“The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning" By: Ben Raines
“The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning”
Author: Ben Raines
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)
On April 9, 2018, after years of research and some disappointments, Ben Raines of Fairhope, Alabama, in SCUBA gear, dove to the bottom of the Mobile River on the east side of Twelve Mile Island and brought up a piece of the “Clotilda.” That ship, the last ship to bring slaves to America, had lain undiscovered for over one hundred and fifty years.
With eloquent prose and a controlled, if sometimes nearly incredulous tone, Raines tells the story of that ship’s last voyage, the forces that prompted the voyage, and the fate of the Africans who were brought across the Atlantic in the hold of that ship, down to the present day.
In the beginning was the bet.
Multimillionaire Timothy Meaher of Mobile made a bet of $1,000—$30,000 in today’s dollars—that he could send a ship to Africa, buy slaves there and return safely to Mobile. The international slave trade had been outlawed since 1808, so, if caught, the punishment could be hanging.
It should be noted that Meaher did not go himself.
He hired Captain William Foster whose payment would be ten of the captives, and fitted out the “Clotilda” to carry prisoners. At about 86 feet, she was small but fast.
Among the many astonishing revelations in Raines’ book is the story of the Kingdom of Dahomey.
As a boy I had no real idea of how westerners captured Africans and brought them back. I may have had some notion of Portuguese sailors going ashore themselves on a raid.
That didn’t happen much, if at all.
As Raines describes, the kingdom of Dahomey was entirely organized around this venture. There were 50,000 warriors, one fourth of the entire population. It was a Sparta but with ferocious Amazon warriors as well as males. The Dahomans raided neighboring villages, killing and beheading everybody not between 12 and 30 and bringing the rest back in chains to the barracoons near the shore to sell to westerners. This went on for 250 years, with hundreds of thousands captured and sold. They sold tens of thousands per year for about $50-60 apiece.
You have never heard anything like it.
Foster returned in July of 1860 with 110 Africans.
One able-bodied male brought perhaps $1200-1400, $50,000 in today's money.
Meaher off-loaded the captives, worth 6 million dollars in today’s cash, then burned and sank the ship to avoid discovery. In fact, no one was ever punished for this crime, but that is just the first chapter in this incredible story.
The enslaved aboard the “Clotilda” had grown up together, knew one another, and in servitude around Mobile, they still communicated.
They had their established customs. For example, they would NOT be struck. A field hand, struck by an overseer, would fight back, joined by his mates. A house servant, slapped, set up a wail heard all over the plantation. Dozens came to her rescue.
Five years later, when the Civil War ended, these 110 people were freed but the story continues. Unlike the legions of other enslaved people, they remembered life in their home village. They knew perfectly well how to be free. After trying unsuccessfully to save enough money to return to what is now Benin, they bought land, which they named Africatown, and set up a village government with hierarchies of leadership, their own judicial system. They farmed, opened businesses, cooperated, built a church, a school.
Much of what we know about life in Africa and early Africatown, we learned from Cudjo Lewis who lived long enough—until 1935—to be interviewed extensively by Zora Neale Hurston among others.
The town thrived for decades. In the ’70s the population was 12,000. Then the Meahers, still local rich folk, bulldozed the cottages they were renting, the industrial pollution all around the town went beyond toxic all the way to deadly, generating a cancer cluster, and the government put a highway through, tearing the community in two.
Raines’ previous book was the environmental cri du coeur “Saving America’s Amazon,” and his expertise and outrage infuse this section of the story. In the interests of commerce and "development" environmental regulations were ignored by the worst environmental protection agency in the country.
Raines has researched the story of the “Clotilda” through all the written materials on the subject, through his own exploration of the Mobile Delta and by an extensive trip to Benin, the territory which was Dahomey and surrounding territory.
There he learned, to his and the reader's surprise, that there are discussions ongoing between the descendants of the Dahomans and the descendants of the peoples they captured, killed and sold into slavery. Not too surprisingly, there are still some bad feelings. There is talk of reparations, reconciliation, apology and forgiveness.
Here in Alabama, Raines argues, the “Clotilda” should be raised, and become the centerpiece of an Africatown museum which would be educational and attract tourism to rival the Legacy Museum in Montgomery and revitalize that much-abused community.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.