Hidden History Revealed

New Book Sheds Light on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its Painful Legacy

Gail Short

The Ledger and the Chain Bookcover

In April of 2018, journalist, filmmaker, and charter captain Ben Raines dove into the flooded waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, just off Twelve Mile Island, determined to locate the remains of the Clotilda, a schooner that in 1860 became the last sailing vessel in history to transport Africans into the United States for enslavement.

The search took work. Raines had already spent countless hours upon hours reading maps and historical documents, as well as journal accounts about the Clotilda. He also scoured the papers of past Clotilda hunters.

Back in January 2018, Raines found an underwater wreck in the area. But after an international team of experts examined the artifacts, they determined it to be another vessel, not the Clotilda.

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In his book The Last Slave Ship, Ben Raines tells the story of the Clotilda, the last known ship to transport enslaved Africans to the United States. (Photo by Susan Raines)

In April, Raines returned to the hunt. This time, he partnered with a team of hydrographic scientists from the University of Southern Mississippi.

And Raines had a hunch.

Previous Clotilda hunters conducted searches based on what Timothy Meaher, the enslaver who sent the boat to Africa, said in interviews conducted during his later years. But Raines examined earlier interviews and noticed that Meaher changed his story several times.

The Meahers made their money in cotton, and together they owned more than 60 enslaved people who worked on their plantations.

“I caught this guy telling multiple versions of where the ship was in these historical documents, and from that moment on, I considered him a liar, and I didn’t value anything he said, because I assumed everything he said was a lie,” Raines says.

“I think that’s an important thing for any student of history or journalism. Once you’ve caught somebody lying, you can be pretty sure they’re a liar.”

So, after hours of deliberating over Raines’s research and underwater surveys, data, and sonar imagery, the team headed back to Twelve Mile Island.

The Find

On April 9, Raines, donning a wet suit, slipped into the mud-murky river over the spot where they believed the Clotilda remains lay. He rose to the surface again and again and again, each time clenching logs and handfuls of tree branches and more logs and more branches.

Would this attempt to find the Clotilda end in disappointment, too? Raines recalls how his first attempt culminated in embarrassment at a press conference where he announced to reporters and community leaders that the wreck he found was not the Clotilda.

But during this second hunt, while underwater, Raines says his foot suddenly struck something—something that bent under his weight.

Twelve Mile Island. Raines found the Clotilda wreckage just off Twelve Mile Island in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. For years, Clotilda hunters conducted searches based on Meaher’s claims about where he burned the ship to hide it from authorities. But Raines’s study of historical documents led him to the island. (Photo courtesy of Ben Raines)

Unable to see through the cloudy waters, Raines writes that he slid his hand down his leg and then under his foot to touch the object.

“I could feel that it was hammered through a thick plank of wood with squared-off edges, clearly a piece of hewn lumber, not a log,” he writes.

When he yanked on the plank, it came loose in his hands. Raines ascended the waters holding in his hands a five-foot plank.

He examined the rusty, squared off nails that poked through the wood. The obvious handiwork of a blacksmith, Raines says. A blacksmith in the 1850s.

I caught this guy telling multiple versions of where the ship was in these historical documents, and from that moment on, I considered him a liar.

That time fit perfectly since the Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, constructed the Clotilda in 1855.

Ironically, the Clotilda’s remains lay a mere 300 yards from the first wreck Raines found.

In 2019, an international team of experts confirmed that Raines, this time, had indeed located the Clotilda, 160 years after its last sail, carrying young African men and women from what today is modern-day Benin.

In his new book, The Last Slave Ship, Raines tells not only the story of the Clotilda, but also the tale of a group of Africans who were captured and sent on a horrifying journey across the Atlantic and those who lived to give critical, first-hand accounts of those experiences.

Twelve Mile Island Shoreline. (Photo courtesy of Ben Raines)

The Bet

Raines starts his book with the story of Timothy Meaher. A native of Maine, Meaher moved to Alabama with his two brothers in 1835. They were among the first wave of settlers who came to the state after President Andrew Jackson carried out his policy of removing Native Americans from the Southeast and sending them on the Trail of Tears, a tragic and deadly forced march to Oklahoma.

Subsequently, Alabama became a frontier where white men like the Meahers could make their fortunes and get rich.

“They got their first jobs as deckhands on steamboats. The three of them worked together and bought land and eventually bought a sawmill, and by the time of the Clotilda, they had all become fabulously wealthy,” Raines says.

The Meahers made their money in cotton, and together they owned more than 60 enslaved people who worked on their plantations, Raines writes.

Besides growing cotton, Timothy Meaher made money as a steamboat captain and shipbuilder. And, as his wealth grew, he became a fervent opponent of the abolitionist movement in the United States which sought to end slavery.

In 1859, while steering the Roger B. Taney from Mobile to Montgomery, Meaher conversed with some of his passengers, which included several northerners.

The Africans stood out from the American born slaves because of their tribal tattoos, facial scarifications and chiseled teeth. Moreover, they spoke no English.

Raines writes that Meaher’s son later reported that the northerners predicted that slavery would end soon. The conversation then shifted to the lengths the federal government had gone to to uphold the 1807 Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves that banned international slave trading, including sending the Navy out to patrol the coast of Africa and throughout the Caribbean.

The penalty for violating the law was death.

Meaher, however, argued that the government would hang no one. He then bet them $1,000 that within two years he could bring a cargo of enslaved people into Mobile Bay without detection.

“He wanted to be seen as a swashbuckling man who did things, and during the [Civil] War, he went on to become a blockade runner, which was a dangerous, risky thing to do. So, I think that was just his personality. I think he was clamoring for a fight all the time,” Raines says.

So Meaher set out to prove his point and offered to pay his business partner Captain William Foster, the Clotilda’s builder and owner, $35,000 to make the trip to Africa and bring back human cargo.

The Ship

The Clotilda, an 86-foot, two-masted schooner, was smaller than the average slaving ship, but perfect for a clandestine mission such as this one, he says. In fact, because of the penalty of death, Foster hid the purpose of the trip from his crew until they were in the Atlantic, and then they forced him to confess.

Shipbuilders typically constructed schooners for speed, and they normally transported commodities such as rum, fruit and lumber, Raines writes.

“So, it wasn’t particularly large. The people were in an exceedingly small space down below—110 people in a space that was maybe eight feet wide and 20 feet long, which is hard to believe. Map it out on the ground with some string and then try and imagine 110 people in that space,” Raines says.

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Steamboat captain Timothy Meaher made a $1,000 bet that he could smuggle Africans into Mobile undetected, breaking federal law. “He wanted to be seen as a swashbuckling man who did things, and during the [Civil] War, he went on to become a blockade runner, which was a dangerous, risky thing to do,” Raines says. (Photo courtesy of the Mobile Public Library, Local History & Genealogy)

Captain William Foster – William Foster built the Clotilda in 1855. The 86-foot, two-masted schooner’s shallow hold belowdecks made it impossible to carry many prisoners, Raines says. “The people were in an exceedingly small space down below—110 people in a space that was maybe eight feet wide and 20 feet long.” (Photo courtesy of the Mobile Public Library, Local History & Genealogy)

Seventy-three days after setting sail from Mobile, Foster arrived in West Africa at the in the city of Ouidah in the Kingdom of Dahomey. 

The Dohomeans at the time were a powerful military force. For 250 years they led a reign of terror, raiding other weaker tribes, killing the very old and the very young and capturing and selling the rest to slave traders such as Foster.

“The Dahomeans were famous for leaving no one alive in the villages because they didn’t want anybody coming for revenge,” Raines says.

In fact, experts say that of the more than 12 million people captured during the Transatlantic slave trade, close to 2 million came from the Bight of Benin.

To have an African who was captured in a slaving raid telling us what it was like in his own voice is almost unheard of in history.

Among the 110 men and women Foster bought and transported to Alabama was Kossula, a 19-year-old Yoruban man who would later change his name to Cudjo Lewis.

To avoid detection, Foster sailed the Clotilda into a swamp area of Mobile Bay. After forcing the Africans off the ship, Meaher ordered Foster to burn the Clotilda, which he did, and the wreckage sank into the waters.

Raines quotes Foster’s journal as follows: “I transferred my slaves to a river steamboat and sent them up into the canebrake to hide them until further disposal. I then burned my schooner to the water’s edge and sunk her.”

Raines located a five-foot-long plank belonging to the Clotilda. “I could feel that it was hammered through a thick plank of wood with squared-off edges, clearly a piece of hewn lumber, not a log, he says.” (Photo Courtesy of Ben Raines)

The Africans

Meaher took 32 enslaved persons and gave 16 to Foster and some to Meaher’s brothers. Lewis ended up on James Meaher’s plantation.

The Africans stood out from the American born slaves because of their tribal tattoos, facial scarifications and chiseled teeth. Moreover, they spoke no English.

Consequently, the American born slaves often ridiculed and ostracized the Africans.

“Decades later, even after everyone was free, they were still picked on and treated as others and considered strange, and they still kept to themselves in some measure,” Raines says.

While enslaved, Lewis toiled as a steamboat deckhand. The grueling labor included running along the riverbank while hauling sections of tree trunks down to the steamboat where others cut the logs into chunks and threw them into the furnace.

Africatown became a thriving, tight-knit, unincorporated community, an oasis from the racial segregation laws in Mobile.

Raines quotes an interview with Lewis recalling “de whipping boss” who would beat men like Lewis if they failed to work fast enough.

‘“He cut you wid de whip if you ain’ run fast ‘nough to please him. If you doan git a big load, he hitee you too.’”

Several scholars have captured the stories of Lewis and the other Africans. Historian and Mobile native Emma Langdon Roche, for example, interviewed the last eight Clotilda survivors and published her book on the topic, “Historic Sketches of the South” in 1914.

Then in 1927, the African American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston conducted interviews with Lewis and fellow African Sally Smith, over several months.  She even used a silent camera to capture a few images of Lewis on film. In the interviews, Lewis recalled his life in Africa, the terrifying journey on the Clotilda and the beatings and whippings enslaved people endured at the hands of their masters.

[Africatown] ended up incredibly polluted with people dying of cancer at very young ages and very specific cancers.

“To have an African who was captured in a slaving raid telling us what it was like in his own voice is almost unheard of in history because of the timing,” Raines says.

“When that happened in 1860, it had already been illegal for 50 years to bring people from Africa. So, everyone enslaved in America by 1860 had been born in America.”

By 1860, the number of enslaved individuals who experienced the slaving raids and the Middle Passage were few, their stories lost to history. 

“That’s one of the things Zora Neale Hurston says in the introduction to her book: ‘All these words from the sellers, but not one word from the sold.’ And so she’s getting a word in for the sold through Cudjo,” Raines says.

Though Timothy Meaher and Foster received summonses from the federal government following the Clotilda caper, once the Civil War broke out, the judge, a friend of Meaher, dropped the case.

At the conclusion of the Civil War, just five years after Lewis and his fellow countrymen first stepped off of the Clotilda, Union troops thundered into Mobile, overrunning the city, telling enslaved people they were free, the property of no one.

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Cudjo Lewis, whose real name was Kossula, was featured in the book Barracoon, by anthropologist and filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston, who interviewed Lewis in 1927. “At the time,” Raines writes, “he was the last man alive who’d experienced the Middle Passage.” (Photo courtesy of the Doy Leale McCall Library Rare Book and Manuscript, University of South Alabama)

Cudjo at the Well: Lewis was one 32 founders of Africatown, which the Africans established near Mobile, after the end of slavery. By the mid-20th century, Africatown’s population grew to 12,000. “Africatown continued to serve as a model of autonomy for Black people around the nation,” Raines writes. (Photo courtesy of the Doy Leale McCall Library Rare Book and Manuscript, University of South Alabama)

The Town

When the Reconstruction era began, the Africans found themselves without shelter and left to figure out how to build new lives for themselves so far away from home. Moreover, American-born Blacks rejected them, and they faced the white-hot anger of their former enslavers and other Caucasians of the former Confederacy.

At first, the Africans vowed to work together to raise monies to sail back home to Africa. They found jobs at the railroad and at the Meahers’ sawmill. They also used skills they learned in Africa such as furniture making and fishing to earn money.

But after realizing such a trip would cost thousands of dollars, they decided to build their own town instead by buying plots of land and recreating their homeland.

So three miles north of downtown Mobile, the 32 Africans, including Lewis, built Africatown.

Africatown became a thriving, tight-knit, unincorporated community with schools, churches, restaurants, and other businesses, an oasis from the racial segregation laws in Mobile. And, Raines writes, “Africatown continued to serve as a model of autonomy for Black people around the nation.”

I want to see [the ship] dug up so we can learn what’s inside and put it on display. That’s the next step. This is the only intact slave ship, ever.

By the 1950s and 60s the population had grown to 12,000 people, according to Raines.

But a series of unfortunate developments led to Africatown’s decline.

The Meahers, who owned property in Africatown, began leasing land to heavy industry. Consequently, in came paper mills, oil storage tank farms, and other polluting industries to the community.

“One of the first companies that came in was International Paper, building what became the largest paper mill on Earth,” says Raines. “It was right on top of the community. Other manufacturing facilities came as well.

“[Africatown] ended up incredibly polluted with people dying of cancer at very young ages and very specific cancers,” he says.

Then, in 1960, when Africatown agreed to incorporation by Mobile, the residents got paved roads and water but lost any control over zoning; in came more industries to the town.

Meanwhile, the Meahers began bulldozing the shotgun houses they rented in Africatown. Raines points to a 1967 interview with Timothy Meaher’s grandson, Augustine Meaher Jr., who told a reporter that his family would knock down the housing they owned in Africatown to save on taxes since the utilities made the houses more valuable.

While discussing the tenants, Meaher said, “He don’t need garbage service. … He don’t need a bathtub – he’ll probably put food in it. Wouldn’t know how to use it.”

“And so, in effect,” says Raines, “they ended up oppressed for another century by the same family that stole their ancestors from Africa.”

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Cudjo and his wife, Abache: Raines writes that the Africans stayed together after their arrival in Alabama. “Their bonds to each other were lifelong and made stronger through shared hardship.” (Photo courtesy of the Mobile Public Library, Local History & Genealogy)

The Legacy

Raines says locating the Clotilda has helped shine a new light on Africatown and its people. And the descendants of the Africans aboard the Clotilda have worked to bring attention to the stories of their forebearers and Africatown.

“It’s been hugely important, and it has brought many, many more descendants out, even people who didn’t know they were descendants necessarily and connected them all over the country. It’s also told the world this story, with all its heroes and villains.”

Raines says he is now looking forward to one day seeing the Clotilda recovered and raised.

“I want to see it dug up so we can learn what’s inside and put it on display. That’s the next step. This is the only intact slave ship, ever. It’s the only slave ship ever found that was involved in the American slave trade. It’s one of six ships ever found in the slave trade, period. So, it’s a global artifact of massive importance,” he says.

“If we can get it on display in the museum, it will instantly become an international destination,” he says.

The descendants of the Clotilda survivors have celebrated the finding of the shipwreck and, in 2023, the opening of the new Africatown Heritage House Museum. Raines says he hopes one day to see Africatown’s fortunes restored and the town returned to what it once was, before factories moved into the area. “The vehicle for that is a museum with the ship on display. That’s what would restore Africatown’s fortunes.” (Photo courtesy of Ben Raines)

But, at least for now, Raines says, the Clotilda remains underwater.

“I would like this story to get the proper treatment it deserves to become kind of the linchpin of the Civil Rights trail,” he says.

Today, the story of the Clotilda and Africatown is being told though the new Africatown Heritage House. This museum, which opened this summer, houses a Clotilda exhibition with pieces of wood and metal that archeologists pulled from the wreck and tells the history of the enslaved men and women who, once free, built Africatown together.

“It’s the first museum ever of its kind in Mobile telling the story. It’s too small. It’s not grand enough, but it’s powerful and affecting and a great start,” Raines says.

Raines says he also hopes the museum will help restore Africatown’s fortune.

“It’s just such an incredible American story, and it tells us the story of enslavement in a way I never heard it or learned it, and it has all the elements of what people really need to know about that whole era of history.”

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