Birmingham, Alabama: Researchers working in the murky waters of the northern Gulf Coast have located the wreck of the last ship known to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States, historical officials said Wednesday.
Remains of the Gulf schooner Clotilda were identified and verified near Mobile after months of assessment, a statement by the Alabama Historical Commission said.
The wooden vessel was scuttled the year before the Civil War to hide evidence of its illegal trip and hasn’t been seen since.
“The discovery of the Clotilda is an extraordinary archaeological find,” said Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the commission. She said the ship’s journey “represented one of the darkest eras of modern history,” and the wreck provides “tangible evidence of slavery.”
In 1860, the wooden ship illegally transported 110 people from what is now the west African nation of Benin to Mobile, Alabama. The Clotilda was then taken into delta waters north of the port and burned to avoid detection.
The captives were later freed and settled a community that’s still called Africatown USA, but no one knew the location of the Clotilda.
A descendant of one of the Africans who was brought to the South aboard the ship said she got chills when she learned its wreckage had been found.
“I think about the people who came before us who labored and fought and worked so hard,” said Joycelyn Davis, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis. She added, “I’m sure people had given up on finding it. It’s a wow factor.”
A Mobile-area news reporter discovered wooden remains of what was initially suspected to be the Clotilda, but the wreck turned out to be that of another ship. That publicity helped spark a renewed search last year that found another wreck now identified as the slave ship.
Officials didn’t say how much of the ship remains or what might become of its remnants. But the dimensions and construction of the wreck match those of the Clotilda, the commission said, as do building materials including locally sourced lumber and metal pieces made from pig iron. There are also signs of fire.
“We are cautious about placing names on shipwrecks that no longer bear a name or something like a bell with the ship’s name on it,” maritime archaeologist James Delgado said in a statement. “But the physical and forensic evidence powerfully suggests that this is?Clotilda.”
Officials said they are working on a plan to preserve the site where the ship was located.
The United States banned the importation of slaves in 1808, but smugglers kept traveling the Atlantic with wooden ships full of people in chains. Southern plantation owners demanded workers for their cotton fields.
With Southern resentment of federal control at a fever pitch, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could bring a shipload of Africans across the ocean, historian Natalie S. Robertson has said. The schooner Clotilda sailed from Mobile to western Africa, where it picked up captives and returned them to Alabama, evading authorities during a tortuous voyage.
“They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport,” Robertson said.
The Clotilda arrived in Mobile in 1860 and was quickly scuttled north of Mobile Bay. It was there that researchers worked to identify the shipwreck.
The Africans spent the next five years as slaves during the American Civil War, freed only after the South had lost. Unable to return home to Africa, about 30 of them used money earned working in fields, homes and vessels to purchase land from the Meaher family and settle in a community still known to this day as Africatown.
Officials said they plan to present a report on the findings at a community center in Africatown next week.
The captives who arrived aboard Clotilda were the last of an estimated 389,000 Africans delivered into bondage in mainland America from the early 1600s to 1860. Thousands of vessels were involved in the transatlantic trade, but very few slave wrecks have ever been found.
“The discovery of the Clotilda sheds new light on a lost chapter of American history,” says Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, which supported the search. “This finding is also a critical piece of the story of Africatown, which was built by the resilient descendants of America’s last slave ship.”
Rare firsthand accounts left by the slaveholders as well as their victims offer a one-of-a-kind window into the Atlantic slave trade, says Sylviane Diouf, a noted historian of the African diaspora.
“It’s the best documented story of a slave voyage in the Western Hemisphere,” says Diouf, whose 2007 book, Dreams of Africa in Alabama, chronicles the Clotilda’s saga. “The captives were sketched, interviewed, even filmed,” she says, referring to some who lived into the 20th century. “The person who organized the trip talked about it. The captain of the ship wrote about it. So we have the story from several perspectives. I haven’t seen anything of that sort anywhere else.”
The hunt for lost history
Several attempts to locate Clotilda’s remains have been made over the years, but the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is rife with sloughs, oxbows, and bayous, as well as scores of shipwrecks from more than three centuries of maritime activity. Then in January 2018, a local journalist reported that he had discovered the remains of a large wooden ship during an abnormally low tide. The AHC, which owns all abandoned ships in Alabama’s state waters, called in the archaeology firm Search, Inc., to investigate the hulk.
The vessel in question turned out to be another ship, but the false alarm focused national attention on the long-lost slaver. The incident also prompted the AHC to fund further research in partnership with the National Geographic Society and Search, Inc.
Researchers combed through hundreds of original sources from the period and analyzed records of more than 2,000 ships that were operating in the Gulf of Mexico during the late 1850s. They discovered that Clotilda was one of only five Gulf-built schooners then insured. Registration documents provided detailed descriptions of the schooner, including its construction and dimensions.
“Clotilda was an atypical, custom-built vessel,” says maritime archaeologist James Delgado of Search, Inc. “There was only one Gulf-built schooner 86 feet long with a 23-foot beam and a six-foot, 11-inch hold, and that was Clotilda.”
Records also noted that the schooner was built of southern yellow pine planking over white oak frames and was outfitted with a 13-foot-long centerboard that could be raised or lowered as needed to access shallow harbors.
Based on their research of possible locations, Delgado and Alabama state archaeologist Stacye Hathorn focused on a stretch of the Mobile River that had never been dredged. Deploying divers and an array of devices—a magnetometer for detecting metal objects, a side-scan sonar for locating structures on and above the river bottom, and a sub-bottom profiler for detecting objects buried beneath the mucky riverbed—they discovered a veritable graveyard of sunken ships.