It might not be the most odious bet ever placed in the United States, but it may be America’s most evil wager that we know about. And now, climate change has unearthed more information about the last ship to bring slaves to these shores.
According to local legend, in the late 1850s, wealthy plantation owner Timothy Meaher was so certain that he could sneak illegal slaves kidnapped from Africa past federal officials, and into Alabama, that he was willing to put his money where his mouth was. Notwithstanding a 50-year-old law prohibiting any further international slave trade, Meaher hired Captain William Foster to sail a large schooner named the Clotilda to Africa where Foster purchased and transported 110 humans to the US in unspeakably brutal conditions. The men and women were smuggled ashore in Mobile under cover of darkness without anyone from federal government noticing their scheme, transferred to smaller boats, and delivered in chains to local plantation owners across the state.
The crime needed to be covered. Chaining 110 people in a dark, decrepit hold for nearly six weeks, where they were left to swelter in their own filth — vomit, feces, urine, blood — will corrupt a ship, leaving a stain and stench that time cannot wash away.
And that was a problem for Meaher and Foster. People talk, people brag. If their crime were discovered, they would be imprisoned or hanged. So they sailed the now-empty Clotilda up a tributary of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and torched it to destroy the evidence — and ignite an enduring mystery.
Interestingly, Meaher was charged for the crime of slave trading, although — without evidence of a ship or slaves — he was never convicted. At the time, rumors swirled that he had to pay northern gentlemen $100,000 in losing his nefarious bet.
Though by this time, transporting new slaves from Africa was illegal in the U.S., slavery was not, and the surviving members of that horrible last voyage could not forget the events that brought them to the merciless shores of pre-Civil War America. After emancipation, they settled on the Alabama Delta in a community they called Africatown, on land purchased from Meaher, and tried to find their way despite impossible circumstances. They told their children the story of their barbaric capture and transport; those children told their own children, and so on down through the generations.
Historians have never doubted the truth of their tale, for more than enough proof exists in the historical record to suggest that the Clotilda was heavy with both gold and shackles when she left Alabama en route to Africa, to present-day Benin. Some scholars have argued that the international slave trade died soon after the practice was outlawed by Thomas Jefferson in 1808, so this was an anomaly, but the truth is that the officers who enforced the ban were easy to buy off, or quick to look the other way in the early years after the law was passed, for the economy of the south was wrought with slave labor. It was a rare Southern man in those days who thought that black lives were worthy of protection.
Racism being racism, the stories of Africatown were whitewashed as generations passed, with few locals believing that the Clotilda ever sailed the Atlantic with more than lumber, barrels of molasses, sugar, and salted pork or beef in her hold.
And so among white Alabamans, the story of the Clotilda’s last ignoble voyage became a legend, and then a myth, as inconsequential as the mist rising off the delta on steamy days. But now, maybe, the tragic truth can be told, in all its unvarnished ugliness.
The great Polar Vortex of 2017 now will be remembered for doing more than freezing the pants off the coastal elites, for the vortex also brought abnormally low tides to the Alabama Delta. That was all the encouragement that Ben Raines needed. Raines, a reporter with AL.com, and part-time nature guide, decided to make the most of conditions. On his boat, he headed out to look for the Clotilda along the meandering coastline and muddy waters of the Tenslaw Delta, following a tip from a local whose family has lived in the area since the 1800s.
Just north of Mobile, Raines found the skeleton of a long, thin ship poking up from the mud like a beached brachiosaurus, and a shiver ran down his spine. Though the delta is rich with historical wrecks, everything about this discovery told him that he could very well have solved a 160-year old mystery, and brought closure for the ancestors of that horrible wager. Many people of color living in southern Alabama, including 10 in Africatown, are descendants of the last slave ship.
Stories told at a grandmother’s knee
Now they know their forebears were telling the truth.
“My grandmother would tell us the story so we wouldn’t forget and so that we could continue to tell the story,” says 69-year-old Lorna Gail Woods from Africatown, her voice warm and golden, dripping with a soft, southern cadence. “This is the proof that we needed. I am elated because so many people said that it didn’t really happen that way, that we made the story up.”
In truth, archaeologists aren’t ready to certify the wreck that Raines found, but they agree that so much about it feels right. Schooners of that era, built fast and strong, were the workhorses of the Gulf Coast and much of the eastern seaboard. Raines’s discovery was built and reinforced like a schooner originally designed to haul timber, and its dimensions are virtually spot on.
“You can definitely say maybe, and maybe even a little bit stronger, because the location is right, the construction seems to be right, [it’s] from the proper time period, it appears to be burnt. So I’d say very compelling, for sure,” said Greg Cook, a University of West Florida archaeologist who examined the wreck.
The mystery ship is tilted to port, the right side almost buried in mud. Starboard, however, is almost completely exposed, so researchers can thoroughly examine the old schooner to determine its provenance. It is built with wood-working techniques commonly used in Gulf Coast schooners from that era, and the interior timbers are scorched. The metal plates holding the mast and bowsprit in place bear a patina that suggests they have been licked by flame.
“I’m quaking with excitement. This would be a story of world historical significance, if this is the Clotilda,” said John Sledge, a senior historian with Mobile Historical Commission. “It’s certainly in the right vicinity… We always knew it should be right around there.”
Although the finding should vindicate ancestors like Wood, it comes with a heavy price. Everything about the Clotilda and her scuppering tears at the heart.
Heartbreak and vindication
For one thing, Meaher didn’t make the bet to add to his fortune.
He did it for fun. He did this because he believed that men and women from Africa deserved slavery, that God intended white folk to be their overlords.
Meaher was a wealthy plantation owner and steamboat captain. He seems to have had little use for slaves beyond their ability to work unspeakably long hours. In later years, when he knew his crimes would go unpunished, he told the story to a newspaper like a raconteur exulting in a salty wartime memory. With no scintilla of shame or guilt.
He was wealthy, yet he refused to help the people he kidnapped after the Emancipation Proclamation. He continued to be held in high regard, and his family gave their name to a popular state park.
Now, perhaps, Clotilda’s ancestors may very well find their lives reflected in this discovery. In the history of U.S. slavery, these ancestors are unique, as their forebears knew where they came from, and the name of the ship that carried them across a dark and lonely sea.
Now there will be artifacts and remembrances, if the find is verified.
Oddly, the very act of destruction may have saved the Clotilda. Torching a floating ship without accelerant often creates high-pressure steam as the boat sinks, which acts like a fire extinguisher, and blows out the fire before the worst damage can be done. So there is hope that a fair bit of the Clotilda remains intact. If enough is salvageable, it could be used to create a museum in Africatown and tell a story that should never have been forgotten.
It’s early. For the old wreck to be investigated thoroughly, several government departments must grant permits and permission. And then maybe something good will come from the most wicked bet ever wagered.
Raines says throughout history, plantation owners have pretended the Clotilda incident never happened. “So finding the ship and being able to tie it to [the descendants’] experience, could be a very powerful thing and go a long way toward healing those wounds.”
Liston Porter, who has lived in Africatown for 55 years, says the story of the Clotilda has been woven through the fabric of the community.
“It is very important to know from whence you come,” Portis says. “Especially in the African-American community because we were not reading and writing, so our stories that were passed on molded us.”
“To actually see our history and know where we come from specifically just gives credence to our story.”