Officials: Last Slave Ship from Africa Found in Alabama

25 May, 2019

Researchers reportedly have found wreckage from the last ship known to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States. U.S. historical officials say the discovery took place off the southern coast of Alabama.

The Alabama Historical Commission announced the discovery. It said last Wednesday in a statement that remains of the ship Clotilda were identified and confirmed near Mobile, Alabama after months of study.

The Clotilda was purposely sunk the year before the Civil War to hide evidence of its illegal trip. The wreckage had not been seen since.

The last remaining original structure from the days when survivors of the Clotilda inhabited the area, stands in an abandoned lot in Africatown in Mobile, Ala.
The last remaining original structure from the days when survivors of the Clotilda inhabited the area, stands in an abandoned lot in Africatown in Mobile, Ala.

Lisa Demetropoulos Jones is executive director of the commission. She said the ship's passage represented one of the darkest periods of modern history, and the wreck offers physical evidence of slavery.

In 1860, the wooden ship illegally transported 110 people from what is now the west African nation of Benin to Mobile. The Clotilda was then taken into waters north of the port and burned to avoid being found.

The enslaved Africans were later freed and settled a community that is still called AfricaTown USA or Africatown. But no one knew where the Clotilda was.

A living relative of one of the Africans who was brought on the ship said she got chills when she learned of the findings.

"I think about the people who came before us who labored and fought and worked so hard," said Joycelyn Davis. She is the sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis.

In 2018, a news reporter from the Mobile area discovered wooden remains of what was first thought to be the Clotilda. But the wreck was found to be from another ship. Still, public interest in the story led to a new search last year that found another wreck now confirmed as the ship.

Officials did not say how much of the ship is left or what might happen to the remains. But the size and construction of the wreck appear to be those of the Clotilda, the commission said. And it contains building materials such as locally grown trees and metal pieces. There are also signs of fire.

Ocean archaeologist James Delgado said in a statement that the physical and scientific evidence "powerfully suggests that this is Clotilda."

Officials said they are working on a plan to secure the area where the ship was found.

The United States banned the importation of enslaved people in 1808. But smugglers continued to sail the Atlantic Ocean with wooden ships full of people. Southern plantation owners demanded workers for their cotton fields.

During that time, plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could secretly bring a ship of Africans across the ocean, historian Natalie S. Robertson said. The Clotilda sailed from Mobile to western Africa, where it took possession of the captives and brought them to Alabama.

"They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport," Robertson said.

The Clotilda arrived in Mobile in 1860 and was quickly sunken north of Mobile Bay. It was there that researchers worked to identify the ship.

The Africans spent the next five years enslaved during the Civil War. They were freed only after the southern states had lost. Unable to return home to Africa, about 30 of them used money earned from working in fields and homes and on ships to buy land from the Meaher family. They settled in a community that is known to this day as Africatown.

Officials said they plan to present a report on the findings at a community center in Africatown later this week.

I'm Alice Bryant.

Jay Reeves wrote this story for The Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

chillsn. a sudden cold feeling in the body caused a (good or bad) emotional reaction to something

constructionn. the way something is built or made

smuggler n. to move (someone or something) from one country into another illegally and secretly

plantationn. a large area of land especially in a hot part of the world where crops are grown

betn. an agreement in which people try to guess what will happen and the loser must give something (such as money) to the winner

defiancen. a refusal to obey something or someone