Reporter Might Have Discovered Wreck of Last-Known American Slave Ship

By Jason Daley, SMITHSONIAN.COM 

fter a “bomb cyclone” hit the eastern seaboard earlier this month, AL.com reporter Ben Raines used the abnormally low tides in Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw Delta to search for the wreck of an infamous vessel—the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to have transported enslaved Africans to the United States. In a feature published this week on AL.com, Raines reports that he discovered the remains of a ship that matches the description of the Clotilda a few miles north of Mobile.

The site of the wreck is only accessible by boat and would normally be submerged in water. But due to the storm conditions, the wreck was instead sticking out of the mud, with the hull tipped to the port side with the other side almost completely exposed. Raines documented the find with photographs and used a drone to take aerial images. He also invited a team of archaeologists from the University of West Florida to examine the wreck to get their expert opinion.

The researchers, led by Greg Cook and John Bratten​, won’t say conclusively that the wreck is the Clotilda, but they are optimistic. “You can definitely say maybe, and maybe even a little bit stronger, because the location is right, the construction seems to be right, from the proper time period, it appears to be burnt. So I’d say very compelling, for sure,” Cook says.

“There is nothing here to say this isn’t the Clotilda, and several things that say it might be,” says Bratten.

Not only does the ship date to the middle of the 1800s, the time the Clotilda was constructed, it is also the same type of Gulf Coast schooner as the ship and shows signs of being burned, which is consistent with the Clotilda story.

As historian Slyviana A. Diouf reports in Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Last Africans Brought to America, the Clotilda was a heavy freighter originally constructed in 1855 and first was used to ferry supplies to and from Cuba, Texas and Louisiana. Around 1860, the ship’s owner, William Foster sold the schooner to a local Mobile businessman by the name Timothy Meaher, who bet that he could bring a ship of enslaved people into Mobile Bay without anyone noticing. While slavery was still legal in the South at that time, the slave trade itself had been outlawed for over 52 years in the U.S., meaning importing slaves was a serious violation of federal law. Nevertheless, Meaher decided to put his plan in action, commissioning Foster to lead a slave-buying mission to Ouimah, a port town in the present-day nation of Benin.

The Clotilda anchored off of Ouimah for a week while Foster and the 11-man crew used $9,000 in gold to purchase 110 people. By July 8, 1860 (or according to some accounts, the fall of 1859), the ship had departed from the port town and arrived back in the Gulf. There, under the cover of darkness, the Clotilda was tugged up the Mobile River where the captives were transferred to a second ship and quickly sold into slavery. Foster and Meaher worried that their scheme had been found out, though, so they decided to burn the evidence in the marshes, getting rid of the pens they used to hold the more than 100 people, full of human waste and other telltale proof. It is in that location where Raines encountered the wreck.

In a separate story, Lawrence Specker at AL.com reports that the enslaved people of the Clotilda held fast to their native language, traditions and family relationships. After the end of the Civil War, a group of these newly freed people formed their own self-sufficient community north of Mobile, which became known as African Town. They elected a chief, based the 50-acre village on African law, and eventually built their own school and church. The story is chronicled in Diouf’s book, which she published in 2007.

After stories of the Clotilda transport of enslaved Africans leaked out, Meaher was briefly arrested and Foster was forced to pay $1,000 for not registering in port after an international trip. But, as Raines reports, the Civil War overshadowed the case and it was abandoned.

So far, Raines reports no digging has taken place at the purported Clotilda site, and it will take permits, funding and planning before archaeologists can examine the ship more closely and confirm whether it is indeed the Clotilda. Cook says he’s in the process of gathering input from the Alabama Historical Commission and Corps of Engineers on the next steps. “If it turns out to be the last slaver, it is going to be a very powerful site for many reasons,” Cook says. “The structure of the vessel itself is not as important as its history, and the impact it is going to have on many, many people.”

Expect more revelations from the Clotilda to come forward later this year for another reason— Zora Neale Hurston’s almost 120-page book about the life of one of the ship’s enslaved passengers will be posthumously published this May. The book will tell the story of Cudjo Lewis, who was born Oluale Kossola in West Africa and was captured and forced onto the Clotilda. After gaining his freedom, he went on to serve a critical role in the founding of African Town.

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