Jerry Summers: Clotilda - Alabama's Last Slave Ship

Wednesday, December 2, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Tensions in the dispute over slavery, which would eventually result in the Civil War, put pressure on Congress to enact the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slavery effective January 1, 1808.

It was a federal law that provided that no new slaves would be permitted to be imported into the United States.

The statute was not rigidly enforced and the domestic slave trade in the United States was not affected by the 1807 act.

President Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, pushed for the legislation as part of the national trend toward abolishing the international slave trade which his native state of Virginia had banned and was followed by all states except South Carolina.

As a result the domestic slave trade within the country increased in importance as well as the continuation of some slave smuggling.  Prices for slaves skyrocketed.

In 1860 Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile landowner and shipbuilder, allegedly wagered several Northern businessmen a thousand dollars that he could smuggle a cargo of Africans into Mobile Bay under the nose of federal officials enforcing the prohibitions against importation of slaves from abroad.

Meaher chartered a sleek, swift schooner titled “Clotilda” and entrusted its builder, Captain William Foster, to sail to the notorious slave port of Ouidah in present day Benin in  West Africa to buy captives.

He purchased 110 young men, women and children for $9,000 in gold and crowded them into the schooner’s hold.

During the six-week journey back to Alabama under brutal conditions one girl allegedly died. 

It was estimated that Meaher would receive 20 times ($180,000) more than he had paid for the slaves at a sale in Mobile.

After avoiding capture by federal gunboats the Clotilda successfully entered Mobile Bay and the cargo was transferred to a riverboat owned by Meaher’s brother by Captain Foster.

He next burned the slave ship to the waterline and scuttled it to hide the crime in Mobile Bay.

After the Civil War most of the freed slaves wanted to go back to their homes in West Africa, but lacked the financial means to purchase passage tickets.

As a result the former slaves bought small plots of land north of Mobile and formed a community that came to be known as Africatown.

Over the years the story of the Clotilda was often repeated.  Some versions were accepted while others were discounted as being a sham.

Several attempts had also been made to locate the ship's remains.

Research revealed documentation of detailed descriptions of the schooner, including the construction and dimensions.

In January 2018, local journalist Ben Raines discovered a large wooden ship during an abnormally low tide.  The Alabama Historical Commission (AHC), which owns rights to all abandoned ships in Alabama’s state waters, employed the archaeology firm, Search, Inc.

to investigate the wreck.

Although the first vessel examined turned out to be another ship national attention was focused on the last ship Clotilda.

As a result the AHC funded further research in a partnership with Search, Inc. and the National Geographical Society.

It was decided to examine a section of the Mobile River that had never been dredged before and a virtual graveyard of sunken ships was located.

Through a diligent examination of all parts of the schooner all other vessels were eliminated, and it was determined that by evaluating all various pieces of evidence the Clotilda was identified “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

The ongoing questions and mystery surrounding the Clotilda have now somewhat been answered for the descendants of the 109 slaves brought to America in 1860 on a bet.  The last survivor of the fateful trip, Matilda McCrear, lived until 1940.

What the future holds for the descendants is still undecided.  Africatown was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.

The AHC released the official archaeology report at a community celebration in Africatown on May 30, 2019.

Whether the discovery of the wreck can help eradicate the area's problems of declining population, poverty, and a host of environmental problems from heavy industries that surround the community is unknown.

The CBS Show 60 Minutes recently featured the story of the Clotilda.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           



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