The Story of the Clotilda- The Last Slaver Ship

There is a lot of excitement on the Alabama Gulf Coast about the discovery of the ruins of the last slaver ship, Clotilda. It was found in an undredged part of the Mobile River alongside Twelve Mile Island, exactly where the kidnapped Africans always said it was. This incredible story was recently told by the discoverer Ben Raines in our local jewel, the Lagniappe. Documentaries are being filmed by National Geographic, as well as by the descendants of these Africans done in conjunction with the University of South Alabama and SpringHill College. But I’m getting ahead of the story of the Clotilda. The history of this ship and the Africans brought into the Port of Mobile in 1861 began as a business venture between Captain William Foster and Mobile businessman Timothy Meaher. The international slave trade, historically referred to as the Middle Passage was abolished in the US in 1808, and yet over a 100 Africans were chained together as the Clotilda sails into US Gulf waters in 1861. This business venture was common knowledge from Mobile to New York City, yet the perpetrators got away with violating the international law.

After working for the Meaher brothers on their plantations, their shipyard and on their steamers, the Africans were freed along with all the Southern slaves following the Civil War. They often told their story of being kidnapped in West Africa by Captain Foster. Harper’s Weekly published an interview of one of the African couples in 1887. Booker T. Washington visited their settlement named Africa Town in 1909, and a local Mobile woman, Emma Langdon Roche published a book about the Africa Town residents in 1914. In 1928, Zora Neale Hurston spent two months interviewing Cudjo Lewis, one of the key residents of Africa Town. She returned to this Mobile settlement over the next three years interviewing the residents about their memories of Africa, the terrible voyage upon the Clotilda, how they had lost the freedom as human beings and were now forced labor for the Meaher family, and the heartache following the war when they realized they would never be able to raise the money to go home to Africa. Hurston named her manuscript Barracoon which is what the slave pens in the Bight of Benin were called. Unfortunately Hurston was never able to find a publisher during her lifetime. Barracoon was published in 2018 for the first time.

My beloved book club read Barracoon this past summer because of the excitement caused by the discovery of the Clotilda. People had been looking for the remains of this ship for decades. Lots of various stories have been told about this ship over the years, such as it was a bet that caused Foster and Meaher to undertake this venture. A book I found helpful in discerning the history was Sylviane A. Diouf’s award winning Dreams of Africa in Alabama published in 2009. Dr. Diouf relates Hurston’s experience writing Barracoon as well as the biographies of the former slaves and their Africa Town settlement. It is well researched and clears up a lot of the conflicting local stories.

I highly recommend reading both books before the documentaries are released. Unfortunately I don’t know the names of the films, but I have seen the trailer about the stories of the descendants. I look forward to seeing both.

PONDERINGS- I was reading an article recently about how James Madison’s and Thomas Jefferson’s plantations are now including information concerning slavery on these particular plantations. It has some folks in a bit of an uproar, claiming history is being rewritten. Actually history is a living thing- traditional narratives often change and grow as new information is made available or discovered. In reality, the historical narrative of the US has been about whites and usually white men. This only began changing in the 1970’s. So to tell the story from a different perspective isn’t rewriting history. It’s just seeing a more complete story using lots of different lens. America has wrestled with slavery since before she was an official nation. Slavery in America was unlike slavery any where in the world at any time. Here a child was deemed a slave if his/her mother was a slave. Yes, it was based on skin color (black), however the irony is that many slaves had so much “white blood” their skin color was light. It is said that Thomas Jefferson’s son with his slave mistress Sally Hemings was white with red hair like his father’s. Yet, under Virginia law like other Southern states, he was a slave. In my humble opinion, America will always wrestle with the idea, the reality, and the consequences of slavery. Slavery is antithetical to our founding beliefs of life and liberty. And having a healthy discussion about it is not rewriting history- it’s looking at the cold hard facts.

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