The Last Ship That Brought Slaves from Africa to America: The Landing of the Clotilde at Mobile in the Autumn of 1859

By Lockett, James D. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

The Last Ship That Brought Slaves from Africa to America: The Landing of the Clotilde at Mobile in the Autumn of 1859


Lockett, James D., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Abstract

In 1858, during a trip to Montgomery on his steamboat, Robert B. Taney, Captain Timothy Meaher conceived of the voyage of the Clotilde. Captain Meaher bet some eastern gentlemen $100,000 that he could bring some Africans to Mobile without getting caught. He decided to get the slaves from the King of Dahomey because his kingdom was one of the chief slave trading states in Africa, and at the time, the trade was thriving in Dahomey where slaves were plentiful and cheap. There the captain secured 116 Tarkars, and within a few weeks successfully passed through a virtual blockade designed to prevent slave ships from landing at ports in the United States. The authorities moved in on Meaher quickly, he was arrested, charged and released on bond. Because of the Civil War and the inability of the United States government to prove its case, Meaher was released. An exhaustive search of the literature indicates the Clotilde was the last ship that brought Africans to America as slaves.

The saga of the Clotilde provides the symbolic foundation for the beginning and ending of two major periods in American history and cultural evolution. The beginning of a major period in U.S. Civil Rights is suggested to have started with the American public's awareness and reaction against the international slave trade during this historical time; and also a major ending to the illegal smuggling of Africans for the purpose of slavery in the U.S. was halted during the period of the Clotilde landing at Mobile. It must be understood that the voyage of the Clotilde occurred at the end of a series of U.S. legal prohibitions against the international slave trade. United States laws beginning in 1794, 1800, 1803, 1808, 1813, 1818 and 1820 prohibited the importation of Africans for the purpose of slavery, as well as made illegal the fitting out of vessels to maintain or support the trade. The United States in 1794 prohibited the outfitting of slavers within its ports if they were destined to carry slaves from one foreign country to another.(1)

This same law was repeated in 1818 with more severe penalties imposed for violations.(2) However, the slave trade flourished during the 1840's and 50's despite the existence of laws against it. The most distinguished and last recorded violation involved the Schooner Clotilde which landed illegally in Mobile, Alabama, with 116 Africans aboard. Although the voyage of the Clotilde was an event of paramount importance in the evolution of African International Human Rights, limited attention has been devoted to the area of its occurrence as a significant and exceptional historic event. This paper is designed to unravel some of the mysteries of the Clotilde.

Public interest in the Clotilde started immediately after the landing of the illegal cargo at Twelve Mile Island in 1859. Because the cargo was considered contraband and the crew of the Clotilde pirates, immediate investigations by federal agents and the eventual action by the federal court are recorded as the first public reaction against the incident. The press since 1859 covered the affair by interviewing the main personalities as well as keeping the incident before the public by periodically covering various aspects of the story.(3) The Clotilde was recognized in its time as the finest of its type for both speed and cargo capability. Thus it was selected to sail for Africa and was considered the personal property of Bill Foster who designed and built the vessel and who also served as captain during the African voyage.(4) The Clotilde was bought at a cost of $35,000 and overhauled and fitted out especially with a view to transporting Africans by Captain Timothy Meaher, a successful steam boatman.(5) Whether Meaher enjoyed an employer status to Foster or a business partnership is a vague certainty. Timothy Meaher, known during his time as one of the best and most successful of steam boatmen(6) commanded many vessels during his lifetime but became known and identified because of his associations with the Clotilde. …

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