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Sat Feb 3, 2018, 02:53 PM

Americas Last Slave Ship, and Slaverys Stain

Editorial Observer


Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the Clotilda,
with great-granddaughters Mary and Martha,
circa 1927. Credit The McCall Library,
University of South Alabama

The crime of importing enslaved people into the United States had been a federal offense for more than 50 years and was punishable by death when, on the eve of the Civil War, the Alabama businessman Timothy Meaher bragged that he could sail “a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.”

This threat reflected the Southern aristocracy’s fervent belief that it had a divine right to enslaved African labor. Meaher made good on his word in July 1860, when the schooner Clotilda — widely thought to be the last ship to bring human cargo into this country — stole into the bay after dark carrying 110 captive Africans in its filthy, disease-ridden hold.

The men, women and children were removed from the ship and concealed until many of them could be sold. But even empty, the pestilent, waste-fouled enclosure where the Africans had spent the Atlantic crossing offered clear evidence that the Clotilda had been used in a capital offense — the crime of slave trading.

Meaher planned to expunge this guilty evidence by giving the schooner a new name and refitting it. When that plan fell through, he and his confederates settled for burning the Clotilda in the waters of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, a few miles north of Mobile.


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