More than 160 years ago, 110 West African captives were smuggled up Alabama’s Mobile River aboard the Clotilda, the last slave ship on record carrying enslaved people to America. After extensive fieldwork and historical research conducted between 2018 and 2020, archaeologists have located the wreck site of the ship and discovered that it has been remarkably well-preserved, with as much as two-thirds or more of its original structure intact. The Clotilda, according to a report they had authored, is of “exceptional national significance” as the only American slave ship whose remains have been located and positively identified.
Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Irish-American plantation and shipyard owner, had placed $1,000 (the equivalent of over $30,000 today) on a bet that he could sail into the United States with a ship loaded full of enslaved people without catching the attention of authorities. Together with Captain William Foster, who was chosen to sail the ship, they modified the hold of the lumber ship so it could contain human cargo. Meaher later found himself on the winning side of his bet, with his only penalty being a $1,000 fine for neglecting to pay customs taxes.
Foster was assiduous about covering his tracks, setting fire to the Clotilda and sinking it in the Mobile River. Later in life, he recounted: “I transferred my slaves to a river steamboat and sent them up into the canebreak to hide them until further disposal. I then burned my schooner to the water’s edge and sank her.”
The Piracy Act had been amended in 1820 to outlaw participation in the slave trade; and just a few years after Meaher made his bet, slave trader Nathaniel Gordon would be tried, convicted, and hung for kidnapping and enslaving almost 1,000 people from Liberia. But Foster and Meaher escaped any legal repercussions for their crimes.
Archaeologists’ identification of the site is a triumph for the Alabama Historical Commission, which has funded efforts to locate the Clotilda for over 20 years, and for descendants of those who were brought to America against their will over a century-and-a-half ago.
“We have very few identified slave ships in the world to begin with,” Stacye Hathorn, a state archaeologist at the Alabama Historical Commission, said in the National Geographic documentary Clotilda: Last American Slave Ship. “The story of the people who were on the Clotilda is the best-documented story of the entire Transatlantic slave trade,” added historian and author Dr. Sylviane Diouf.
The Clotilda captives were freed at the end of the Civil War. Led by Cudjo Lewis, they attempted to raise money to fund a return passage to Africa. But when the homecoming effort proved infeasible, they pooled together resources to purchase a plot of land near downtown Mobile, on which they found Africatown. A self-sustaining community, they developed institutions that included a church, a school, and a cemetery. This legacy will be celebrated in a new museum, Africatown’s Heritage House, expected to open next summer.
Continuing work on the wreck has also included the input of descendants, some of whom have visited the site and are participating in discussions on how best to preserve the ship. In the National Geographic documentary, six descendants visited a field with an area fenced off to represent the dimensions of the hold of the Clotilda and reflected on how terrifyingly small the space was to have once fit 110 passengers.
In March, the archaeologists working at the wreck site will enter the third phase of their excavation. James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist who is leading excavation efforts on the Clotilda, told Hyperallergic that the team is planning to conduct a “very detailed review” of various environmental factors that contributed to the preservation of the ship, including marine and river organisms that live on and in the wreck, sediments, temperature variations, and river currents and dynamics.
Based on their findings, they will develop recommendations that will inform what will likely be a public process to determine the future of the site. The archaeologists also hope to recover certain objects from the ship — artifacts that might help provide historical snapshots of the story of the Clotilda to viewers in the absence of the full physical bulk of the ship, which will most likely remain in the murky waters of the Mobile River. (Removing it from the water is costly, perhaps running into the “tens of millions of dollars” according to Delgado, and not necessarily best from a preservation standpoint. Most maritime archaeological work on the Clotilda has relied on SONAR imagery because the waters are so opaque.)
Delgado and his team have plans to collect wood and bark samples that they will test for DNA evidence. They will also search for remnants of the platforms where captives were stowed, as well as storage containers like barrels, casks, and bags that held basic provisions like rice, sugar, beef, pork, flour, and bread.
Delgado emphasized that the Clotilda, which has recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places, “is an artifact of many things.”
“It’s an artifact of mid-19th century coastal schooners. Its significance is there as the last known ship to bring people from Africa to America for the purposes of enslaving them,” he said. “But it’s also an artifact that speaks to ongoing connections to both the descendant community of Africatown, whose ancestors were brought on, and also to the fact that it was never forgotten.”