As Alabama celebrates 200 years of statehood, a local journalist has made a find from a dark chapter of state history. Al.com writer Ben Rainer used local sources and historical documents to discover the remains of what is likely the slave ship Clotilda, which arrived in the port of Mobile in July of 1860. The lost ship has long been a figure of lore in the region, both for the circumstances of its voyage and the unusually well-documented fates of its captives.
“If it turns out to be the last slaver, it is going to be a very powerful site for many reasons. 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,” said Greg Cook, an archaeologist from the University of West Florida who has examined the wreck and believes it dates from the mid-1800s, the era the Clotilda was built.
The final voyage of the Clotilda, financed by plantation owner Timothy Meaher, took place 52 years after the importation of slaves had been outlawed (slavery itself was still legal). Meaher undertook the transport “for no reason other than to prove that he could do it,” says Ranier; in a newspaper interview some 30 years later, Meaher is still unashamed and brags about his cunning. Along with the captain, William Foster, he laid an elaborate plan to route the boat through the Caribbean and hide any signs that it was to be used as a slave ship on the way back. Neither man was ever convicted. The sale of these human beings earned Meaher more than $1 million in today’s dollars.
The Clotilda landed in the bayou outside Mobile with more than 100 surviving captives taken from Dahomey, which is now Benin in West Africa. They were hidden in the swamp while Foster, fearing discovery and punishment, burned the ship to destroy any evidence of the illegal human cargo it had carried.
Five years later, the Civil War ended, and slavery was abolished in the United States. But the Clotilda’s captives were still denied justice. Petitions to both Meacher and the US government to return them to their homes were denied. The marooned survivors eventually built their own community just north of Mobile, where they could speak their native language and follow other traditional customs. It was known as Africatown. Their stories are told in the 2007 book Dreams of Africa in Alabama, by historian Sylvianne Diouf. “[I]t was the first time that a group of Africans – besides the maroons who had hid their camps in swamps and woods since the seventeenth century – had built their very own town on their own land in the United States,” writes Diouf.
Over the years, Africatown’s residents assimilated, and today only an 1872 church and a graveyard give clues to its originals. Still, the descendants of these residents are thought to be the only descendants of enslaved people who know both from where and how their ancestors arrived in the United States. Recently, the drummer Questlove discovered that he had an ancestor among them on an episode of “Finding Your Roots.” The last survivor, Cudjo Lewis, died at the age of 94, in 1935; before his death, he was interviewed by a Mobile schoolteacher and the writer Zora Neale Hurston about his experiences.
Alabama has strict laws about the salvage of shipwrecks, and permits must be secured before any significant excavations can take place on the site. Still, all signs indicate that Raines’ discovery is likely to add another layer to one of the state’s most complicated stories. “This is an internationally significant discovery,” said John Sledge, a Mobile historian.