BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Researchers studying the wreckage of the last American slave ship, buried in the mud on the Alabama coast since its scuttling in 1860, have made the startling discovery that most of the wooden schooner remains intact, including the pen that was used to imprison African captives during the brutal crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
While the top of the two-masted Clotilda has disappeared, the section below the bridge where Africans captured and stocks were held is still largely in one piece after being buried for decades in a section of river that was not dredged, said archaeologist James Delgado of Florida-based SEARCH Inc.
At least two-thirds of the ship remains, and the existence of the unlit and unventilated slave enclosure, built during the voyage by the addition of a bulkhead where people were held as cargo under the main deck for for weeks, raises questions about whether food and water containers, chains and even human DNA could remain in the shell, Delgado said.
“It’s an amazing revelation,” he said in an interview.
The find reinforces the research value of the remains of the Clotilda and sets them apart from all other wrecks, Delgado said. The discovery was confirmed in a report provided to The Associated Press and led to the site being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in November.
“It is the most intact wreck (of a slave ship) ever discovered,” he said. “It’s because he’s sitting in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta with fresh water and the mud protecting him that he’s still here.”
For Joycelyn Davis, sixth generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis and vice-president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, the story of what happened over 160 years ago is best told through those involved. , and not through a sunken ship. But she said she was excited to hear more about what was discovered, adding, “I think it’s going to be a surprise to all of us.”
The Clotilda was the last known ship to transport African captives to the southern United States to be enslaved there. Almost 27 meters long, it left Mobile, Alabama on an illegal trip to buy people decades after Congress banned the trade in 1808.
The ship had crossed the ocean on a trip financed by a wealthy businessman whose descendants remain important in Mobile. The captain of the Clotilda transferred his human cargo from the ship once it arrived in Alabama and set the ship on fire to hide evidence of the voyage. But most of the ship did not catch fire and remained in the river.
Featured on navigation charts since the 1950s, the wreck was publicly identified as that of Clotilda in 2019 and has been explored and investigated since then, Delgado said.
The state has set aside $ 1 million for preservation and research, and additional work planned at the site in early 2022 could show what’s inside the hull, Delgado said. But a lot more work is needed to determine if the ship could ever be pulled out of the mud and exposed, as some have suggested.
“In general, animal husbandry is a very expensive proposition. I feel like even though she has survived, she is more fragile than people think,” said Delgado. “A recovery could be a very delicate operation and also a very expensive and time consuming process.”
Freed after the South lost the Civil War, some of the African slaves who were transported to America on the Clotilda settled in a community they started called Africatown USA a few miles north of downtown Mobile.
A documentary about the now impoverished community of Alabama-born filmmaker Margaret Brown titled “Descendant” will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and the descendants of the Clotilda captives are planning an annual reunion in February. Work is underway on a new museum which is believed to be a catalyst for tourism and new development in the region.