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The slave trade was abolished in 1808, but this ship, the Clotilda, sailed in 1860 and was sunk by its owner once he won his bet and sold his human cargo. Historian Sylviane Diouf discusses the discovery

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us.

This country outlawed the transatlantic slave trade an 1808, but in 1860 the last slave ship set sail for the United States from what is now Benin. The name of the ship was the Clotilda. This tour began when a slave owner and trader and shipbuilder Timothy Meaher wagered thousands of dollars in a bet that he could smuggle enslaved Africans on his fast schooner, the Clotilda, into Alabama and not get caught. Those mostly Dahomean young people were stuffed in that schooner, sold, and the schooner was scuttled so the enslaver could go undetected and still win his bet. The Alabama Historical Commission announced the ship was recently discovered by a maritime archaeologist, buried deep in the mud. This discovery has major significance for understanding our history, the history of slavery, and for the descendants of those enslaved on that schooner, who after the Civil War founded the community of Africatown in Alabama, where many live to this day.

We’re joined today by Dr. Sylviane Diouf, who is Visiting Professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and a member of the Scientific Committee of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a project in Goree Island in Senegal, and author of Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. And Dr. Sylviane Diouf, welcome to The Real News. It is a true pleasure to have you with us.

SYLVIANE DIOUF: Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: So talk about the significance of this discovery, what it means and why… I guess you can say also from the perspective–I mean, you wrote the book before all this took place, obviously. So talk a bit about why this is so significant.

SYLVIANE DIOUF: Well, really it’s the first slave ship that has been found which came directly from Africa with people on board. The Henrietta Marie, which was discovered several years ago in Florida, actually was on their last leg from Jamaica to England. So besides that, we don’t have any record of a slave ship that has been found except in South Africa. So it’s really totally unique, it’s exceptional. This is the first time that we have a ship that actually transported Africans. And we’ll see there what we found. I don’t know. But still, in the entirety of the Atlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, this is the first time.

MARC STEINER: So I only discovered this whole story because when I read Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon–the story of the last slave, Cudjo Lewis–that I discovered what the story was about. But this discovery, it seems to me from what I’ve read, is that it opens up so many things. Because this is one of the ships where you have testimony from the people who were on the ship, we had testimony from people who had been enslaved on that ship. I mean, that’s what makes this so powerful and unique that I think that we’ve finally found the ship itself.

SYLVIANE DIOUF: You know, to me, the discovery of the ship is extraordinary. And again, I don’t know what it’s going to reveal, I don’t know what it will bring to this story. But the thing really to me–maybe it’s because I wrote the book–but it’s really the story which is exceptional in and of itself. So the story without the ship still stands for itself. If we had only the ship, then we would learn a little bit. But here we have this exceptional occurrence that we have the ship and we have the entire story. And the story of Cudjo as we find in Barracoon is only part of the story. There’s a story of the other people on the slave ship, there’s the story of before they went on the slave ship, there’s the story of after, there’s the story of their enslavement, of their freedom. It’s a very, very large story. And when I was writing the book, I was able to find documentation that had never been seen, exploited, or found.

And what I can say–and I’ve written a lot on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, on slavery, but this is the best documented story of the entire slave trade to the Americas. So we have a complete story now with what we can say about the entire story, but we also have the ship. And whatever it will reveal, that’s really added to the entire episode.

MARC STEINER: So I’d like to… there was a quote in one of the articles that I read from Fredrik Hiebert, who is an archaeologist-in-resident at National Geographic Society. And he said that “[t]he discovery of the Clotilda sheds new light on a lost chapter of American history. This finding is also a critical piece of the story of Africatown, which was built by the resilient descendants of America’s last slave ship.” So talk a bit about the story that you wrote and why it’s so significant. I mean, what drew you to it?

SYLVIANE DIOUF: Well, first of all, when I started it was said that it never happened, that it was just a big hoax. And I thought, “No, I’m pretty sure it did happen.” And the first thing that I read was a historic sketching done by a white woman in Mobile who knew the last survivors, interviewed them, photographed them, sketched them, and that was in 1912. A book was published in 1914. And from there, I went on and on and on to do research and to find more and more and more. And really, I mean it was really a story. Because with what she wrote, with also the interview of Cudjo–the Zora Neal Hurston interview, which is really very important, but it’s not the only one. There were other interviews of Cudjo and of other people as well. And so, with that I was able to get a sense and recreate some of their lives before the Clotilda, and then of course during slavery and after. And it’s a very, very rich story, extremely rich. And that goes on from the 1840, and that’s when some of them were born, until the 1930s when the last survivors…

MARC STEINER: So the people who were enslaved on that ship, some of them were bought as early as in the 1840s? They were already enslaved in Africa?

SYLVIANE DIOUF: No, no. Some we are born.

MARC STEINER: Oh, yes. I’m sorry. Just being clear. My misunderstanding, sorry. So talk a bit about why this is significant now. I mean, what is it about this discovery that speaks to us here in the 21st century?

SYLVIANE DIOUF: Well, I think that for a lot of people, slavery and the slave trade are kind of ancient history and they don’t see the link with today. The book is a book, but now with the ship, which is something that people can actually see, we can have all the imagination that people can have; “Oh, so this real, this is tangible.” And I think that’s why there is this excitement that we don’t find when actually your book is published. So the idea that “OK, so this is a slave ship, there were people on that ship.” When people think of the middle passage, they think they know, but in many cases they don’t. And so, this discovery will actually help propel not only this particular story of the Clotilda, but hopefully we give people an interest in looking at other stories as well.

MARC STEINER: Yeah. I was fascinated to read this one quote from one of the descendants, a woman named Lorna Woods, who said, “If they can find evidence of that ship, it’s going to be big. All Mama told us would be validated. It would do us a world of good.” And I think people don’t understand the significance of Africatown and what that means, who these people are, the traditions some of them have kept alive for all this time. And I think that’s a significant piece of this story that many people don’t even know about. It was interesting. When I was in Cuba last, I was with some people descended from Dahomean people who still have a very tight community outside of Havana, and they knew this story. So it carried on. So talk about the significance of Africatown and how that plays into all of this.

SYLVIANE DIOUF: Well, what is fascinating in these small stories is that the people–and they were not all from Benin. Some were from Nigeria, some were Yoruba, some Benin, some were Muslims. So the story, really, what is fascinating is that once they were freed in 1865, what they wanted to do was actually to return home. That was really their dream. And one of them said, “I go back to Africa every night in my dreams,” which gave the title to my book. So their first effort was to actually try to go back, because they had families, they had land, they had–they just wanted to go back home. And they tried and they did not succeed.

So the seminal thing they did was to ask Timothy Meaher, who had actually brought them there, to give them reparations, if you will. They told him that “you brought us here, and we had land, we had houses, we had families. We worked for you for five years for free, now we want to go home. We cannot, but we want you to give us land.” And so, the idea was for them to recreate, as they said, Africa where they were. He refused, and so then they worked and saved that money and they actually bought the land. And they created this community, this little village that they called Africantown, not Africatown, in the 60s. But they called it Africantown, which shows who they were, where they wanted to be, and what they tried to recreate.

MARC STEINER: So talk a bit–just as we conclude, Dr. Diouf–just what you think the long-term effect of this discovery, the long-term understanding of what this means. Because I think that if we don’t kind of address our past and understand how it defines the present, we’ll never get through the future. And I think that why, to me, reading about this was so compelling. So talk about your thoughts on that.

SYLVIANE DIOUF: Yes. And I think that also, one of the things that I do is actually to look at the experience of people who were born in Africa, because it’s kind of different from the experience of people who were born here when we’re talking about this. So this, I think, will give a good understanding of the experience of people who were the victims of the slave trade, and who they were and what they did, and what they wanted to do. Because I think the people of Africantown are very representative of all the Africans, the 12.5 million who were put on boats–and 10.7 million arrived. But what were their dreams? What did they want? And how they lived their enslavement, their separation from their families and their homes and their communities. And I think that gives a good understanding, a good window on their experience. And also, then on the experience of the people who also were enslaved who were born here. Because they had relations with them, some of them married, et cetera.

And one other thing which is important for this is this transition from enslavement back to freedom. And when I say freedom I would say “freedom,” because it was not real freedom. But with the fact that they arrived late and they lived up to–some of them–the Depression, you have really a whole arc from West Africa to slavery to freedom to Jim Crow. And this is the only story that we have, and it’s an extraordinary story of extraordinary people.

MARC STEINER: It surely is. And this is a wonderful conversation. I really do appreciate you taking time, Dr. Sylviane Diouf, for being with us here today on The Real News. And thank you for your work.


MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.