December 15, 2013

On this day December 16th...

DARC Ethiophile Chronicles

On December 16, 1859 the last slave ship, the Clotilde, under the command of Captain William Foster landed at Mobile Bay, Alabama carrying a cargo of enslaved Africans, numbering approximately 160 people. 

Captain Foster was working for Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile shipyard owner and shipper, who had built the Clotilde in 1856. Local lore relates that Meaher bet some "Northern gentlemen" that he could get around the 1807 law, which prohibited the importation of slaves, without getting caught.

Meaher had learned that West African tribes were fighting, and that the King of Dahomey was willing to trade Africans for US$50 each in the Kingdom of Whydah, Dahomey. The sponsors had arranged to buy slaves in Whydah, Dahomey. On May 15, 1859 Foster arrived in Whydah, bought Africans from several different tribes, including members of the Tarkbar tribe of Tamale, Ghana, and headed back to Mobile, Alabama.

When the Clotilde arrived, Federal authorities had been alerted to the illegal scheme. Fearful of criminal charges, Captain Foster arrived in the port at night and transferred his cargo to a riverboat, then burned the Clotilde before sinking it. The African slaves were distributed to those having a financial interest in the Clotilde venture, with Timothy Meaher retaining 30 of the Africans on his property near Mobile.

Cudjo aka Cudjoe Lewis was among the 30 held by Meaher. Mobile was in the Deep South and blacks, whether Africans or native-born people, were mostly enslaved, occupying the bottom rung of a racial hierarchy. The Africans brought on the Clotilde could not be legally enslaved; however, they were treated as chattel. The American Civil War ended six years after the illegal enslavement of the Africans brought aboard the Clotilde.


Many descendants of Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, the last survivor of the Clotilde, still reside in Africatown, a neighborhood of Mobile, Alabama. A memorial bust of him was placed in front of the Union Missionary Baptist Church there. When freed, the Africans settled at Magazine Point, just north of Mobile, calling their community Africatown.

They adopted their own rules and leaders, and they established the African Church. The group worked hard: the women used their agricultural skills to raise and sell crops, and the men worked in mills for $1 a day, saving money to purchase the land. When possible, they avoided the whites. Cudjo Lewis African name, Kazoola was the last survivor of the Clotilde journey.

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American writer, interviewed Lewis for the Journal of Negro History and made a short film of him. During interviews, Lewis would tell about the civil wars in West Africa, in which members of the losing side were sold into slavery to Africans and Europeans. His group was Tarkars of West Africa. Cudjo related how he had been captured by warriors from neighboring Dahomey and taken into Whydah, and imprisoned within a slave compound. He had been sold by the King of Dahomey to William Foster and then transported to the US. After the American Civil War, the Tarkar people asked the US government to be repatriated, but they were denied. They then tried to recreate a homeland in Mobile. The group continued speaking their native language and used African gardening or cooking techniques, trying to retain their West African culture.


For several years, Cudjo Lewis served as a spokesman for the Tarkar people of Africatown. He was visited by many prominent blacks, among them Booker T. Washington. Cudjo Lewis eventually came to believe that Africans had to adopt the new country, even though their white countrymen had treated them brutally. Cudjo Lewis died in 1935 at the age of 94. In Africatown, the Union Baptist Church has the Cudjo Lewis Memorial Statue. In 1997 descendants and friends mounted a campaign to have the community designated a historical site.

Because Captain Foster burned and sank the ship upon arrival in Mobile Bay, archaeological searches continue for the wreck of the Clotilde in the bay.

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