On July 7, 1860, which was more than a half century after the importation of enslaved Africans into America was banned, slave ship Clotilde illegally docked in Mobile, Ala., with as many as 110 Black men, women and children from Dahomey (which is present-day Benin near the west coast of the Motherland).
It was the last recorded slave ship that landed in the U.S.
The Clotilde, an 86-foot-long, 23-foot-wide, two-masted schooner, was built to transport lumber.
Apart from the wreckage shown in the photograph above, there are no other images available because the ship’s owner burned it down in order to destroy all evidence of his crime. That crime was a violation of a federal law known as “The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves,” which was passed in 1807 and implemented in 1808. It didn’t go into effect any sooner because the U.S. Constitution wouldn’t allow it.
Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution, which went into effect in 1789, mandated that the “importation... [of enslaved Africans] shall ‘not’ be prohibited by Congress prior to 1808....”
First of all, it didn’t ban slavery; it banned only the importation of enslaved Africans. Second, it didn’t ban their importation immediately in 1789; it banned it 20 years later in 1808 (with 1789 being counted as the first year).
Why did it take 20 years? The answer’s very simple. It was racism and capitalism. The drafters of the Constitution knew slavery importation was wrong, but they also knew they and others could make a lotta money by continuing it as long as feasibly possible. So they first decided on the 20 year delay and then they in particular- along with racist America in general- decided to breed humans for enslavement instead of importing them for it. Is that psychotically evil or what? This is exactly why I call all of ‘em devils. And don’t accuse me of being racist because I call those white folks devils. After all, a devil is what a devil does. If you do devilment, you’re a devil. Case closed.
The background of Clotilde’s transformation from lumber ship to slave ship goes like this. During the early months of 1860, Timothy Meaher, a wealthy shipbuilder, slave trader, and landowner made a bet with other wealthy slave traders and landowners that he could evade federal authorities and sneak enslaved Africans into the country. They actually bet each other. If that’s not devilment, nothing is. He then hatched a scheme to pretend to bring wood from Africa to America. When he arrived there, he engaged in a conspiracy to kidnap 125 Africans but had time to get (depending on various historical records) only 103-110 because he thought his plan had been exposed when he saw U.S. ships near the area.
Upon arrival back to Mobile with his human cargo that had endured the unimaginably tortuous two-month voyage on the reconverted lumber ship, Meaher was convinced that the feds were onto him. Therefore, he had the Clotilde (also spelled Clotilda) towed upriver during the cover of darkness at night past the port where he ordered the captives ashore. He then had the Clotilde set afire.
He was later arrested and charged with blatantly violating federal law. However, the court ruled that since the ship was destroyed leaving insufficient physical evidence and since the Africans weren’t permitted to testify because they were legally considered “property,” not humans, Meaher couldn’t be criminally liable. Therefore, he was found not guilty of all charges.
The man in the photograph above is Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor on Clotilde. By the way, let’s not call this man, who had been a village chief, by his “slave name.” Instead, let’s show him the respect and dignity he deserves by calling him by his indigenous African name, which he said is Kazoola.
Shortly after Kazoola and other survivors were located by federal authorities, they were freed. That same year, 1860, they immediately labored at local businesses, pooled their meager resources, purchased a small plot of land, and established a community they called “Africatown,” 3 miles north of Mobile. Several of Kazoola’s descendants still live there.
Speaking of descendants, as a hip-hop aficionado, I’m proud to say that there’s a big hip-hop connection to this “Africatown” story. Two of the Clotilde survivors were Charles and Maggie Lewis, who are the great-grandparents of Ahmir Khalib Thompson, aka Questlove of The Roots!
Many of the Coltilde captives were Yoruba and Fon. The “Africatown” residents retained their cultural traditions and language well into the 1950s. Its population peaked at 12,000 and is currently at 2,000.
Zora Neale Hurston, a literary giant of the Harlem Renaissance, interviewed Kazoola in 1927 for an article in the Journal of Negro History. But it was never published. Despite that, the manuscript of her research was posthumously published this year as “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo.’” I encourage everyone to read it.
Kazoola, who was “Africatown’s” official spokesperson in dealing with the outside world, became an ancestor in 1935 at age 94.
In closing, I have a final comment to make about Chief Kazoola and all the other Clotilde captives: Never forget. Always avenge.