The Wreck Of The Clotilda, The Last American Slave Ship, Has Been Found In Alabama

No photos of the actual Clotilda exist, but it goes without saying that slave ships were extremely inhumane. Morphart Creation/Shutterstock

The murky depths of Alabama's Mobile-Tensaw Delta are littered with the sunken remains of more than three centuries' worth of shipwrecks, and this nautical graveyard has now been confirmed as the final resting place of the Clotilda, the last ship ever to bring slaves to America. The wreckage of this notorious schooner had eluded researchers ever since it completed its illegal voyage in 1860, yet has finally been discovered lurking in a watery grave near Mobile, Alabama.

Although the slave trade was outlawed in the US 1807, the illegal transport of enslaved people from West Africa continued for more than half a century, as demand for workers rose on Southern cotton plantations.

According to historical reports, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher commissioned the Clotilda after making a bet that he could bring a shipload of slaves into the country without being apprehended by the authorities. Captained by William Foster, the ship left Mobile in March 1860, reaching the notorious slave port of Ouidah in Benin around 10 weeks later.

Foster purchased 110 men, women and children for a price of $9,000, 109 of whom are believed to have survived the return voyage. Shortly after arriving back in Mobile, the Clotilda was burnt in an attempt to cover up the criminal undertaking, and historians have spent the last 150 years searching for its charred remains.

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Wreckage of slave ship, Clotilda from Historic Sketches of the South by Emma Langdon Roche, publisher: New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1914. Public Domain

The Alabama Historical Commission (AHC) redoubled its efforts to locate the Clotilda after scientists briefly thought they had found it last year. While that particular wreck was eventually deemed to large to be the Clotilda, researchers from the AHC and National Geographic have been intensely scouring the delta ever since, and have now found a vessel that exactly matches the old slaver.

Original insurance papers state that the Clotilda was 7 meters (23 feet) wide and 26 meters (86 feet) long, and was built using southern yellow pine planking and white oak frames. Not only does the recent finding adhere to these specifications, but it also contains pieces of pig iron that match the composition of those used in Alabama shipyards in the 1850s. Importantly, the wreck appears to have been burnt, leaving little doubt as to its identity.

A cross section of the slave ship Veloz, from a book by Robert Walsh, published in 1830. It held over 550 slaves cramped into that space. Public Domain

Maritime Archaeologist James Delgado, who played a key role in finding the ship, said in a statement that he and his colleagues “are cautious about placing names on shipwrecks that no longer bear a name or something like a bell with the ship's name on it.” Yet in spite of his reluctance to make any definitive claims regarding this discovery, he insists that “the physical and forensic evidence powerfully suggests that this is Clotilda”.

Slavery was finally abolished in the US following the Civil War, which broke out shortly after the Clotilda made its clandestine voyage. Having gained their freedom, some of those who arrived on the Clotilda purchased land near to Mobile and set up a community called Africatown, where many of their descendants still proudly live.

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