Culture, Pop & Otherwise

The Last Slave Ship: The Story behind Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon

A Daring Bet and the Consequences that Fell in the Wrong Place

In the late 1850s, tensions were rising between the North and the South in the United States, and the South’s desire to hold on to slavery was a key issue in those tensions. Many laws had been made toward the abolition of slavery, including a bill passed on March 2, 1807, that made it illegal to import slaves into the United States after January 1, 1808, or to outfit vessels to import slaves. The fines for these offenses could be upwards of $10,000 and 10 years in jail.

President Thomas Jefferson had pushed for the bill to make the importation of slaves illegal, stating in his message to Congress on December 2nd, 1806;

I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe

In 1820, slave-trading became a capital offense, yet an estimated 50,000 slaves were still imported into the United States during these years before the Civil War.

In the Southern United States, a movement arose, dubbed the ‘fire-eaters.’ They wanted to reopen the slave trade with the expectation of both incensing Northerners and gaining Southern secession, while also driving down the price of slaves.

In 1858, just a few years before the tensions broke into the Civil War, one Captain Timothy Meaher, a wealthy steamboat baron and ardent supporter of slavery in Mobile, Alabama, overheard a group of gentlemen discussing the impossibility of bringing slaves from Africa into the United States. Meaher was unwilling to believe that the slave trade would cease and bet the men $100,000 that he could bring a boat of Africans into the Mobile bay without getting caught. For reference, today that amount of money would be over $1.5 million dollars.

Lacking an image of the Clotilde, here is a similarly styled ship of the schooner type often used in slave voyages: United States Navy schooner USS Wanderer. (Credit: Public Domain)

Determined to outwit the government and win his bet, Meaher searched for a fast and efficient boat. He found this in the Clotilda, a schooner owned by Captain William Foster. After buying the schooner for $35,000 (a little over half a million today) Meaher made arrangements to remodel Clotilda so she could more efficiently carry her intended cargo. By doing this Meaher broke other laws made since 1794 that prohibited the building of a ship for the purpose of carrying slaves.

But Meaher paid no attention to laws and it didn’t take him long to secure the promise of cargo. On November 9th, 1858 the Mobile Press Register printed information stating that captives of the Dahomey tribe were being sold as slaves on the West Coast of Africa. Meager set his sights and his money on these captives.

Two years after his initial bet, on March 4th, 1860, the Clotilda set sail. Well aware of the illegality of his activities, Meaher took many precautions. One of these precautions involved naming Foster as the Captain of the ship. By doing this, Meaher remained in the United States, where he logged fifty-two trips aboard his ship the Robert B. Taney, keeping a record of the fact he never left the country.

Foster, on the other hand, sailed toward western Africa to the area that is now Ghana. When he reached the shore on May 15th, 1860, he found a defeated tribe, the people from the village of Tarkbar, being sold by the Dahomey warriors.  Foster bought 125 of the captives for around a hundred dollars each, but only loaded 110 before he began to suspect the King of Dahomey may trick him and try to recapture the cargo he just bought.

By the time Foster reached the Bay of Mobile on July 9th, 1860, federal agents were waiting for the ship. It wasn’t only the government who had heard about Meaher’s plan, many ordinary people were interested in the expedition and hundreds of them stood out on St. Anthony’s street to catch a glimpse of the native Africans.

The people and the government agents were all disappointed; the Clotilda did not arrive in the city. Unwilling to get caught and lose the bet, Meaher placed James Dennison, one of his slaves, in charge of the tugboat the Billy Jones and had him wait at the mouth of the Spanish River, which empties into the Bay of Mobile. Dennison tugged the Clotilda to an awaiting riverboat, the Czar, owned by Meaher’s brother Byrnes, where the crew and cargo of the ship were transferred. Meanwhile, Meaher burned and sunk the Clotilda in the Bay. The Czar then brought the slaves to the plantation of John M. Dabney where they were hidden in the canebrake and swamps.

Even with the evidence so well-hidden, talk of Meaher’s bet and the arrival of the native Africans gave federal agents enough proof to charge not only Meaher but his brother Byrnes and John M. Dabney with importing 102 Africans with the intent to sell them into slavery. Unfortunately, the rumors weren’t strong enough to convict the men and the case was dismissed because the government couldn’t prove Meaher’s involvement. It didn’t hurt Meaher’s case that in January 1861 Alabama seceded from the Union and was no longer in the jurisdiction of the United States when he was called to trial that spring.

Making the Best out of the Worst: Africatown, USA

A modern sign in Africatown at the historical cemetery

So what happened to all the members of the Tarkbar tribe that Meaher had stolen from Africa? They were far away from their families and taken to a foreign land where they didn’t even know the language. Meager had arranged for many of the slaves to be sold throughout the state, mostly as novelties as the newly-enslaved people had lived as free people up until their violent capture and knew nothing of plantation society in the deep South, let alone the immense language and culture barriers they faced.

Likely because of the trial, Meaher freed the remaining thirty-three Tarkbars who he had originally withheld for himself near his plantation at Magazine Point, about three miles from the city of Mobile. There they created their own community, Africatown, USA, where they continued to speak in their native tongue and preserved many cultural practices from their African village, including medicine and government. For decades their tribal chieftain, Charlie Poteete, oversaw affairs within the community, while Jabez, their village doctor, treated people’s illnesses.

Although Meaher should have been charged for his crime, the Civil War disrupted more than his trial. It put an end to the trade and sale of humans within the bounds of the United States. More than five years after the Clotilda docked in Mobile Bay, all the survivors of her journey were finally free. After the Civil War ended, many of the enslaved Tarkbars that had been scattered around other plantations moved to Africatown to rejoin their people.

The people of the Clotilda asked to be repatriated to their home country (since they were kidnapped and illegally imported into the United States) but were denied. They even asked Meaher, for whom they worked for free for five years, to give them some land in exchange for their work, but he refused. He did agree to sell them a piece of land but offered not a cent of discount to the people he stole from their homes and used illegally for his own personal gain for years.

At one point in the 20th century, the population of Africatown reached as high as 12,000. The population dwindled over time and now most of Africatown has been incorporated into Mobile, Alabama, and the nearby town of Pritchard. In the 1980s the main commercial district was bulldozed to make way for a highway.

Cudjo Lewis and Zora Neale Hurston in Africatown

Released in May 2018

One of the most famous residents of Africatown was Cudjo Lewis – the focus of Zora Neale Hurston’s newly rediscovered and released book Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” Lewis went by many names including Uncle Cudjo, Raseola Lewis, and Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis. Lewis was one of the first thirty-three settlers of Africatown and the last of those who were aboard the Clotilda to die. He worked as a janitor at the Union Baptist Church for seventy years until a few months before his death on October 2nd, 1935. He is said to have been 114 years old (although other sources say 95), whereas the average lifespan of men born around the time of Cudjo Lewis, especially regarding the conditions of his life, lived until around the age of 40. While many in his native village had died at the hands of the Dahomey tribe, Lewis survived, only to be sold to foreign men, enduring the grueling middle passage from Africa to the United States where he was hidden in the swamps on the eve of the Civil War, until, in his freedom, he helped create a community that is still alive today.

Lewis’s ability to tell stories, along with his vivid memories of life in Africa and his arrival to the United States made him a favorite for interviews in leading magazines and newspapers during his lifetime.

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston first visited Cudjo Lewis to interview him for the Journal of Negro History, although the article was never published.  Hurston was a trained cultural anthropologist, educated at Barnard College after first attending Howard University for her Associate’s degree. Lewis was reticent at first to share his story, but Hurston returned to Africatown in 1931 and spent three months intermittently interviewing Lewis, using his African name, Kossula, and earning his trust. She finally learned about his life in Africa, his capture, his life in slavery, and his experience building the community after emancipation. Lewis opened up about how scary the voyage over an ocean he had never seen had been and how frustrating it was to not understand other people, especially other people of color who he says ‘just stared at him funny.’ He recounted thinking that he would die in his sleep dreaming about his mother.

Hurston tried to publish the book during her lifetime but refused to edit Lewis’ language and dialect in her manuscript, as she believed it was an important part of his identity. Black intellectuals and political leaders during that time, many of whom Hurston was associated with through the Harlem Renaissance, shared a fear that the book would lay bare the tribal African’s hands in the slave trade through Lewis’ account of his tribe being captured by one and sold by another.

The Relevance of the Clotilda Today

The manuscript of Hurston’s fieldwork with Lewis was held in the archives at Howard University until it was recently released on May 8, 2018, as Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”

In the remnants of the Africatown community today a bust of Cudjo Lewis stands in front of the Union Baptist Church, commemorating not only his life but the lives of all those who made the journey on the Clotilda. They, like Lewis, also shared their stories with generations of new inhabitants in Africatown, many of who share bloodlines with the original settlers.

In an episode of Henry Louis Gates’ Finding Your Roots, the famed hip hop drummer Questlove discovered he is a descendant of Charles and Maggie Lewis, who were taken captive and sold as slaves before being brought into the US on the Clotilda.

Africatown was the first self-sufficient community run by full-blooded Africans in the United States where they kept their customs and language. The community then survived through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow, segregated South (deep in Alabama), and the turbulent fight for Civil Rights that shook Alabama violently.

Those aboard the Clotilda that lived in Africatown and are buried in the cemetery there have their headstones facing out towards Mobile Bay, looking out over the ocean towards their native homeland.

Other Books about the Clotilda and AfricaTown:

Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America by Sylviane A. Diouf, March 9th, 2007

The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA: Spirit of Our Ancestors by Natalie S. Robertson, March 2008

1 Comment

  • Thank the heavens and the hells for these people who documented what they could. So deserving of respect for the decendents.

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