Cudjo Lewis remembered the morning he woke at daybreak to a violent raid on his African village, led by a king that had come to capture his people and sell them into slavery. Lewis remembered when the soldiers tied him up in a line with dozens of others and made them march to the coast for days. How, when they arrived in the Kingdom of Dahomey, they were all placed in a barracoon, a pen for slaves, and how, when a white man arrived to buy them, they were stripped naked and herded below deck in a ship called the Clotilda. It was the last ship to ever make the transatlantic slave-trade journey from the coast of Africa to the shores of the U.S. in 1860, long after the slave trade had been outlawed.
Huddling in the dark, Lewis remembered thinking, “We all lonesome for our home,” as he would recall in 1927 to author Zora Neale Hurston, who recorded Lewis’s words and dialect exactly how he pronounced them. “We doan know whut goin’ become of us, we doan want to be put apart from one ’nother.”
For many years, the firsthand accounts of those on the Clotilda, as documented by Hurston and others, were all that remained of the proof of the illegal journey’s existence. Nobody knew what happened to the Clotilda, the palpable evidence of the final Middle Passage journey that brought 110 Africans to the United States and an elusive artifact that the descendants of Lewis and the other slaves had been hoping to find for generations.
Now, after a renewed search effort by archaeologists, divers and historians, the day has finally come: The Clotilda has been discovered along the Mobile River, the Alabama Historical Commission announced Wednesday.
The discovery, as reported by National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine, “is an extraordinary archaeological find,” representing “tangible evidence of slavery,” the commission’s executive director, Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, said in a statement.
The descendants were overjoyed, she said. Many still live in Africatown, Ala., a town founded after the Civil War by the emancipated slaves who had all survived together on the Clotilda.
“By this ship being found, we have the proof that we need to say this is the ship that they were on and their spirits are in this ship,” Lorna Gail Woods — a descendant of Cudjo Lewis’s brother, Charlie — told Smithsonian Magazine. “No matter what you take away from us now, this is proof for the people who lived and died and didn’t know it would ever be found."
The mission to find the Clotilda was headed by the Alabama Historical Commission, the Slave Wrecks Project of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and SEARCH Inc., with financial support from the National Geographic Society.
As Hurston described in her posthumously published book, “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” the ship was previously never found because those who led the expedition burned it, seeking to bury the evidence of the illegal smuggling. The slave trade had been outlawed in the United States in 1808.
Numerous attempts to recover the schooner had failed over the years — but interest was renewed a couple years ago, at the request of descendants and after a shipwreck discovery by a reporter at AL.com, who thought he had found the Clotilda. Although it wasn’t, the buzz captured attention of archaeologists, who continued the search where the reporter, Ben Raines, left off.
Last year, buried in silt, they found what they believed was the real Clotilda, using 3-D scanners and other technology, according to National Geographic. To confirm its authenticity, historians involved in the search gathered hundreds of records from more than 2,000 ships docked in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1850s. Finding 19th century insurance and registration documents for the Clotilda, they managed to compare the ship’s materials and other identifying qualities to those of the ship discovered in the Mobile River, National Geographic reported. At every step, it was a match, James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist on the project, said in a statement.
“We are cautious about placing names on shipwrecks that no longer bear a name or something like a bell with the ship’s name on it,” he said, “but the physical and forensic evidence powerfully suggests that this is Clotilda.”
The story of the Clotilda has been documented by anthropologists like Hurston and even by the ship’s own captain in firsthand accounts, allowing historians to piece together the full journey despite the great lengths the captain initially went to conceal it.
The Clotilda set sail from Alabama in March 1860 on an expedition headed by Timothy Meaher and the ship’s builder, Capt. William Foster, as Foster recorded in a handwritten journal. The schooner, refurbished with a slave cargo hold, arrived in July that year in Dahomey, present-day Benin, where Cudjo Lewis had been held. Foster purchased the 110 Africans with $9,000 in gold, he wrote.
The nearly two-month journey, as described by Lewis in his interviews with Hurston, was at times unbearable.
“Soon we git in de ship dey make us lay down in de dark,” he said, as recorded in “Barracoon.” Lewis said they were given water twice a day, that they were often starving and that the waves roared so loud that they sounded like a thousand beasts growling in the bushes.
Having been stripped of his clothes, Lewis said he felt ashamed, afraid that once he arrived on American soil, the Americans would think they were “naked savages.”
The Clotilda entered U.S. waters and docked at 12 Mile Island along the Mobile River on July 9, 1860, lurking in the dark to avoid detection by government authorities. The slaves were transferred to a steamboat, smuggled away and sold off to plantation owners or other slavers. Lewis worked for Meaher, toting freight from the ships at a Mobile dock.
On one of his first nights in America, Lewis said he felt such immense sorrow he thought he might die in his sleep, dreaming of his mother in Africa.
“We cry for home. We took away from our people. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother,” he told Hurston. “Derefore we cry. We cain help but cry."
Upon emancipation, those who survived the Middle Passage with Lewis founded Africatown as a way to revive all that they had lost, in whatever way possible. In Africatown, they spoke their native language, carried on their native customs, wore their native garb.
The future generations would grow up hearing the stories of how their ancestors were abducted from their homelands and forcibly taken to America on the Clotilda, Woods told National Geographic. When the search efforts forged ahead last year, she told the magazine that the discovery of the ship would do the community “a world of good.”
“All Mama told us would be validated,” she said.
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