The remains of the last ship known to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States, a schooner named Clotilda, has been discovered off the banks of Mobile, Alabama. The wreck was abandoned in 1860 after illegally transporting 110 people from the Kingdom of Dahomey, now known as Benin, to Mobile.
"The discovery of the Clotilda is an extraordinary archaeological find," says Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the Alabama historical commission, in a press statement. She says the Clotilda represents "one of the darkest eras of modern history."
“We are cautious about placing names on shipwrecks that no longer bear a name or something like a bell with the ship’s name on it,” says Dr. James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist and project manager for the dig, “but the physical and forensic evidence powerfully suggests that this is Clotilda.”
Archaeologists used the schooner's unique size, dimensions, and building materials to help determine the craft. The ship's captain, William Foster, who worked for Alabamian slave owner Timothy Meaher, said in his notes that he burned the ship after landing.
The discovered wreck "showed signs of burning, which is concurrent with Captain Foster’s claim that he burned the Clotilda after scuttling her," according to the historical commission. "A detailed survey of all surviving historical survey records for schooners in the entire Gulf of Mexico region, and including those of the port of Mobile, found only four vessels built in the size range as this wreck; only one, Clotilda, out of some 1,500 vessels assessed in the archival records, matches the wreck.”
Although Thomas Jefferson signed the "Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves" in 1808, the transatlantic slave trade continued for decades afterward. The 110 African men, women, and children aboard the Clotilda had been forcibly abducted in violent raids led by Dahomey king Ghezo. Once in Alabama, 25 young people from the voyage were sold to nearby slave brokers, but the rest stayed in servitude in the Mobile area on various plantations, including Meaher's.
The Clotilda landed in America on June 8, 1860 amidst a tense political climate. A few months later, the election of Abraham Lincoln would set the stage for the Civil War. After the Confederacy's defeat in 1865, the slaves from the Clotilda were freed.
Those who had been separated joined the majority of their group near Mobile, and together formed a community they named African Town, later shortened to Africatown. Following World War II, Africatown was absorbed into the greater Mobile area.
Residents of Africatown melded African traditions with American ones, sometimes attracting outside attention from famed American intellectuals like Booker T. Washington and Zora Neale Hurston. Cudjoe Lewis, born Oluale Kossola, often spoke for the group. Last year, Neale Hurston's story of Lewis' incredible journey was finally published as Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo."
“This new discovery brings the tragedy of slavery into focus while witnessing the triumph and resilience of the human spirit in overcoming the horrific crime that led to the establishment of Africatown,” says Demetropoulos Jones.
“It shows where the last African-Americans were brought over,” says Rep. Napoleon Bracy, a Democrat who represents the Africatown area, speaking on the Alabama Senate floor. “It’s really going to do a lot to put the Prichard-Mobile-Africatown area on the map, in terms of historical significance.”
“This is a significant day for the people of Africatown, but also for Alabama and our nation,” added U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne. “We should seize upon this opportunity to help us better understand our complex American history. Harry Truman wisely said ‘The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.’ Let’s use the discovery of the Clotilda to learn more about our history so we can discuss how best we can move forward together.”
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