In the fall of 1859, a schooner named Clotilda arrived in Mobile, Alabama. It carried somewhere between 110 and 160 captive Africans. Although congress had passed an act in 1807 that abolished the African slave trade, some individuals continued to smuggle slaves into the growing nation.
Captain William Foster commanded Clotilda; Foster had been hired by Timothy Meaher, a shipyard owner in Mobile. Supposedly, Meaher had bet a Northerner that he could get around the law to bring new slaves into the country. Meaher had heard that Adandozan, king of Dahomey (modern Benin) was willing to trade captives of a people at war with Dahomey for $50. Meaher sent Foster to Whydah, the nearest slave port, to purchase as many captives as possible.
The captain arrived in Whydah in May. He purchased captives, who had been taken from various Western African tribes, then set off to bring the men and women to Alabama. Despite Meaher’s confidence, the plot had been found out by federal officers before Clotilda could return.
Captain Foster decided to sail into harbor at night to attempt to get around the authorities. The ship arrived, and the Africans were offloaded into a riverboat. The Clotilda was burned. The remnants, including its hull, were lost to the water – until this week, when AL.com reporter Ben Raines stumbled across the wreckage during a low tide. The ship has not yet been conclusively identified as the Clotilda, but archaeologists feel strongly that it is the lost schooner.
After the ship had been burnt and the Africans brought to shore, most of them were dispersed amongst those who had backed the ship.
30 of the men and women were left with Meaher. Although they could not become slaves thanks to the 1807 act, they were essentially treated as chattel until the Civil War came to an end about six years later. Unfortunately, most of their stories are lost to history – with one exception.
Many of the people owned by Meaher went on to settle Africatown, near Plateau, Alabama. There, Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the Clotilda, lived and flourished. Despite his unwanted, ignominious entrance to the country, he came to respect the United States and wanted to make a space for African-Americans like himself.
He was a spokesperson for people from his tribe in Africatown and became so prominently known that both Zora Neale Hurston and Booker T. Washington came to visit him. Eight years before he died, Hurston interviewed Lewis for the Journal of Negro History. In 1935, Cudjo passed away. He was 114. His legacy, and that of his compatriots, lives on in the rediscovery of the Clotilda.
Feature image via AL.com