In 1860 the Clotilda made her final voyage from the coast of modern-day Benin to Alabama with a cargo of 110 captives - women, men and children- who were sold into slavery.
This, despite a ban imposed by Congress in 1808 on bringing new slaves from Africa.
“Just like today with human trafficking, which goes on despite being forbidden, the illegal slave trade continued for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were victims of the illegal slave trade and were relocated in the Caribbean and Sierra Leone, for example, after the ships had been seized,” says Sylviane A. Diouf, author of ‘Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America’ and a visiting professor at Brown University’s Centre for the Study of Slavery and Justice.
At the time, the Clotilda operated secretly and was probably sunk on purpose to hide any evidence of covert smuggling operations.
The wreck was discovered by the archaeology firm Search Inc, which was called in to help by the Alabama Historical Commission.
In downtown Mobile there is an area called Africatown, which was founded by Cudjo Lewis, a former slave, and 30 others at the turn of the century.
Descendants of former slaves who still live there, have always spoken about the Clotilda, but never had concrete proof apart from the stories that had been passed down for generations.
“For very long the idea was that this...the people didn't entirely trust those descendants and now we have material that has been showing that that event really occurred,” says Ana Lucia Araujo, author of 'Reparations for Slave Trade and The Slave Trade' and a historian at Howard University.
The discovery also corroborates the story of Lewis, who was sold into slavery at the age of 19.
Nearly 60 years after slavery was abolished, anthropologist and journalist Zora Neale Hurston tracked down the last surviving captive of the last ship form Africa to the US, and that person was Lewis.
Her book, ‘Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was written in the 1930s but she struggled to find a publisher.
The book was finally published last year, around the time that an underwater wreck off the Alabama coast was thought to be the Clotilida.
“And here we have a witness to all of these events, a man who was captured in Africa, was brought illegally to the US and who survived the end of slavery,” exclaims Araujo.
Lewis, originally born Oluale Kossola, was captured by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey in what is today Benin.
He was originally from Nigeria and spoke Yoruba before arriving in Alabama.
On board the Clotilda the prisoners were “Yoruba, Dendi, Nupe, Hausa, and others; they came from northern Benin and western Nigeria” adds Diouf.
Perpetuating the trade
From Lewis we learn that the trade was facilitated not only by those buying but by those selling in Africa.
The trade itself was kept alive due to wars being fought between neighbouring kingdoms.
“This was a trade that was profitable for African rulers and once they were in this dynamics of participating in the Atlantic slave trade it was very difficult to stop. The wars were nourishing the trade,” explains Araujo.
In the case of Lewis, he was captured by the army belonging to Dahomey, so he was a prisoner of war. The African rulers “were not selling their own people. They were selling individuals who were prisoners captured during wars that they were waging against neighbouring peoples who were not perceived by them as their own people,” adds the historian.
Although Congress passed a law banning the importation of humans from Africa, the trade continued.
The slave trade finally ended, despite resistance from those African rulers who had profited from the enterprise.
The king who led the army to capture Lewis and the other 109 people on board, was one of those rulers “who really resisted the end of the Atlantic Slave trade” says Araujo.
Instead, the European presence became more and more felt and the colonisers introduced a more legitimate sort of commerce, based on palm oil, “especially in that region of the Kingdom of the Dahomey”.
And so the rising profits from the vegetable oil eased the transition from human cargo to agriculture.