In July of 1860, a two-masted schooner called the Clotilda sailed into Mobile Bay under cover of darkness. The Clotilda, sometimes spelled “Clotilde,” was returning to Mobile, Ala., from West Africa.
In its cargo hold were 110 men, women and children from the countries now known as Nigeria and Benin. All were destined to be slaves.
The Clotilda’s night-time arrival was far from coincidental. By this time in history, importing slaves into the U.S. had been illegal for 52 years. There were some businessmen, however, who were willing to risk steep fines and threats of imprisonment for what could be a big payoff.
In 1860, a single slave might sell for $500 to $1,000 or more, which meant the Clotilda’s cargo was worth approximately $100,000 — about $2.7 million in 2016 dollars.
But apparently money wasn’t the only thing at stake. So were bragging rights.
In her 1914 book, “Historic Sketches of the South,” Emma Langdon Roche writes that the Clotilda’s risky voyage began with a bet.
“… a group of men were one day standing on the wharf discussing the efforts the Government was finally making to suppress the slave trade, the vigilance which was being exerted, and the possibility for a vessel equipped for such purposes to evade officials,” Roche writes.
“There was some betting — a favorite pastime of the day — and Captain Tim Meaher, a steamboat builder and river-man, who was standing near, wagered that he could send a slaver to the coast of Africa and bring through the port of Mobile a cargo of slaves. The wager was taken and the stakes were large.”
As Roche tells it, Meaher and the Clotilda’s Capt. William Foster, had no trouble finding slaves for sale. Many, perhaps all, of the men, women and children aboard the Clotilda had been prisoners of war, captured during tribal disputes and subsequently sold into slavery.
In her book, Roche writes that “it had long been a part of the traders’ policy to instigate the tribes against each other and in this manner keep the markets stocked.” With this in mind, the business partners also would have been been delighted to see the following report in the Nov. 9, 1858, Mobile Register:
From the west coast of Africa we have advice dated September 21st. The quarreling of the tribes on Sierra Leone River rendered the aspect of things very unsatisfactory. The King of Dahomey [now Benin] was driving a brisk trade in slaves at from fifty to sixty dollars apiece at Whydah. Immense numbers of negroes were collected along the coast for export.
As Roche puts it, upon leaving Mobile, Foster and his crew “sailed directly for Whydah.”
One of the captives aboard the Clotilda was a young man named Oluale Kossola. Sylviane A. Diouf, who authored a book about the Clotilda slaves, writes that Kossola was born in Benin and was a member of the Yoruba people.
“Kossola was born into a modest family, but his grandfather was an officer of the town’s king,” Diouf writes on the website Encyclopedia of Alabama.
She adds that at 14 years of age, Kossola “began training as a soldier and learned how to track, hunt, camp, shoot arrows, throw spears, and defend his town, which was surrounded by four tall walls.”
In April of 1860, when Kossola was about 19 years old and not too long before the Clotilda arrived in Benin, a neighboring tribe attacked Kossola’s town. They killed many of the townspeople and took the rest as prisoners.
According to Diouf, Kossola and the other survivors were marched to the coast, where they spent several weeks in a barracoon, a type of slave pen. Then the captives were loaded on the Clotilda.
Kossola and the others spent 45 days traveling across the Atlantic along what was called the “Middle Passage.” Diouf writes that “Kossola suffered from terrible thirst and the humiliation of having been forced on board naked.”
Once in Mobile, Kossola was owned by Tim Meaher’s brother, James. Because “Kossola” was difficult for his master to pronounce, Diouf writes that the newly enslaved man took the name Cudjo, “a name given by the Fon and Ewe peoples of West Africa to boys who are born on Monday.”
When the Civil War ended five years later, Kossola was again a free man. He took the last name Lewis and married another Clotilda survivor. According to Diouf, the man now known as Cudjo Lewis and other Clotilda survivors wanted to return to Africa, but couldn’t afford the trip.
So, they did the next best thing: they built their own community on the outskirts of Mobile. “After emancipation, the group … reunited from various plantations, bought land, and founded their own settlement, known as Africa Town,” Diouf writes on her website.
“They ruled it according to their customary laws, continued to speak their own languages — which they taught their children — and insisted that writers use their African names so that their families would know that they were still alive.”
In 1928, Alabama-born novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston filmed Lewis as part of an anthropological project. He would have been in his mid-80s at the time, and is featured in the first 40 seconds of film, sitting on a porch and chopping wood for the visiting filmmaker.
Cudjo Lewis died in 1935, the last survivor of the Clotilda slaves. He is buried in the Old Plateau Cemetery in what’s now called Africatown. A tall monument was placed there in his honor, and it’s said that many other Clotilda slaves rest nearby.
Here’s a photo of Lewis’ grave marker at the Old Plateau Cemetery, also called the Africatown Graveyard:
And an historical marker, with more information about the cemetery and its inhabitants, which also include a Buffalo Soldier:
Etching, top of page, Library of Congress.