By Kelly Baughman
It’s no secret that the horrifying history of slavery runs deep in the South, but Betcha Didn’t Know….the last known slave ship has been found, and it’s right here on the Gulf Coast.
The Alabama Historical Commission announced last month that, after many years of searching and several false alarms, the Clotilda was found marooned under a muddy stretch of Mobile Bay. The Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay in July of 1860 carrying a load of 110 African slaves, a practice that had been outlawed some 52 years earlier.
Built in 1855, the two-masted schooner measured 86 feet long with a beam of 23 feet and featured a unique copper-sheathed hull. Fearful of criminal charges, the ship’s Captain, William Foster, brought the schooner into the Port of Mobile at night and had it towed up the Spanish River to the Alabama River at Twelve Mile Island. In an attempt to hide the evidence of the illegal cargo, the Clotilda was burned and scuttled (purposely sunk) after its arrival.
Captain Foster along with Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipyard owner and steamboat captain who is said to have financially backed the voyage and slave transaction, were both later prosecuted by the federal government in 1861 for violation of the act prohibiting the slave trade, but did not gain a conviction. They had no evidence from the ship nor its manifest. The men were tried in a federal court in Mobile, and the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Many of Meaher’s former slaves from the Clotilda returned to Magazine Point, and land owned by Meaher on the delta just north of Mobile and on the west bank of the Mobile River. There, they founded an all-black community, which is known as Africatown near the Mobile area.
Thirty people from the Clotilda, believed to be ethnic Yoruba and Fon, founded and created Africatown where they retained their West African customs and language into the 1950s, while their children and some elders also learned English. The population of Africatown has declined a great deal from a peak population of 12,000 in the 20th century, to now some 2000 residents, with at least 100 of them being direct decedents from the Clotilda slaves.
In 2009 the neighborhood was designated as a site on Mobile’s African American Heritage Trail. The Africatown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. Its related Old Plateau Cemetery, also known as Africatown Graveyard, was founded in 1876. It has been given a large historical plaque telling its history.
Historians and archaeologists alike have been on the hunt for the Clotilda for decades without avail. The discovery is credited to local reporter for Al.com, Ben Raines, who originally thought he had located the Clotilda in early 2018. By March of 2018, experts insisted that Raines’ find was in fact too large to be the Clotilda, leaving Raines feeling defeated.
But armed with the strong feeling that he was indeed on to something, Raines enlisted the help of researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi to continue surveying the area. Raines found a piece of wood complete with nails that dated back to the 1850’s.
A storm of x-rays, dimension measurements, dives, carbon dating, and historical research ensued, and eventually the mystery surrounding the wreckage began to lift. A forensic fire investigator was brought in to evaluate the charred wood and learned that it was consistent with the story of the Clotilda’s demise. After months of speculation, it was determined that the wreckage was in fact the Clotilda.
Now, all efforts turn to the preservation of the wreck and the story of the people who sailed on her into Mobile Bay.
And while the discovery reignites a narrative of unspeakable horror and cruelty, it also allows the story of those who survived and thrived on the Gulf Coast to be told with physical historical evidence.
Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, the Alabama Historical Commission’s executive director, said in a statement, “This new discovery represents one of the darkest eras of modern history and 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.”