Wreck of last known slave ship in the US may have been found

Story of the ‘Clotilda’, which sank off Alabama, has significant place in history of slavery

An  aerial photo in Mobile County, Alabama shows the remains of a ship that could be the Clotilda, the last slave ship documented to have delivered captive Africans to the United States. Photograph: Ben Raines/Al.com via AP

An aerial photo in Mobile County, Alabama shows the remains of a ship that could be the Clotilda, the last slave ship documented to have delivered captive Africans to the United States. Photograph: Ben Raines/Al.com via AP

 

A year before the American civil war, an Alabama businessman set out to win a bet with friends. The international slave trade had been outlawed for decades, but he wagered he could smuggle slaves from Africa to the United States without being caught.

To prove it could be done, the businessman, Timothy Meaher, bought an 86-foot-long sailboat, the Clotilda, and hired its builder to captain a trek to West Africa. Under the cover of night in July 1860, the Clotilda returned to the waters off Alabama with 110 slaves, carefully navigating the tributaries around Mobile to evade authorities.

But a few miles north of Mobile, the captain and its crew grew concerned that the authorities were on their trail. They unloaded the slaves and set the boat on fire in the muddy banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the evidence of their illicit voyage, and the last known American slave ship, never to be found.

Until now. A reporter in Alabama said in an article published on Tuesday that he may have found the wreckage on the shore of a swampy island in the delta, thanks to the same weather system that produced a winter “bomb cyclone” weeks ago. The conditions caused extremely low tides in the area, allowing the boat to reveal itself: charred beams forming the shape of a vessel with almost the exact dimensions of the Clotilda.

“That’s why I went looking when I did. You would not have been able to see it on a normal low tide, it would have all been under water,” said the reporter, Ben Raines of AL.com. Raines, an investigative reporter, is the son of Howell Raines, a former executive editor of the New York Times.

While the wreckage has not been officially identified as the Clotilda, Raines recently took a shipwright expert and a team of archaeologists to survey it. What’s left of the boat – blackened beams and timber, threadless bolts and iron drifts – dates its construction to same period of the Clotilda, they said.

‘Very compelling’

“The location is right, the construction seems to be right, from the proper time period, it appears to be burnt,” Gregory D Cook, one of the archaeologists who visited the site, told AL.com. “So I’d say very compelling, for sure.”

The story of the Clotilda has held a significant place in the history of slavery in the United States, which abolished it in 1865. It was also influential in the history of Alabama, where the slaves brought over on the Clotilda settled, creating what became known as Africatown in Mobile, after emancipation.

Since Meaher boasted in a newspaper article in 1890 about his wicked scheme and the fate of the Clotilda, people have searched the waters, islands and shores off Mobile for signs of its remains. Raines wrote that he believed previous explorers looked near the site he found but never exactly there.

The investigation was sparked in September when Raines asked a friend for thoughts on what he should pursue next. The friend suggested he try to find the Clotilda. And so he did. “What a tale – and such a wholly American tale,” Raines said on Wednesday. “All the good, the bad, and the ugly that we could have produced, all wrapped up in one event.”

Captain’s journal

Raines said in the article that he based his subsequent search on the 1890 newspaper article, the apparent notes by the reporter who wrote it and the journal of Clotilda’s captain, William Foster. There were several major clues that guided Raines, who benefited from his experience as a nature guide in the area. The journal mentions that the slaves were transferred to another boat near 12 Mile Island, where Foster said the Clotilda was set on fire.

During high tide, water covers any sign of the wreckage. But Raines said he set out on a boat to find the wreckage during especially low tides brought on by a large weather system that swept the country this month and eventually produced large snowfall in some parts of the Northeast.

“I think finding the Clotilda would be a fitting capstone for both Mobile’s slaving history and the war that finally ended the practice,” Raines wrote in the article, adding, “It is easy, standing in the wintertime gloom of these Alabama swamps, to imagine that old ghosts haunt these bayous.” – New York Times