In 2018, journalist Ben Raines emerged from the murky waters of the Mobile River cradling a long, barnacled fragment of wood. The moment marked the first time in 160 years that a piece of the Clotilda, the last slave ship in history to carry enslaved Africans to the United States, had seen the light of day.
Though the Atlantic slave trade was banned by Congress in 1808, Alabama steamboat captain Timothy Meaher made a bet in 1859 that he could accomplish an illegal slave run to Africa and sneak the ship and its captives up Mobile Bay, right beneath the noses of federal officials. Meaher recruited William Foster, who hailed from Nova Scotia, to captain the voyage, and the plan was set in motion. Despite risking the noose, Foster successfully traversed the Atlantic Ocean (with a crew that was misled about the true objective of their journey) and bought Africans held captive by an enemy tribe in the ancient kingdom of Dahomey. Upon returning to Mobile Bay undetected, Foster and Meaher unloaded their human cargo and set the vessel ablaze in order to hide the evidence of their crime.
The Clotilda would remain in its watery grave until Raines’ discovery in 2018. His book “The Last Slave Ship,” published this year by Simon & Schuster, tells the full, heartbreaking story of the Clotilda and the fate of its 110 captives (some of whom were sold, others enslaved by Meaher and Foster). A significant and hallowed landmark in American history, the remnants of the Clotilda also represent an intensely personal discovery for the descendants of the ship’s captives and for the residents of Africatown; after emancipation, the Clotilda’s survivors, including the storied Cudjo Lewis, founded the Africatown community and ruled it according to the laws and customs of their homeland. The story of the Clotilda, its survivors and the town they nurtured is deftly handled by Raines, further preserving the tragic story and resilient legacy of America’s last slave ship.
Raines’ book is available for purchase locally at the Haunted Bookshop in Mobile and Page & Palette in Fairhope.
Excerpt from “The Last Slave Ship”
As they approached Mobile, the captain took a purposefully circuitous route, sailing right past Alabama and the twin forts that guarded the main entrance to Mobile Bay. He kept the ship far offshore as he passed, to ensure her sails wouldn’t be spied by the lookouts at the forts or by the keeper of the Sand Island Lighthouse. Due to the curvature of the Earth, ships disappear below the horizon once they are about twelve miles offshore. [Captain William] Foster was making for Petit Bois Pass, which runs between Dauphin Island and Petit Bois Island, barrier islands each about seven miles off the coast. The pass is at the far west end of Dauphin Island, about eighteen miles from Fort Gaines, which sits on the extreme eastern tip of the island, guarding the main entrance to the port of Mobile. He knew no one at the fort would be able to spy Clotilda as she came ashore there. This was all part of the plan hatched before the voyage even began. Foster and Meaher agreed they would try to sneak the Clotilda into the Mississippi Sound and hide her at a place called Pointe aux Pins. The point is a marshy outcropping that juts out from the Alabama coast between two geographic features, Bayou La Batre and Grand Bay. As the English translation of its name suggests, “Point of Pines” features a dense forest of tall slash pine trees, which would have helped obscure the Clotilda from the view of any ships heading north up Mobile Bay.
The area was uninhabited except for a small outpost of fishermen who lived in rough cabins a little way up the bayou in an area known as San Souci, which translates as “without a care.”
The plan called for Foster and the slaves to wait aboard the Clotilda for Meaher, who was supposed to be monitoring the rendezvous location for the ship’s arrival. Meaher was to bring another vessel and take the captives up the bay, into the Mobile River and on to his waiting plantation. Meanwhile, Foster would sail the Clotilda to Mexico, have her thoroughly scrubbed to wash away the evidence of slaving, then rename the ship, change its rigging, and purchase fake papers clearing her for a cargo run to New Orleans. Unfortunately, while Foster was sailing to Africa, Meaher and the other conspirators had bragged of their caper to anyone who would listen. Meaher became convinced he was being watched by federal officials lying in wait for Clotilda. Not only was Meaher too scared to post a watch at the rendezvous point, as their plan called for, but the Clotilda made better time than expected on the return journey and was back in Alabama ahead of schedule.
While Foster claims in his journal that he passed through Petit Bois Pass on July 9, it is almost certain it was July 7, a Saturday. Cudjo remembered that the ship dropped anchor and stopped moving for the first time in the journey. The next morning, the crew brought a tree branch covered with green leaves to the captives to communicate that they were close to shore and had arrived at their destination. The slaves were told to stay quiet. Meanwhile, up on deck, Foster was having yet another showdown with a mutinous crew. After waiting all night and into Sunday morning for his partner in crime to arrive, per their plan, Foster realized he would have to go to Mobile and fetch Meaher to the ship. But the crew wasn’t having it. They were now pirates in possession of a ship full of human contraband. It wouldn’t matter to the authorities that none of them had known the true mission of the ship when they left port. The fact that they had sailed a ship full of kidnapped Africans across the ocean meant they were all eligible for the noose. The last thing the crew wanted was more time resting at anchor in American waters aboard the evidence of their crime.
Excerpted from THE LAST SLAVE SHIP by Ben Raines. Copyright © 2022 by Ben Raines. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.