Slave Ship Found in Alabama Delta?

Aerial photo of the Mobile-Tensaw delta area in Alabama, site of the submerged ship believed to be the Clotilda

A long-standing mystery of antebellum Alabama history is on the verge of being resolved. What is believed to be the wreckage of the slave ship Clotilda has been discovered in the muddy delta waters not far from Mobile. The final voyage of the Clotilda took place in mid-1860, in violation of U.S. law against the importation of slaves. Historians say the ship was the last to bring enslaved Africans to the United States. It carried 110 slaves from what is now Benin, in West Africa. To cover up their illicit human trafficking, the owners of the ship burned it, and it sank.

For many years, descendants of the Clotilda’s human cargo kept alive the story of the vessel’s fate. The longest-living survivor of the Clotilda, Cudjoe Lewis, died in 1935. Oral testimony was passed down through generations by family members and others, many of whom live in Africatown (now Plateau). This community, north of downtown Mobile, had been settled after the Civil War by former slaves, including survivors of the Clotilda.

The discovery of the remains of the ship’s burnt hulk, barely visible, was made by Ben Raines, a reporter for AL.com. The find was made possible when the “bomb cyclone” winter storm brought an unusually cold blast of northern wind through the Southeast. The severe weather system caused lower than normal tides, thus exposing parts of the ship above the mud. Raines saw what he described as a “dinosaur backbone almost, arcing up out of the mud along the shoreline.” The reporter had spent months researching historical records, including the captain’s account of the trip. Among the many local people he interviewed was one old-timer who guided him to the site.

Authentication of finding the Clotilda, which eluded archaeologists and historians for a century and a half, is expected once excavation and closer investigation turn up tangible evidence from the ship’s ruins. Its significance may lie largely in the vindication of the Africatown residents who kept the story alive. Descendants of Clotilda survivors are the only African Americans who can trace their history to the actual slave ship that carried their ancestors as well as their ancestral African home. Now some may have the satisfaction of having their heritage forensically confirmed.

Image credit: © Ben Raines/Al.com/AP Images

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