Ghost Ship

The amazing discovery of a long sunk slave ship in Alabama, both opens and closes a dark chapter of American history



As Alabama, with its recent legislative actions against women, seems intent on plunging itself back into the ugly shadows of its human rights past, ironically a major archaeological find in the heart of the state has brought back to light its more distant dark history.


Thanks to a year-long effort by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH Inc, the last known US slave ship, Clotilda, was discovered at the bottom of the Mobile river, almost 160 years after it was intentionally sunk after transporting 110 men, women and children as slaves from Africa in 1860.


Wreckage of Clotilda, from Historic Sketches of the South, by Emma Landon Roche, published in 1914 Photo provided by Wonderlust

The US banned the importation of slaves in 1808 (but kept the institution of slavery going for another nearly sixty years) but in true “hold my beer” Southern fashion, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher bet a fellow plantation owner that he could have a boat built in Mobile using local wood and pig iron, sail it across the Atlantic and illegally bring slaves back. It was as much for sport and defiance as commerce, which is all the more sickening.


The captives from the Clotilda were freed, after six years of backbreaking work, during the Civil War. They bought land from the Meaher family with money earned working in fields and in the homes of Mobile’s white elite, and settled Africatown USA, a community in northern Mobile that still exists. Among those freedmen and Africatown residents was Cudjo Lewis, who when he died in 1935 was deemed the last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the US. Lewis is the subject of the recently published Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston, 87 years after she wrote it. 


The last known survivor of the slave trade was brought to America on the last known US slave ship. What are the odds?


One hopes the discovery of the Clotilda, closing one evil chapter, manifests some closure for the descendants of the slaves carried on her.