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Clotilda: The last slave ship

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March 22nd, 2018
A ship with three masts out on the water, near a coast line.

The Clotilda was a slave ship that operated despite the ban on slave trading.

Word of its potential discovery has resurrected an undeniably shameful episode from the American past, putting it front and center in the public consciousness. The Clotilda was the last-known U.S. slave ship to transport kidnapped Africans to U.S. shores.

Arriving in Alabama’s Mobile Bay in fall 1860, she delivered 110 people whom warring tribes in their native Benin, West Africa, had sold into slavery. The worst aspect of this story—if it could be worse—is that their capture, sale, transport, and enslavement were part of a bet merely to prove that it could be done.

Although the law permitted domestic slavery in 1860, the importation of human chattel had been illegal since 1808, as stipulated by the Federal Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves. Even so, there was no shortage of people who, well after that year, turned a blind eye and accepted “shipments of goods” that included human beings.

Undeterred by the capital penalty of hanging, greedy, heartless merchants continued to smuggle human cargo into the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. Many historians believe that the Clotilda was among the last ships used for that insidious purpose.

An inhumane wager

The bet that sent her to sea on so sinister an errand occurred through the auspices of two men: merchant Captain William Foster and Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipyard owner.

Meaher, in a callous wager with a cadre of rich friends, insisted that he could flout federal law, bring a load of slaves into the United States, and get away with it scott-free. The proposition reached a value of $1,000, and the game was on.

For the journey, Meaher purchased a ship owned by William Foster for over $30,000—an 86-foot, two-masted schooner called the Clotilda. In 1859, Foster made the voyage as captain of the vessel in possession of $9,000 in gold for the purchase of slaves.

In spring 1860, he arrived in Whydah, Africa, where he went ashore in pursuit of cargo. According to Foster’s journal, he met with an African prince who allowed him access to a warehouse; inside were 4,000 prisoners from enemy tribes.

Foster selected 125 of them, and paid $100 a head.

As the slaves came aboard, the Clotilda’s watchman spied a vessel that looked like an American slave interdiction ship. They had secured just 110 of the 125 captives, but Foster wasn’t taking any chances and immediately ordered the crew to set sail.

At the time, federal Navy ships like the USS Constellation (currently anchored in Baltimore Harbor) routinely patrolled the ocean between Africa and the United States in search of slave smugglers. Capture could mean death, which made the task risky for any criminal determined to follow through with it.

Captain Foster was one of them. Setting sail with his cargo of 110, he managed to dodge authorities, reaching Mobile in July.

Here, he had his ship towed up the Alabama River, where he offloaded his captives. Hoping to forever dispose of the evidence, he ordered his crew to burn and scuttle the vessel.

Meaher kept 30 slaves for himself, all of whom he lost after the Civil War. These captives remained in the United States, thereafter free men and women.

Alabama settlement

They founded their own settlement in Alabama, known as Africatown. One of the original slaves and town founders, Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, lived until 1935.

And descendants of the Clotilda’s captives live on to this day.

As for the villains—Foster and Meaher—the federal government attempted to prosecute them, learning of the crime most likely by word of mouth. Due to a lack of evidence, it failed to convict or retry them.

But, in January 2018, journalist and history buff Ben Raines received a tip from a long-time Alabama resident who’d claimed to have known the location of the infamous ship’s remains.

“When this gentleman came to me saying that he knew where the wreck of the Clotilda might be, he immediately got my attention,” says Raines.

The two went to the spot of interest—accessible only by boat—and, thanks to unusually low tides, they saw what resembled the outline of a schooner’s hull.

Based on superficial ground surveys by expert shipwrights and scholars from the University of West Florida, the wreck did appear to be a schooner matching the type and roughly the period of the Clotilda.

The measurements of the hull in its current state did not exactly match the dimensions Foster had recorded in his papers; on the other hand, burned, encased in silt, and 160 years old, one might expect that.

Then again, as Raines points out, Foster may also have fudged his numbers in an effort to cover his tracks. Deeper archaeological analysis was the only way to get answers, maybe unearthing chains, manacles, and similar items indicative of the slave trade.

But hopes of soon solving the mystery surrounding the ill-famed vessel quickly vanished when, early in March, researches with the Smithsonian Institution and the Alabama Historical Commission completed a detailed examination of the site. By their estimate, the wreckage in question belonged to a ship that was 158.5 feet in length and possessed three masts, not two.

It was not the Clotilda.

The disappointing news notwithstanding, the false alarm did help to revitalize the memory of a dark chapter in American history. In the meantime, the search for the Clotilda continues; its horrific story fresh in our minds.

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