The schooner Clotilda (often misspelled Clotilde) was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, arriving at Mobile Bay, in autumn 1859[1] or on July 9, 1860,[2][3] with 110 African men, women, and children.[4] The ship was a two-masted schooner, 86 feet (26 m) long with a beam of 23 ft (7.0 m).

Wreck of the slave ship Clotilda; photograph from Historic Sketches of the South by Emma Langdon Roche, 1914
United States
OwnerTimothy Meaher
Launchedc. 1855–56
FateScuttled in July 1860
NotesLast known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States
General characteristics
Class and typelumber trade
Length86 ft (26 m)
Beam23 ft (7.0 m)
Sail planSchooner

U.S. involvement in the Atlantic slave trade had been banned by Congress through the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves enacted on March 2, 1807 (effective January 1, 1808), but the practice continued illegally, especially through slave traders based in New York[citation needed] in the 1850s and early 1860. In the case of the Clotilda, the voyage's sponsors were based in the South and planned to buy Africans in Whydah, Dahomey.[1][2] After the voyage, the ship was burned and scuttled in Mobile Bay in an attempt to destroy the evidence.

After the Civil War, Oluale Kossola[1] and thirty-one other formerly enslaved people founded Africatown on the north side of Mobile, Alabama. They were joined by other continental Africans and formed a community that continued to practice many of their West African traditions and Yoruba language for decades.

A spokesman for the community, Cudjo Lewis, lived until 1935 and was one of the last survivors from the Clotilda. Redoshi, another captive on the Clotilda, was sold to a planter in Dallas County, Alabama, where she became known also as Sally Smith. She married, had a daughter, and lived until 1937 in Bogue Chitto. She was long thought to have been the last survivor of the Clotilda.[5] Research published in 2020 indicated that another survivor, Matilda McCrear, lived until 1940.[6]

Some 100 descendants of the enslaved people carried by the Clotilda still live in Africatown, and others are around the country. After World War II, the neighborhood was absorbed by the city of Mobile. A memorial bust of Lewis was placed in front of the historic Union Missionary Baptist Church.[2] The Africatown historic district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. In May 2019, the Alabama Historical Commission announced that remnants of a ship found along the Mobile River, near 12 Mile Island and just north of the Mobile Bay delta, were confirmed as the Clotilda.[7] The wreck site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2021.[8]

History edit

The schooner Clotilda, under the command of Captain William Foster and carrying a cargo of 124 Africans,[9] arrived in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in July 1860.[10] Captain Foster was working for Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipyard owner and steamboat captain, who in 1855[11] or 1856[12] had built Clotilda, a two-masted schooner 86 feet (26 m) long with a beam of 23 feet (7.0 m) and a copper-sheathed hull, designed for the lumber trade.[13]

The schooner had to be refitted as a slave ship with a false deck. Foster obtained papers with the false claim he was delivering lumber. Disrupting the compass was 9,000 dollars in gold which caused the vessel off course. A hurricane off the Bermuda coast damaged the ship. While repairing, the crew of 11 who did not know the real mission purpose, discovered the hidden deck. To persuade them not to alert authorities, Foster agreed to pay them double, which ultimately he did not.[14]

Meaher had learned that West African tribes were at war and that the King of Dahomey (now Benin) was willing to sell enemy prisoners as slaves. Dahomey's forces had been raiding communities in the interior, bringing captives to the large slave market at the port of Ouidah.[13][15] Meaher was said to have wagered another wealthy gentleman from New Orleans,[citation needed] that he could successfully smuggle Africans into the US despite the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.

Departing on March 4, 1860, Foster sailed from Mobile with a crew of 12, including himself,[12] arriving in Whydah on May 15, 1860,[12] where he had the ship outfitted to carry Africans, using materials he had transported.[13] He offered to buy 125 Africans in Whydah for $100 each.[12] said to be mostly of the "Tarkbar" tribe, taken in a raid near Tamale in present-day Ghana.[15] Research in the 21st century suggests that they were actually Takpa or Tapa people, the northern Yoruba name for the neighboring Nupe people from the interior of present-day Nigeria.[16]

He described meeting an African prince and being taken to the king's court, where he observed some religious practices. Foster wrote in his journal in 1860, "Having agreeably transacted affairs with the Prince we went to the warehouse where they had in confinement four thousand captives in a state of nudity from which they gave me liberty to select one hundred and twenty-five as mine offering to brand them for me, from which I preemptorily [sic] forbid; commenced taking on cargo of negroes, successfully securing on board one hundred and ten."[12]

As the captives were being loaded, Foster saw two steamers off the port and, fearing capture, ordered the crew to leave immediately, although only 110 Africans had been secured on board, leaving behind the last 15. They saw a man o' war during the ocean passage, but escaped notice when a squall came up and they outran the ship,[12] reaching Abaco lighthouse at the Bahama banks by June 30.[13] As they neared the United States, they disguised the schooner by taking down the "squaresail yards and the fore topmast", hoping to pass as a "coaster" carrying African captives within the US in the domestic coastal trade.[12]

Foster's journal recorded that he anchored Clotilda on July 9 off Point of Pines in Grand Bay, Mississippi (likely referring to Point Aux Pins on Grand Bay in Alabama, near the Mississippi state line). He traveled overland by horse and buggy to Mobile to meet with Meaher. Fearful of criminal charges, Captain Foster brought the schooner into the Port of Mobile at night and had it towed up the Spanish River to the Alabama River at Twelve Mile Island. He transferred the African captives to a river steamboat, then burned Clotilda "to the water's edge" before sinking it.[12] He paid off the crew and told them to return North.[12]

The African captives were mostly distributed to the financial backers of the Clotilda venture, with Timothy Meaher retaining 30 captives on his property north of Mobile,[1] including Cudjo (aka Cudjoe) Lewis, known as Kossoula or Kazoola. Despite the racial hierarchy of the Deep South, the Africans from Clotilda could not be legally registered as slaves because they were smuggled in; however, they were treated as chattel.[1] Some of the captives were sold farther away, including Redoshi (later known also as Sally Smith) and a man later known as William or Billy, whom she was forced to marry on board the ship. They were sold to Washington Smith, a planter in Dallas County, Alabama.[5]

In 1861, the federal government prosecuted Meaher and Foster in Mobile for illegal slave importation, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence from the ship or its manifest, and perhaps because of the outbreak of the Civil War.

Because Captain Foster reported he burned and sank Clotilda[2] in the delta north of Mobile Bay, archaeological searches have continued into the 21st century for the wreck.[17] Several visible wrecks have been referred to by locals as the slave ship. Wreckage from Clotilda was allegedly found in 2018, but the Alabama Historical Commission ruled out the findings because of "major differences between the two vessels," and apparent lack of any fire damage.[18] In May 2019, the Alabama Historical Commission announced the wreck had finally been found by researcher Ben Raines, showing "physical and forensic evidence [that] powerfully suggests that this is the Clotilda."[19]

Africatown edit

The Africans of the Clotilda were effectively emancipated at the end of the Civil War. As did many freedmen, Redoshi and William stayed with their daughter at the plantation in Bogue Chitto and continued to work there.[5]

Many of Meaher's former enslaved people returned to Magazine Point, and to land owned by Meaher on the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta just north of Mobile and on the west bank of the Mobile River. They founded the all-black community of Africatown,[13] and attracted other ethnic Africans to join them in the independent community. They adopted community rules based on mostly "Takpa/Tapa" (Nupe) customs, and chose leaders. Some maintained the use of the Yoruba language and cultural traditions into the 1950s.[5]

Children born in the community began to learn English, first at church, and then in schools that were founded in the late nineteenth century. Cudjo Lewis lived until 1935 and was long thought to be the last survivor of the Clotilda. In 2019, a new study established that Redoshi (Sally Smith) lived until 1937 in Bogue Chitto, and she was thus considered the last survivor.[20] But in 2020 it was announced that Matilda McCrear had survived until 1940, when she died in Selma, Alabama.[6]

The community of Africatown grew to 12,000 as new industry attracted workers to the upper river, including paper mills built after World War II. But with closing industries and job losses, the population has declined to about 2,000 in the early twenty-first century. In the postwar period, the area was mostly absorbed into a neighborhood of Mobile, with part in the neighboring town of Prichard. In 2012 the Africatown Historic District was recognized and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Their cemetery is also listed.

Finding the wreck edit

External videos
  Q&A interview with Ben Raines on his book The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning, January 30, 2022, C-SPAN

On January 24, 2018, reporter Ben Raines claimed to have discovered the wreck of the Clotilda in the lower Mobile–Tensaw Delta, a few miles north of the city of Mobile. Record low tides, caused by a storm system that produced the January 2018 North American blizzard, had left parts of a wreck visible above the mud.[13][21] Based on their preliminary review, a team of archeologists said, "based on the dimensions of the wreckage and its contents... the remnants were most likely those of the slave ship."[10] People in Africatown began to discuss what should be done with the wreckage if it was the Clotilda, and how best to tell their story.[22]

On March 5, 2018, Raines reported that the wreck he had discovered was not likely to be the Clotilda. Researchers had concluded the wreckage appeared to be "simply too big, with a significant portion hidden beneath mud and deep water".[23] The National Park Service did find a wreck almost twice as large as the Clotilda as part of the survey.[24]

A few weeks later, Raines and a team from the University of Southern Mississippi returned to the river and performed the first survey of the 12 Mile Island section of the Mobile River. A week later, Raines and Monty Graham, head of Marine Sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi, explored several of the 11 wrecks identified in the survey, along with Joe Turner and a team from Underwater Works Dive Shop. On April 13, Ben Raines pulled up the first piece of Clotilda to see the light of day in 160 years. The coordinates and survey data were shared with the Alabama Historical Commission, which hired Search Inc., to verify the find. The discovery was kept secret for a year, until the verification process was complete.

On May 22, 2019, the Alabama Historical Commission announced that the wreckage of the Clotilda had been found.[25][26][27]

Representation in media edit

  • Margaret Brown's 2008 documentary film The Order of Myths revealed that the queens of the two major, segregated Mardi Gras organizations in 2007 had a poignant link: the ancestors of the MCA queen had smuggled the ancestors of the MAMGA queen into Mobile Bay as slaves on the Clotilda.[28]
  • Brown followed up in 2022 with Descendant, a documentary film that looks into the Africatown community today, including the environmental and societal inequities still present after 160 years, and the impact the Clotilda's 2019 discovery had on the area. Produced by Netflix, it premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.[29][30][31]
  • A local Mobile television news team produced a program, AfricaTown, USA, about the settlement and its history.[15]
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Finding Your Roots, Season 4, Episode 9 (December 12, 2017), showed census data for Mobile, and Captain William Foster's journal from the Clotilda, during a segment explaining the family history of Questlove, a drummer and music producer, joint frontman of the hip hop group The Roots. His great-great-great-grandparents Charles Lewis (born c. 1820) and his wife Maggie (born 1830) were among the slaves brought from West Africa on the Clotilda. Gates found an article in The Pittsburgh Post of April 15, 1894 recounting the wager that Captain Timothy Meaher had made in 1859 that he could smuggle in slaves within two years,[32][33] and one from The Tarboro Daily Southerner of July 14, 1860 that 110 Africans had arrived in Mobile on Clotilda.
  • In 2018, Zora Neale Hurston's book Barracoon was published, after lacking a publisher since its completion in 1931. An account of Cudjo Lewis' life story, it also discusses her feelings as an African-American researcher interviewing and getting to know him. It is an example of a "testimonial text".[34]
  • The song "Clotilda's on fire," on Shemekia Copeland's 2020 album Uncivil War, deals with the vessel and her human cargo.[35]
  • A young adult novel published in 2022, Africa Town by Charles Waters and Irene Latham, provides a fictionalized account of the Clotilda.[36]

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ a b c d e David Pilgrim. "Question of the Month: Cudjo Lewis: Last African Slave in the U.S.?" Jim Crow Museum, Ferris University, July 2005.
  2. ^ a b c d "Black Travel - Soul Of America | Home" (historic sites), Soul of America, 2007, webpage: SoulofAmerica-6678.
  3. ^ "AfricaTown, USA". The American Folklife Center: Local Legacies. The Library of Congress. Retrieved May 12, 2009.
  4. ^ Raines, Ben (2022). The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. p. 69. ISBN 9781982136048.
  5. ^ a b c d Durkin, Hannah (March 26, 2019). "Finding last middle passage survivor Sally 'Redoshi' Smith on the page and screen". Slavery & Abolition. 40 (4): 631–658. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2019.1596397. S2CID 150975893.
  6. ^ a b Durkin, Hannah (March 19, 2020). "Uncovering The Hidden Lives of Last Clotilda Survivor Matilda McCrear and Her Family". Slavery & Abolition. 41 (3): 431–457. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2020.1741833. ISSN 0144-039X. S2CID 216497607.
  7. ^ Keyes, Allison (May 22, 2019). "The 'Clotilda,' the Last Known Slave Ship to Arrive in the U.S., Is Found". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved January 29, 2021.
  8. ^ "Weekly listing". National Park Service.
  9. ^ The southerner. volume, July 14, 1860, Image 2
  10. ^ a b Sandra E. Garcia and Matthew Haag, "Descendants' Stories of a Slave Ship Drew Doubts. Now Some See Validation", New York Times, 26 January 2018; accessed 26 January 2018
  11. ^ Ben Raines, "Wreck found by reporter may be last American slave ship, archaeologists say",, 25 January 2018; accessed 26 January 2018. Quote: "...the ship's license and the captain's journal make clear that Clotilda is correct." (as the name)
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Last Slaver from U.S. to Africa. A.D. 1860": Capt. William Foster, Journal of Clotilda, 1860, Mobile Public Library Digital Collections; accessed 28 January 2018
  13. ^ a b c d e f "Wreck found by reporter may be last American slave ship, archaeologists say". Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  14. ^ "Zora Neale Hurston's Story of a Former Slave Finally Comes to Print". The New Yorker. May 7, 2018. Retrieved February 9, 2023.
  15. ^ a b c "AfricaTown, USA", Local Legacies, 2000, Library of Congress; accessed 28 January 2018
  16. ^ "Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail". Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  17. ^ Sarah Gibbens (March 6, 2018). "The Last Ship to Bring Slaves to the U.S. Has Not Been Found". National Geographic Society. Archived from the original on January 24, 2018. Retrieved March 12, 2018.
  18. ^ "The Last Ship to Bring Slaves to the U.S. Has Not Been Found". National Geographic News. March 6, 2018. Archived from the original on January 24, 2018. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  19. ^ Ingber, Sasha (May 22, 2019). "Alabama Historians Say The Last Known Slave Ship To U.S. Has Been Found". NPR. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  20. ^ Durkin, Hannah (2019). "Finding last middle passage survivor Sally 'Redoshi' Smith on the page and screen". Slavery & Abolition. 40 (4): 631–658. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2019.1596397. S2CID 150975893.
  21. ^ Wootson, Cleve R. Jr. (January 24, 2018). "The last U.S. slave ship was burned to hide its horrors. A storm may have unearthed it". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  22. ^ Ingber, Sasha (May 22, 2019). "Alabama Historians Say The Last Known Slave Ship To U.S. Has Been Found". NPR. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  23. ^ "Wreck found in Delta not the Clotilda, the last American slave ship". Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  24. ^ "Twelvemile Island Shipwreck". National Park Service. Retrieved September 26, 2023.
  25. ^ Koplowitz, Howard (May 22, 2019). "Clotilda, the last American slave ship, found in Alabama, historical commission says". Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  26. ^ "Officials: Last slave ship from Africa ID'd on Alabama coast". WALA-TV. May 22, 2019. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  27. ^ Ingber, Sasha (May 22, 2019). "Alabama Historians Say The Last Known Slave Ship To U.S. Has Been Found". NPR. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
  28. ^ "Independent Lens . THE ORDER OF MYTHS . The Film | PBS". Retrieved May 25, 2019.
  29. ^ Daniels, Robert. "'Descendant' Review: Africatown Documentary Rectifies Black Erasure by Filling Historical Gaps". IndieWire. Retrieved January 25, 2022.
  30. ^ Mechling, Lauren (October 21, 2022). "Descendant review – powerful Netflix documentary on the legacy of slavery. A striking and sensitive film about how an illegal slave ship led to an Alabama community of inherited trauma but also defiance". The Guardian.
  31. ^ Wilkinson, Alissa (October 24, 2022). ""The existence of the last slave transport ship was denied. A new documentary reveals the truth."". Vox. Retrieved October 30, 2022.
  32. ^ Boyd, Jared (December 18, 2017). "PBS show reveals Questlove descended from last known slave ship, which landed in Alabama". The Birmingham News. Retrieved December 18, 2017.
  33. ^ "The Last Cargo". The Pittsburgh Post. April 15, 1894. p. 17 – via
  34. ^ Sexton, Genevieve (2003). "The Last Witness: Testimony and Desire in Zora Neale Hurston's "Barracoon"". Discourse. 25 (1): 189–210. doi:10.1353/dis.2004.0012. ISSN 1536-1810. S2CID 144347635.
  35. ^ Elliott, Debbie (November 2, 2020). "On 'Uncivil War,' Shemekia Copeland Sets Fire To A Relic Of American Slavery". NPR. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
  36. ^ AFRICAN TOWN | Kirkus Reviews.

Further reading edit

External links edit

  Media related to Clotilda (slave ship) at Wikimedia Commons