schooners and that's another connection, marine archeologist Greg Cook said. Additionally, ‘based on what we know of the width or the beam of the ship, it's spot-on with the measurements that we had.’"
The Clotilda has continued to gain historical significance to this day, as descendants of the Clotilda Africans have maintained their small settlement outside of Mobile. They are the only African Americans in history who are able to trace their slave ancestry back to the exact ship and tribe.
Since the Clotilda Africans were smuggled into America, they were never registered or considered “legal” slaves. So, when the Civil War occurred only a year after their arrival, the Clotilda Africans volunteered to be deported back to Africa. Both the local government and Meaher refused. In response, the Clotilda Africans then began saving money in an effort to pay for passage back to Africa. Once they realized that they could not save enough money to afford the trip, they asked Meaher to sell them some land to establish their own community. Meaher sold them land on the delta just north of Mobile and on the west bank of the Mobile River. They called their community Africatown.
In Africatown, they chose their own leaders and adopted community rules that were similar to those of their African tribes. They maintained their language into the 1950s, as well as keeping many cultural traditions. Over the past century, their population has fluctuated, but an estimated 100 of the inhabitants are directly descended from the Clotilda.
The last survivor of the original Clotilda Africans was Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, who lived until 1935. This also made him the last living slave brought directly from Africa. Cudjo died around the age of 94 years old. He is pictured below with his great-granddaughters, twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923.
Cudjo Lewis was born Oluale Kossola in the modern West African country of Benin. He was a member of the Yoruba people, more specifically a sub-group called the Isha. Kossola was born into a modest family and at the age of 14, he began training as a soldier and learned how to track, hunt, camp, shoot arrows, throw spears, and defend his town, which was surrounded by four tall walls. The teenager was also inducted into the oro, a Yoruba male society whose role was to police the community. At age 19, Kossola fell in love with a girl he met at the market, and at his father's urging underwent initiation that enabled young men and women to get married. However, in the midst of Kossola's teenage training his town was attacked by the Ghezo, the King of Dahomey (a neighboring warrior tribe). Dahomey is well-known for their highly skilled, all-female military unit known as the Amazons.
Many of Kossola's tribe were killed and the rest of the townspeople were taken prisoner. Kossola and his companions were held for three weeks in a slave pen before being sold to the captain of the Clotilda. During his 45 days on the ship, Kossola remembers suffering from terrible thirst and the embarrassment of being forced to travel naked.
Once in Mobile, Timothy Meaher could not pronounce Kossola and instead called him Cudjo. Cudjo worked in a steamship and lived in the bottom of Meaher’s house. As such, Cudjo later served as Africatown’s spokesman when dealing with Meaher.
Cudjo outlived his wife and all their children. It wasn’t until Alabama-born author Zora Neale Hurston filmed him in 1930 that the Africatown settlement became known for its individuality. From this, Cudjo is also the only known African deported through the slave trade whose moving image exists.
The work songs in this video: "Wake Up Jacob," "Tampa," "Mule on the Mountain," and "Halimuhfack." The film footage shows children’s games (1928), logging (1928), and a baptism (1929). The film appears to be from her work as a student of anthropology under the tutelage of prominent anthropologist, Dr. Franz Boas. A graduate of Barnard College and a Guggenheim fellow, Hurston traveled to back to the South to capture a variety of short takes of African-American life at that time. The films emphasize folklore and traditions, with a belief that “…cultural performance and beliefs must be expeditiously collected and documented because they would soon be gone forever.”
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!