Wreck of the last US slave ship, the Clotilda, used in 1860 is discovered nearly intact under its muddy grave in Alabama: Sonar shows the section below deck where the captured Africans were held is in one piece

  • The last US slave ship was destroyed in 1860 and rediscovered in 2019
  • The Clotilda transported 108 Africans to Alabama when it was illegal in the US 
  • After its last trip, slave traders took the Clotilda was taken into delta waters north of the port and burned to avoid detection
  •  While the upper portion of the two-masted Clotilda is gone, the section below deck where the captured Africans  is still largely in one piece

Wreckage of the last US slave ship that was last used to shuttle more than 110 African captives to Alabama in 1860 was first discovered in 2019, but a new analysis shows the wooden schooner remains nearly intact in its muddy grave.

The ship, known as Clotilda, measured about 90 feet long and was the last vessel known to transport African captives to the American South for enslavement.

However, it did so 50 years after transporting slaves from another country to the US was made illegal. 

After its last trip, slave traders took the Clotilda was taken into delta waters north of the port and burned to avoid detection.

While the upper portion of the two-masted Clotilda is gone, the section below deck where the captured Africans and stockpiles were held is still largely in one piece in the Mobile River.

Archaeologists used sonar to peer through the murky waters encasing the wreck, which allowed them to see at least two-thirds of the ship in intact.

 Archaeologists used sonar to peer through the murky waters encasing the wreck, which allowed them to see at least two-thirds of the ship in intact

The team plans to conduct a thorough investigation early next, which includes taking wood samples examining the aquatic species colonizing the wreck and determining what can be done to offset deterioration of the site, National Geographic reports.

The information will be used to determine what should come next for the Clotilda, including whether or not its remains can be raised.

Alabama state officials have set aside $1 million for preservation.

Maritime archaeologist James Delgado of the Florida-based SEARCH said in a statement: ‘Generally, raising is a very expensive proposition. My sense is that while it was survived, it is more fragile that people think.

Wreckage of the last US slave ship that was last used to shuttle more than 110 African captives to Alabama in 1860 was first discovered in 2019, but a new analysis shows the wooden schooner remains nearly intact in its muddy grave

The ship, known as Clotilda, measured about 90 feet long and was the last vessel known to transport African captives to the American South for enslavement. However, it did so 50 years after transporting slaves from another country to the US was made illegal

‘A recovery could be a very delicate operation and also a very expensive and lengthy process.’

Along with recovering the ship, researchers hope to find barrels of food, tools and human DNA of its passengers to help tell a story of those who were held captive on the ship.

‘It´s the most intact (slave ship) wreck ever discovered,’ Delgado said.

‘It´s because it’s sitting in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta with fresh water and in mud that protected it that it’s still there.’

While the upper portion of the two-masted Clotilda is gone, the section below deck where the captured Africans and stockpiles were held is still largely in one piece after being buried for decades in a section of the Mobile River.

For Joycelyn Davis, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis and vice president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, the story of what happened more than 160 years ago is best told through the people who were involved, not a sunken ship.

Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher (pictured) employed the ship to make the illegal transport of Africans to the US aboard the Clotilda

But she said she’s excited to learn more about what has been discovered, adding: ‘I think it’s going to be a surprise for us all.’

The US banned the importation of slaves in 1808, but smugglers kept traveling the Atlantic with wooden ships full of people in chains. Southern plantation owners needed workers for their cotton fields.

With Southern resentment of federal control at a fever pitch, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could bring a shipload of Africans across the ocean, historian Natalie S. Robertson said.

The schooner Clotilda sailed from Mobile to western Africa, where it picked up captives and returned them to Alabama, evading authorities during a tortuous voyage.

‘They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport,’ Robertson said.

The Africans who came to the US on the ship spent the next five years as slaves during the American civil war, freed only after the South had lost the conflict.

Unable to return home to Africa, about 30 of them used money earned working in fields, homes and vessels to purchase land from the Meaher family and settle in a community still known to this day as Africatown.

THE CLOTILDA, ALSO KNOWN AS THE CLOTILDE: A BRIEF HISTORY

The Clotilda, a two-masted schooner, set out for Africa in 1859 on a bet by an Alabama steamboat captain and plantation owner, Timothy Meaher.

He wanted to show he could sneak slaves into the country despite federal troops stationed at two forts that guarded the mouth of Mobile Bay.

The ship’s captain, William Foster, was armed with $9,000 in gold to purchase around 100 slaves and ended up delivering 110 captives to Mobile in 1860 – one year before the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Clotilda’s voyage was planned by Timothy Meaher, a steamboat captain and plantation owner who wanted to show he could sneak slaves into the country

The ship was believed to be 23 feet wide and 86 feet long, though contemporary investigations assert the ship could be much longer.

The slave trade was abolished in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson, but continued illegally up until the abolition of slavery – in the North in 1863 and in the South in 1865.

The journey was the last known instance of a slave ship landing in the United States. 

The captain took the ship up the delta and burned it. Historian Sylvianne Diouf notes that the ship was burned in an effort to destroy all evidence of its slaving history.

The pair decided to burn the ship in an effort to conceal the crime they had committed

Neither Meaher nor Foster were convicted of a crime, though they could have faced death if their plot had been uncovered by the US government. Captain Foster hid the slaves in part by picking up lumber at multiple stops on his route.

Spellings of the ship are alternately Clotilda and Clotilde. It is not exactly clear how the ship got its name, but there is a ‘Saint Clotilde’ who is also known as Clotilda. She was a Frankish queen in the 6th Century who is credited with helping spread Catholicism.

The ploy occurred the year before the outbreak of the Civil War. Pictured is Abraham Lincoln with General George B McClellan at his headquarters in October 1862

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