‘This tells Americans their story’: Country’s last known slave ship discovered, historians say

Wreck marooned under Mobile River identified as Clotilda, which carried 110 Africans to US in 1860

Richard Fausset
Thursday 23 May 2019 13:20
Clotilda, which looked similar to the slave vessel Amistad (replica pictured), has been discovered in Alabama
Clotilda, which looked similar to the slave vessel Amistad (replica pictured), has been discovered in Alabama

Over the years, the hunt for the remains of the last ship known to have brought enslaved people into the United States has been fraught with a mix of tumult and hope.

There was a discovery last year of wreckage that, after much excitement, was determined to be a false alarm.

Hopes were raised, then dashed, then raised again — not only among marine archaeologists but also among the descendants of the ship’s human cargo, many of whom make their homes in a tiny South Alabama community called Africatown.

Then, on Wednesday, came an announcement from the Alabama Historical Commission: another shipwreck, one of many marooned under a muddy stretch of the Mobile River, was almost certainly the Clotilda, a wooden vessel of horrors that had carried 110 Africans to the United States in 1860, more than a half-century after the importation of slaves was declared illegal.

The find, historians said, revives a story of unspeakable cruelty but also the story of a people who somehow survived this indignity and many others like it.

The last voyage of the Clotilda, from Benin to Mobile Bay “represented one of the darkest eras of modern history”, Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, the commission’s executive director, said in a statement.

“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,” she continued.

The discovery was aided by input from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society and the Slave Wrecks Project, a multinational group researching the slave trade, and comes at a moment when civil rights museums have opened across the South.

The African American experience is also finding powerful new expression in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in Washington in 2016.

But the news is likely to resonate most forcefully in Africatown, a working-class community of about 2,000 people north of downtown Mobile.

It was founded by people who had been transported to Alabama in the Clotilda’s hull, and it was a place where African languages were spoken for decades.

More recently, the area was hit hard by paper mill closures, but there is a plan to build a welcome centre and museum, largely funded by money from a settlement with oil giant BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Although it was not clear on Wednesday whether any of the wreckage could be restored, councillor Levon Manzie, who represents the area, said he hoped that the ship, or parts of it, would be prominently displayed in Africatown.

“We are incredibly proud as a people and as a community that this link to our history has finally been discovered, and uncovered, and hopefully will be fully appreciated,” Mr Manzie said on Wednesday evening.

His dream, he said, was “to restore it to the degree that’s possible and to truly tell this unique American story, this unique Mobile story, in a grand fashion”.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston

After the Clotilda’s arrival in the United States, its captain, William Foster, burned the ship in an effort to conceal evidence of the illegal smuggling trip.

The Africans aboard were distributed to slave owners, according to the Alabama Historical Commission.

After the Civil War, some of the ship’s survivors gathered in hopes of returning to Africa, but they were unable to do so. Instead, they founded Africatown.

Stories of the ship and its survivors were passed down from generation to generation, although doubts lingered given the lack of physical proof.

That changed — or so it seemed — in January 2018, when Ben Raines, a writer and documentarian who was then a reporter for AL.com, published an article in which he said he had found the remains of a ship that appeared to be the Clotilda.

But that March, experts determined that the ship he had found was too big to be the Clotilda. The stories that followed were not so kind.

“I was devastated,” said Mr Raines, the son of Howell Raines, a former executive editor of The New York Times. “I was sort of this journalistic laughing stock.”

The younger Mr Raines persisted, sure that he was on to something.

He said he convinced researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi to bring a crew to the area to survey for more shipwrecks. They found many. One initially seemed like a big log pile.

Then Mr Raines discovered a piece of lumber with square nails in it — a telltale sign, he said, of 19th century construction.

“Guys, we just found a ship from the 1850s,” he recalled saying at the time.

The experts returned, led by James Delgado, an authority in maritime archaeology.

A painstaking act of detective work followed, involving hunts for archived documents, more dives, X-ray fluorescence tests and comparisons of building materials, dimensions and stories.

“There is nothing definitive in terms of a name on a piece of wood or a bell, so what we had to rely on is a series of pieces of evidence that together would lead you to a conclusion,” Mr Delgado said Wednesday.

The pieces started to fall into place. Insurance records said the ship had white oak framing and planking of northern yellow pine. Those materials were found underwater.

The ship was listed as 86 feet long by 23 feet wide with a 6-foot-11-inch depth of hold. Those, too, matched the dimensions of the wreck.

Among other things, the researchers found “deformed, carbonized rounded pieces of wood that come from an intense fire,” Mr Delgado said. “We brought in a forensic fire investigator. It was consistent with a fire that had burned for a while.”

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Many other leads checked out. And although confirmation with complete certainty is impossible, Mr Delgado said he believes they have come close. His team wrote a report and sent it to six scientists for a peer review.

“All of them, to a one,” he said, “concluded that this was likely Clotilda.”

Now the focus will turn to protecting the ship and deciding whether it can be displayed. More archaeological work is likely, potentially revealing additional elements of the long-submerged story.

For the moment, Mr Raines said, he is feeling a good dose of vindication, and joy for Africatown.

“This,” he said, “tells America their story.”

The New York Times

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