The Last Slave Ship review: the Clotilda, Africatown and a lasting American injustice

In 1903, the African American comedic team of Bert Williams and George Walker appeared at Buckingham Palace, in celebration of the ninth birthday of the grandson of King Edward VII.

To acclaim, they reprised their Broadway hit, In Dahomey. The musical play featured the cake walk, which became a dance sensation, and a madcap plot set in Boston, Florida and the African nation now famed for royal bronzes plundered by imperialists. What, one wonders, did their audience know of Dahomey’s more sinister legacy?

“Of all our studies,” said Malcolm X, “history is best qualified to reward our research.” In our uncertain times, Ben Raines’s perceptive new book, The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning, is a welcome and affecting history lesson.

This story from long ago puts into context what the new spate of lawlessness in the US is all about. Raines tells a tale of racism and greed. Anyone who imagines that attempting to circumvent democracy is a new thing has forgotten the civil war.

Raines begins in 1860, 50 years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed. That was when a sleek, custom-built schooner, the Clotilda, returned to Mobile, Alabama, from Dahomey, which nowadays is known as Benin. Chartered by a planter and riverboat captain, Timothy Meaher, the Clotilda carried a valuable cargo: 110 young black captives. Meaher had made a thousand-dollar bet with passengers at the captain’s table. He could pull off the caper of bringing a boatload of enslaved Africans to Mobile – a capital offense – without consequence. Spoiler alert! He did.

For many, one suspects, the most enlightening part of this sad saga occurs at the start. Some who have heard of the direct involvement of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade have suspected apologists’ propaganda. True, as with today’s drug trade, without a lucrative market among Arabs, Europeans and Americans, slavery would have collapsed much sooner. But there is no exaggerating the extent to which the rulers of Dahomey were involved in capturing fellow Africans for both enslavement and sacrifice. Its victims are estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

Meaher and his accomplices decided it was prudent to destroy the evidence. In Mobile, William Foster, the captain who carried out the venture, set the Clotilda ablaze and scuttled her. Soon to resign from US law enforcement to join the Confederacy, the gang’s prosecutors probably knew where the vessel lay. But with plausible deniability, they maintained there was no evidence criminality had occurred.

Five years later, at civil war’s close, the Africans hit on a stratagem to restore their dignity. They determined to acquire land and establish a realm of their own. They called it Africatown. Predictably, their leader was rebuffed by their captor.

“Thou fool,” Meaher is said to have shouted. “Thinkest thou that I would give you property upon property? You do not belong to me now … I owe you nothing.”

The group of 30 ex-captives continued to toil in the cotton fields, on Meaher’s boats and at his saw mill. Saving most of what they earned, they bought land from Meaher. Collectively, they built solid if meager houses. They built a church and a school.

In much the same terms as whites disdained them, African Americans ridiculed and ostracized the Clotilda captives and their offspring. They denounced them as ignorant, savage and ape-like. It’s little wonder their descendants came to lose the language of their ancestors and often to deny their heritage too.

Once a highway and bridge connected Africatown to Mobile, three miles across the bay, more and more American-born black people moved there. By the 1920s, when the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston came to document the Africans, they had leased property for paper mills and built small houses for black factory workers. Black-owned businesses arose too: movie theaters, grocery stores, barber shops, beauty parlors. By the 1950s, the population was 13,000.

In the Jim Crow south, such autonomy was largely illusory. Unincorporated, unprotected by zoning or environmental regulations, Africatown was prey to exploitation. Privately held African property proved no match to eminent domain. Relative prosperity was no compensation for those employed by toxic factories, prey to chronic illness.

Just like that, the boom times went away. Factories closed and rather than pay taxes for sewer connections the Meahers destroyed houses after evicting tenants. In 1967, Augustine Meaher explained his position: renters couldn’t afford water bills on top of $4 monthly rent.

“Besides, people have lived perfectly healthily and happy for years without running water and sewers … He don’t need garbage service … He don’t need a bathtub … Wouldn’t know how to use it.”

Timothy Meaher’s grandson also said his company might keep a few houses for the old “darkies who work for us” but with pensions from the government, “you can’t get them to work as hard any more.”

Construction of an even bigger bridge, which destroyed the last of the original houses, presaged wholesale abandonment. With the population down to 3,000, crime, crack and despair pervaded. Now only the cemetery and the chimney of one of the founder’s houses survive.

However, the raising of the Clotilda, three years ago, has sparked an Africatown renaissance. The “discovery” refuted the lies of whites who maintained that the capture and displacement of 110 Africans never happened. Still fabulously rich, the Meahers of Mobile are as yet unrepentant. Or at least they are silent.

Mike Foster is not. As a direct descendant of Meaher’s agent and the captain of the Clotilda, news of the ship’s discovery roused him. Meeting Lorna Gail Woods, Joycelyn Davis, Darron Paterson, Garry Lumbers and two other members of the Clotilda Descendants Association, he offered an apology.

The heirs of Africatown stress that as they want reconciliation, so does Foster. And that they’ll achieve it.

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