America’s Last Slave Ship, And Slavery’s Stain

Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the Clotilda, with great-granddaughters Mary and Martha, circa 1927.Credit: The McCall Library, University of South Alabama

ALABAMA (NEW YORK TIMES) -- The crime of importing enslaved people into the United States had been a federal offense for more than 50 years and was punishable by death when, on the eve of the Civil War, the Alabama businessman Timothy Meaher bragged that he could sail “a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.”

This threat reflected the Southern aristocracy’s fervent belief that it had a divine right to enslaved African labor. Meaher made good on his word in July 1860, when the schooner Clotilda — widely thought to be the last ship to bring human cargo into this country — stole into the bay after dark carrying 110 captive Africans in its filthy, disease-ridden hold.

The men, women and children were removed from the ship and concealed until many of them could be sold. But even empty, the pestilent, waste-fouled enclosure where the Africans had spent the Atlantic crossing offered clear evidence that the Clotilda had been used in a capital offense — the crime of slave trading.

Meaher planned to expunge this guilty evidence by giving the schooner a new name and refitting it. When that plan fell through, he and his confederates settled for burning the Clotilda in the waters of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, a few miles north of Mobile.

Explorers have searched for the wreckage off and on for years. Finally, last month, Ben Raines — a reporter for the website — exploited a period of abnormally low tides to search out the charred remains of a schooner whose dimensions and design match those constructed in the mid-19th century, when the Clotilda was built.

The wreckage — yet to be excavated and formally verified — has galvanized historians and reawakened the pain of enslavement among African-American descendants of the Clotilda captives, some of whom still live in what is called Africatown, a community not far from downtown Mobile that was founded by their forebears. This sudden rush of emotion underscores yet again the continuing impact of slavery on contemporary American life.

To find the wreckage, Mr. Raines relied partly on new information gleaned from a local man who had seen it as a child, but also acknowledges a debt to the historian Sylviane Diouf, whose book “Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America” offered clues as to the whereabouts of the wreckage as it documented the lives of the Clotilda Africans during enslavement and after Emancipation.

The Clotilda captives had come from an area in West Africa where enslaved people could rise to influential positions in society once they became free. That experience would have left them utterly unprepared for a life in which slave status was inherited, based on ethnicity and punishingly cruel.

The captives clung to African identities in the face of a system that was intended to erase them. They became a force to be reckoned with in plantation life by remaining united and showing that they would use violence to protect themselves. In one particularly vivid instance, they pounced on an overseer who tried to whip an African woman, lashing him instead, bringing such predations to an end.

After Emancipation, the Clotilda Africans wanted more than anything to return home. But once they realized that they would probably live out their days in the United States, they took the brave step of petitioning Meaher for land, arguing that he owed them compensation for the free labor they had provided during bondage. Not surprisingly, Meaher refused. But the fact that the Africans pursued redress at all is remarkable, given that black men and women in the 19th century could be killed for even talking back to whites.

Denied passage home, the Clotilda captives recreated Africa adjacent to the delta, scrimping and saving to buy property in the community they proudly named “African Town.” This refuge — from both white and black Americans — made it easier for them to embrace the West African culture and African languages that families continued to speak into 20th century.

As they related the story of their captivity to their children, the Africans would no doubt have pointed to the charred hull of the Clotilda; it remained visible at low tide for several decades until the parts of the ship exposed to weather rotted away.

If the newly discovered wreck is indeed America’s last slave ship, artifacts from the site could well open a window onto horrors the captives suffered during the crossing. But even in the absence of new information, the intense emotion that has welled up around this story underscores the extent to which the United States is still haunted by its original sin.