As It Happens

Last slave ship to bring people to the U.S. discovered in Alabama

Researchers have discovered the wreckage of what they believe was the last ship used to smuggle enslaved people from Africa to the United States.

The Clotilda was smuggling enslaved people decades after the practice was banned

In this undated image released by SEARCH Inc. in May 2019, archeologists examine a loose piece of the wrecked Gulf schooner Clotilda, in delta waters north of Mobile Bay, Ala. (Daniel Fiore/SEARCH, Inc./Associated Press)

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Researchers have discovered the wreckage of what they believe was the last ship used to smuggle enslaved people from Africa to the United States.

Remnants of a sunken ship found in Alabama's Mobile River earlier this year have been identified as the Clotilda — the U.S.'s last known active slave ship.

Its discovery provides tangible evidence of how men, women and children were being transported to the U.S. for enslavement long after that practice was banned.

"The community is over the moon because [there] is a sense of knowing about this history for so long," Mary Elliott, curator for slavery and freedom at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"And to be able to have this history in a tangible form means the world to them."

Challenging the law

Slavery in the U.S. wasn't officially abolished until 1865, but the importation of slaves was banned in 1808 and punishable by death.

So when plantation owner Timothy Meaher of Mobile, Ala., hired the Clotilda in 1860 for an illegal trip to Africa, Elliott says he was betting he could get away with skirting the law. 

An image of the slave ship Clotilda taken from a biographical memoir of James Dennison, an enslaved man who served as a pilot on the ship, written by his ancestor Mobel Dennison. (Dan Anderson/EPA-EFE)

"We're used to contextualizing it in terms of economics and politics and power, but this apparently was a venture to just prove a point, at the cost of human lives."

In order to hide the evidence, the Clotilda's captain, William Foster, burned the vessel in a river bayou north of Mobile after unloading about 110 captives on to a steamboat.

Though it was widely known that the wreck of the Clotilda was likely at the bottom of the river, the exact location was unknown.

Researchers originally thought they had discovered it in March, but it turned out to be another ship.

The publicity resulted in a new search that led them to the spot where a wreck was found.

In this undated image released by SEARCH Inc., maritime archeologist Kyle Lent examines a wooden plank from the hull of Clotilda, in delta waters north of Mobile. (Daniel Fiore/SEARCH, Inc. via Associated Press)

Using detailed archival records of more than 1,500 ship registries, researchers determined the half-buried ship was the exact size and shape of the Clotilda.

The ship's markings were all burned off, but the fact that it was burned made the wreckage more easily identifiable as the correct vessel. 

"The irony of it," Elliott said, "is that by burning the ship, they gave us a marker to identify whether it was the ship."

Descendants in Africatown

Many people who had been brought to the area around Mobile founded a community called Africatown. Some of their descendants still live there today.  

Elliott says she spoke to a man from Africatown about the discovery.

"He said this moment for him was like the moment when Martin Luther King marched across the Selma Bridge," she recalled.

"It's this opportunity to see how important this history is, and to confront this history directly."

Joycelyn Davis, a direct descendant of slave ship Clotilda survivor Charlie Lewis, stands for a portrait at the community centre in Africatown in Mobile. (Julie Bennett/Associated Press)

It's not yet clear what will be done with the remnants of the ship.

Officials with the Alabama Historical Commission will meet next week with residents in Africatown to detail the discovery and begin a discussion about the next steps.

Joycelyn Davis, a descendant of one of the Africans held captive aboard the ship, said she wants to somehow honour the enslaved people aboard the ship and the hard work of their descendants in forming Africatown.

"I got chills when it heard it," Davis, who still lives in the area, told Associated Press. 

The existence of Africatown is a testament to the power of "resistance and resilience and survival," Elliott explained.

"We can linger on the human suffering, but you have to talk about the strength of the human spirit, because they survived through this."

Written by Menaka Raman-Wilms and Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Mary Elliott produced by Menaka Raman-Wilms.