Clotilde (slave ship)

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United States
Name: Clotilda
General characteristics
Class and type: Slave ship
Length: 86 ft (26 m)
Beam: 23 ft (7.0 m)
Sail plan: Schooner

The schooner Clotilde (or Clotilda) was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States,[1] arriving at Mobile Bay in autumn 1859[1] (some sources give the date as July 9, 1860[2][3]), with 110-160 slaves.[1] The ship was a two-masted schooner, 86 feet (26 m) long with a beam of 23 ft (7.0 m). The vessel was burned and scuttled at Mobile Bay, soon after. The sponsors had arranged to buy slaves in Whydah, Dahomey on May 15, 1859. [1][2]

Many descendants of Cudjo Kazoola Lewis,[1][2] the last survivor of Clotilde, still reside in Africatown, a neighborhood of Mobile, Alabama. A memorial bust of him was placed in front of the Union Missionary Baptist Church there.[2]


In autumn of 1859, the schooner Clotilde (or Clotilda), under the command of Captain William Foster, arrived in Mobile Bay carrying a cargo of enslaved Africans, numbering between 110 and 160 people.[1] Captain Foster was working for Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipyard owner and shipper, who had built Clotilde in 1856.[1] Local lore relates that Meaher bet some "Northern gentlemen" that he could get around the 1807 law, which prohibited the importation of slaves, without getting caught.[1] Clotilde was a two-masted schooner, 86 feet (26 m) long with a beam of 23 feet (7.0 m), and a copper-sheathed hull.[1] Meaher had learned that West African tribes were fighting, and that the King of Dahomey was willing to trade Africans for US$50 each in the Kingdom of Whydah, Dahomey.[1] Foster arrived in Whydah on May 15, 1859, bought Africans from several different tribes, including members of the Tarkbar tribe of Tamale, Ghana, and headed back to Mobile.[1]

When Clotilde arrived, Federal authorities had been alerted to the illegal scheme. Fearful of criminal charges, Captain Foster arrived in the port at night and transferred his cargo to a riverboat, then burned Clotilde before sinking it.[1] The African slaves were distributed to those having a financial interest in the Clotilde venture, with Timothy Meaher retaining 30 of the Africans on his property near Mobile.[1]

Cudjo (aka Cudjoe) Lewis was among the 30 held by Meaher.[1] Mobile was in the Deep South and blacks, whether Africans or native-born people, were mostly enslaved, occupying the bottom rung of a racial hierarchy.[1] The Africans brought on Clotilde could not be legally enslaved; however, they were treated as chattel. The American Civil War ended six years after the illegal enslavement of the Africans brought aboard Clotilde.[1]

When freed, the Africans settled at Magazine Point, just north of Mobile, calling their community Africatown.[1] They adopted their own rules and leaders, and they established the African Church. The group worked hard: the women used their agricultural skills to raise and sell crops, and the men worked in mills for $1 a day, saving money to purchase the land. When possible, they avoided the whites.[1]

Cudjo Lewis (African name, Kazoola)[1][2] was the last survivor of the Clotilde journey. In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American writer, interviewed Lewis for the Journal of Negro History and made a short film of him.[1] During interviews, Lewis would tell about the civil wars in West Africa, in which members of the losing side were sold into slavery to Africans and Europeans.[1] His group were Tarkars of West Africa.[1] Cudjo related how he had been captured by warriors from neighboring Dahomey, taken into Whydah, and imprisoned within a slave compound. He had been sold by the King of Dahomey to William Foster and then transported to the US.[1] After the American Civil War, the Tarkar people asked the US government that they be repatriated, but they were denied.

They then tried to recreate a homeland in Mobile. The group continued speaking their native language and used African gardening or cooking techniques, trying to retain their West African culture.[1] For several years, Cudjo Lewis served as a spokesman for the Tarkar people of Africatown.[1] He was visited by many prominent blacks, among them Booker T. Washington. Cudjo Lewis eventually came to believe that Africans had to adopt the new country, even though their white countrymen had treated them brutally.[1] Cudjo Lewis died in 1935 at the age of 94.[1]

In Africatown, the Union Baptist Church has the Cudjo Lewis Memorial Statue. In 1997 descendants and friends mounted a campaign to have the community designated a historical site.[1]

Because Captain Foster burned and sank the ship[2] upon arrival in Mobile Bay, archaeological searches continue for the wreck of the Clotilde in the bay.[1]


In the early 1900s, however, tales of slaving and slave ships became popular in the pulp press. About this time a story about Clotilda appeared in Harper's Monthly Magazine (CXIII, 1906), by a S. H. M. Byers. According to the story, Timothy Meagher, a plantation owner, bet some of his friends that he could bring a ship full of Africans into Mobile Bay, Alabama. In the summer of 1860, the story continued, Meagher succeeded: 110 slaves reached shore. Subsequently, the story concluded, Meagher was arrested and charged.

Despite the richness of Byer's story, its veracity is in dispute. In American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837–1862[4] Professor Warren S. Howard noted that "the rumored landing of the Clotilda in Mobile Bay in July 1860 has been accepted by several historians as true, but no good evidence of it has ever been found. Moreover, three authors give three different versions of the affair, and not one offers a sound source for his assertions." As for the particular Harper's Monthly article, says Howard, "Byers, though claiming to have obtained his information from some of the Africans who were landed, gives numerous details about the business side of the voyage which must have been unknown to them; furthermore, he cites no authority for these details."

Whether the Clotilda story is true, and to what extent it is based on any real occurrence, may never be known. That is why Wanderer is still considered the last documented slave ship to reach America. As historian David M. Potter noted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Impending Crisis: 1848–1861,[5] "Apparently everyone in the South in the late 1850s knew someone who knew someone else who had seen a coffle of slaves direct from Africa. But no one who had seen them has left any testimony. One ship, The Wanderer, did bring a cargo of slaves from Africa in 1858, and this bizarre event was apparently reenacted many times in the imagination."

See also[edit]

  • Wanderer, a slave ship that arrived November 1858 (prior year)
  • La Amistad, a cargo ship, in rebellion of slaves from slave ship Tecora


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac "Question of the Month: Cudjo Lewis: Last African Slave in the U.S.?", by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum, July 2005, webpage: Ferris-Clotilde.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Black Travel - Soul Of America | Home" (historic sites), Soul of America, 2007, webpage: SoulofAmerica-6678.
  3. ^ "AfricaTown, USA". The American Folklife Center: Local Legacies. The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2009-05-12. 
  4. ^ American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837–1862, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963, p. 302.
  5. ^ David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis: 1848–1861, NY: Harper Perennial, 1977, p. 397.


Additional reading[edit]

  • Diouf, Sylviane Anna. Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Glennon, Robert M. Kudjo; The Last Slave Voyage to America, Fairhope, AL: Over the Transom Publishing, Inc. 1999.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Barracoon. Unpublished typescripts and hand-written draft, 1931. Alan Locke Collection, Manuscript Department, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.
  • Roche, Emma Langdon. Historic Sketches of the South, New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1914.

External links[edit]

  • "Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile",, 2008, webpage: eNotes-Last-slave-ship-docks-Mobile.
  • James D. Lockett, "The Last Ship That Brought Slaves from Africa to America: The Landing of the Clotilde at Mobile in the Autumn of 1859", The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 22, 1998, webpage: Questia-source.