In 1860, 52 years after the importation of human chattel was outlawed in the United States, the Clotilda, a two-masted schooner, sneaked into Mobile Bay near Mobile, Ala., returning from a secret mission in Benin, Africa. Captained by William Foster, the Clotilda unloaded its precious cargo: 110 kidnapped human beings.
When federal authorities discovered that Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile plantation owner, had made a bet with his friends that he could sneak a shipment of slaves into the country, they decided to investigate the crime. To hide their misdeeds, Foster rushed to the Clotilda and set it on fire. The vessel sank to the bottom of the ocean, never to be seen again.
Now AL.com reports that one of its reporters, Ben Raines, may have discovered the last slave ship in American buried in the mud of the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The ship would normally have been covered by the water, but the unusually northern winds from the recent “bomb cyclone” on the Eastern Seaboard reduced the tide in Mobile Bay to 2 1/2 feet below its normal depth, revealing the ship to Raines.
“I’m quaking with excitement. This would be a story of world historical significance if this is the Clotilda,” said John Sledge, a senior historian with the Mobile Historical Commission. “It’s certainly in the right vicinity. ... We always knew it should be right around there.” Sledge is also the author of The Mobile River, an exhaustive examination of the river.
Raines notes that the ship lies exactly where Foster said he burned it, but so far, state laws governing ship wreckage have prevented investigators from exploring the part of the wreckage buried in the mud. Archaeologists are trying to use historical records and personal accounts to verify the ship’s identity.
One of the accounts that researchers may use is from Zora Neale Hurston, who spent three months in Alabama interviewing Cudjo Lewis in 1931. Lewis came to the country on the Clotilda and was the last survivor of the mid-Atlantic slave trade.
Lewis spent five years as the property of Meaher. After he was emancipated, Lewis, along with other former slaves from his ship, demanded reparations. When they were denied, he and a group of slaves put their money together and founded the African-centered town of Africatown, located a few miles from Mobile. A new book by Hurston, Barracoon, about Lewis, will be released on May 5 by HarperCollins.
If Raines’ find turns out to be the Clotilda, it may be one of the biggest and most important artifacts documenting the African slave trade. He writes: “I think finding the Clotilda would be a fitting capstone for both Mobile’s slaving history and the war that finally ended the practice.”
Read more at AL.com.