Years of research and a particularly strong winter storm has led a reporter in Alabama to what is likely the remains of the last ship to carry slave cargo from Africa to the United States.
Writer Ben Raines of al.com reported Tuesday that what is left of the slave ship Clotilda, “lies partially buried in mud alongside an island in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a few miles north of the city of Mobile. The hull is tipped to the port side, which appears almost completely buried in mud. The entire length of the starboard side, however, is almost fully exposed.”
The ship’s remains were discovered by Raines when the “Bomb Cyclone” winter system hit the eastern half of the country earlier this month. A confluence of strong systems created the storm that caused the tide in Mobile Bay to be especially low, Raines pointed out. The lower than normal tide better exposed what was left of the ship.
In the story, Raines says he documented the wreck with historical documents and photos – the remains rest in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, accessible only by boat – and took his findings to a team of archaeologists from the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Fla.
The archaeologists agreed that Raines had probably found what was left of the Clotilda.
In the summer of 1860, the Clotilda brought 110 men, women and children from Africa to Alabama in violation of U.S. laws that banned international slave trade. The ship’s trans-Atlantic journey was the last recorded trip bringing human cargo from an African nation to the United States.
The expedition was financed by Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile businessman who made a bet that he could sneak slaves into the country past forts on either side of the entrance to Mobile Bay, “under the officers’ noses.”
Meaher was able to hire a ship and captain to bring the slaves to Mobile, but fearing that he would be caught and punished for the stunt, Meaher arranged for the ship to be burned after he had the slaves unloaded.
Those 110 slaves who were brought over on the Clotilda were freed five years later at the end of the Civil War. They asked Meaher to pay for their return to Africa. He refused, and the group went on to petition the U.S. government for the money. When the government refused, the group took up residence near Mobile, creating the community of Africatown.
The town, according to historian Sylvianne Diouf in her book “Dreams of Africa in Alabama,” was run under traditional African law and used African farming and education methods. The last survivor of the Clotilda trip, Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis , died in 1935, though descendants of the slaves brought over on the ship still live in the area.
The story of the Clotilda was recently resurrected in an episode of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by historian Henry Gates. In a December episode, Roots front man and drummer Questlove – whose given name is Ahmir Thompson – finds out that his great, great, great grandfather, Charles Lewis, was one of the slaves brought to America on the Clotilda’s trip.
Gates tells Questlove that Meaher chose the more than 100 slaves from a group of 4,000 to be brought to Alabama. Lewis was one of those chosen.
"Think about the odds, man," Gates said.
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