The Clotilda


Cudjoe Lewis, born Oluale Kossula, with great-granddaughters Mary and Martha, circa 1927. Kidnapped, enslaved, and trafficked to the United States aboard the Clotilda in 1860, he helped found Africatown following Emancipation.

The McCall Library, University of South Alabama

After Congress banned the international trade of enslaved people in 1808, the South’s booming plantation economy maintained high demand for stolen Africans’ labor, knowledge, and skill. White enslavers continued to covertly traffic in African people for profit, and Northern businessmen invested in that trade. In 1860, partners William Foster and Timothy Meaher set out to illegally import and enslave Africans aboard the ship Clotilda.

In 1860, Foster docked the Clotilda in the Kingdom of Dahomey in modern day Benin and purchased more than 100 people who later self-identified as Tarkars. The men, women, and children were forced below deck, cramped together in darkness with only vinegar-treated water to drink. At least two Africans died in these conditions.

When the Clotilda reached Mobile, Alabama, Foster and Meaher hid the Africans in a swamp and burned the ship to conceal their crime. Federal officials found conclusive evidence of the men’s illegal trafficking, but a pro-slavery judge refused to indict them. Their victims, the kidnapped Africans, were offered no remedy and condemned to enslavement.

After slavery was abolished five years later, official indifference and economic barriers prevented the men and women of the Clotilda from returning home. In 1866, many of them founded Africatown, an independent community near Mobile where many of their descendants live today. The recent publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s interview with Clotilda survivor Oluale Kossula (Cudjoe Lewis) and discovery of the wrecked ship have renewed hope for the recognition and revitalization of Africatown, now surrounded by industrial plants that present serious health and safety issues for residents.