According to the Alabama Historical Commission, slave importing was officially banned in 1808, though an illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade continued for many years. In 1860, fifty years after importing slaves was deemed ‘illegal’, a ship named the Clotilda illegally transported 110 people from present day Benin on the west coast of Africa, to Mobile, Alabama. After it’s delivery of black people to slave owners, just one year before the Civil War, the ship was burned to destroy evidence of its illegal activity.
“The discovery of the Clotilda is an extraordinary archaeological find,” said Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission, in a statement, “The voyage represented one of the darkest eras of modern history and is a profound discovery of the tangible evidence of slavery.”
As the story has been told by historian Natalie S. Robertson , the treacherous slave trade was literally a game for some. Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet with someone that he and his people could evade detection and bring a shipload of Africans across the ocean. And so a schooner, Clotilda, set sail.
“They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport,” Robertson said.
If the name Clotilda sounds familiar it’s probably because you remember when The Root founder, Henry Louis Gates Jr., met with The Roots’ Questlove to trace his lineage back to Africa. What Gates discovered is that Quest’s direct ancestors were listed as being on board that very ship.
— Henry Louis Gates Jr (@HenryLouisGates) December 13, 2017
The Africans who came on The Clotilda spent the next five years as slaves during the American Civil War and were freed only after the South had lost. Because they had no means to return home to Africa, about 30 of them used money earned working in fields, as maids and house-servants, or on ships, to purchase land from the Meaher family and create an all-black community still known to this day as Africatown.
This week National Geographic spoke with other descendants of founders of Africatown about what the re-discovery of The Clotilda means to them and their community:
Authorities are working on preserving the shipwreck in place where it’s been found.