"The Last Slave Ship" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Ben Raines, wearing a wet suit and scuba gear, slipped into the muddy waters of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta. It was April 9th, 2018, just after the spring floods had subsided and the water “looked like chocolate milk.” Diving blind, Raines’ foot hit a wooden plank which he pulled loose and brought to the surface. The 5-foot remnant turned out to be from the Clotilda, the last slave ship to arrive in the United States. Raines’ obsessive search for this lost vessel had finally ended.
Raines, an environmental journalist, chronicles a multifaceted history of Clotilda’s legacy of oppression, courage, and reconciliation. The schooner made a run to the Kingdom of Dahomey on the West Coast of Africa in July 1860 and returned with a cargo of 110 kidnapped slaves. “This is the story of that ship,” writes the author, “the people shaped by her complex legacy, and the healing that began on both sides of the Atlantic when her wooden carcass finally came to the surface.”
Importing slaves had been illegal since 1807, but in 1860 there was a shortage of labor to harvest the cotton crop. Timothy Meaher, a steamboat captain and Alabama plantation owner, financed the ship’s voyage in order to take advantage of the labor crisis and the concomitant high prices offered for human chattel. It was simply a matter of supply and demand, so Meaher decided to skirt the law and smuggle in more Africans so he could make a fortune.
Meaher chose the 5-year-old custom-built Clotilda for this clandestine undertaking because it was built for speed. He hired William Foster as captain to make the perilous transatlantic trip. Some of the slaves died on the 6-week return voyage on the crowded 90-foot-long vessel. Upon its arrival to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the ship was burned and deliberately sunk to avoid prosecution of its owners for its illegal activity. The ship’s 110 enslaved “passengers” worked in the cotton fields from sunup to sundown for five years, from 1860 until the Civil War ended.
When manumission came, many of Clotilda’s survivors saved money so they could purchase small plots of swampland along the Mobile River. “Almost immediately, in an extraordinary act of self-governance, the group began to build a community for themselves ruled by the social structures they had grown up with...” They called their community “Africatown.”
By the 1920s the flourishing settlement had a population of 1500 and was one of the largest towns in the U.S. governed by African Americans. In 1970, the population reached 12,000. As Raines describes it, the town had shady streets “…lined with tidy wood-frame and brick houses and home to a vibrant commercial district.”
Segregation and subjugation were a constant reminder to the freed slaves and their descendants of their place in America's stratified society.
There was plenty of pain in Africatown. Its gradual political and economic decline in the latter part of the 20th century was caused by the arrival of regional desegregation and industrialization. New factories poured ash and other pollutants into the air, and water, causing multiple kinds of cancer to take a toll on the proud community. The author explains chemicals from heavy industries “are linked to cancer, birth defects, fertility problems, kidney and liver damage, nose and throat irritation, asthma, and loss of hearing and color vision.” Many vacant and derelict buildings began to appear on the streets of once neat and solid neighborhoods.
But Raines ends this incredible true story on a hopeful note. The discovery of the Clotilda has led to a spirit of reconciliation. A descendant of Captain Foster recently visited Africatown, publicly seeking forgiveness from the impacted families. And in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin, descendants of those who have benefitted from the practices of the enslavers and survivors are making efforts to heal the 170-year-old divide.
Raines’ book is a haunting, informative story of exploitation, dishonesty, and resistance in an American community. His convincing, scholarly research compels the reader to look again at the violence and brutality of slavery through the eyes of those who lived it. He also reminds the reader of the proclivity of the human spirit to unveil the truth about the past and heal the deep wounds of society.
“The Last Slave Ship” is a highly readable, fast-paced narrative that uncovers the many layers of United States segregationist history. Published by Simon & Schuster, the book includes a helpful folio of photographs in the center of its 303 pages.
About the author: Robert Raines is an award-winning environmental journalist, filmmaker, and charter boat captain who lives in Fairhope, Alabama. For many years he was a reporter with the “Mobile Press-Register.” He also is the author of a second book, “Saving America's Amazon.”