The Story Behind “The Clotilda”, The Last Slave Ship


From the beginning of the seventeenth century till the nineteenth century, an estimated number of over 300,000 Africans were enslaved in the United States of America. Slaves were very valuable during the era of slavery, and it built the foundation of the United States of America. Wealthy businessmen and banks invested immensely in the purchase of slaves than they invested in manufacturing, railways etc.

Joshua Rothman, a historian of slavery at the University of Alabama stated that “Banks in the US and around the globe were pouring money into Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana investing in plantations, southern banks and enslaved people who could be mortgaged.”

The importation of slaves into the US was made illegal and against the law from the year 1808 and by 1859, the prices of slaves sold internally had increased by a huge margin. Thus, cutting drastically into the profits and earnings of the planters and owners of plantations. This stirred up tensions for the trade to be reopened. One angry party was Timothy Meaher who was born in Maine to Irish immigrants. Meaher moved to Alabama with several of his siblings and he amassed fortunes and these fortunes were achieved through shipbuilders, riverboat captains and lumber magnates. He also owned huge plots of land and slaves worked on these lands.

One day, Timothy Meaher made a huge bluff in a heated argument with a couple of merchants from the north. He claimed he was going to smuggle slaves from Africa and bring them to the United States under the watch of the federal authorities. Meaher made little efforts in acquiring investors to aid him in his unapproved and unacceptable act. His friend and accomplice, William Foster, who was also a shipwright had a schooner with the name Clotilda. Foster had built this sleek and speedy schooner with the sole aim of hauling  lumber and cargo’s from the Gulf Of  Mexico. Timothy Meaher bought the schooner $35,000 and recruited Foster and proclaimed him as the captain of the voyage.

Foster and his crew set of in the late February or early March in 1860 for the slave port in Ouidish, which is located in present day Benin. This is what triggered the start of the best documented slave voyages to the United States of America.

Captain William Foster in his journal described the  process he used in purchasing the captives, he used a total of $9,000 cash, gold and merchandise. The captured and enslaved Africans were locked in the cargo hold of the schooner for two months and they were only allowed outside for fresh air only once in every week.

Captain Foster also stated when they arrived from their voyage, that was late in the night, they handed the slaves over to Timothy Meaher and several others. Captain Foster claimed he went ahead to burn and sink the Clotilda but he didn’t disclose the location of the place he buried the wreckage of the Clotilda.

Wreck of the slave ship, Clotilda, photograph from Historic Sketches of the South by Emma Langdon Roche, 1914

Recently, it has been found that the Clotilda was burned and sunk in an Alabama River after bringing to the United States one hundred and ten imprisoned Africans across the Atlantic Ocean in 1860.

The story and the names of the slaves have been passed down from generation to generation. Few people who are related to the slaves live in a town a few kilomeɛters away from the Alabama River called Africatown.


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