by Gary Wright
“Unbroken” is part two in Gary Wright’s three-part series, “The Last Slaver Ship.” To read part one, “On a Distant Shore,” click here: http://porchscene.com/2016/11/28/on-a-distant-shore/
The rich, fertile savannah coastal area of West Africa became known as the ‘slave coast’ because of the concentration of slaves, easy access to navigable ports, and the recently awakened global interest in and the need for slaves. Slavery is easily definable and explainable. It is free labor. Use of free labor will always make the product—whatever product—much cheaper than that of a competitor who must pay for labor. Africa was a rich, lush continent, especially the tropical central part. There, food was easily produced, causing a large population which caused overcrowding which, in turn, lead to war. In all wars there is a victor and a loser, and, in central Africa, the losers were taken into captivity and sold to the highest bidder.
European colonies, in the 1700s, were beginning to burgeon with crops of cotton, sugar cane, molasses, and rum. These goods were very profitable but demanded huge numbers of human workers to sow, tend, reap, and transport to an ever-growing market due to the rapidly expanding industrial revolution. You see, on the receiving end of slavery, it is dehumanizing, mean, cruel, vicious, and dishonesty at its extreme worst. The prevailing thought during that period, though, was that on the other end of the spectrum, it was simply good business.
The Clotilda arrived on the West African coast on May 15, 1859, and landed with a cargo of captives, including members of the Taskbar Tribe, prisoners from recent tribal wars against the village of Tamale, Ghana, and others. Deceit and double-cross work hand-in-hand in any such nefarious venture, and, it is said that Captain Foster and his entire crew nearly fell captive to the very Dahomey Chief, from whom he purchased the slaves. Foster and his crew must have been very impressed with the large military force of Dahomey, including a fierce contingent of female Amazon warriors whose courage and tenacity was said to have had no equal. They were not selected for their appearance, rather, their size, bravery, loyalty, and fierceness. In battle, they were considered veritable killing machines.
Saved by pure luck, Captain Foster set sail for Mobile around May 15, 1860, with some 130 African men, women, and children housed in tight, cage-like quarters in the hold of the Clotilda. During the five-week voyage, due to unsanitary conditions and starvation rations, some twenty African souls died, and their bodies were unceremoniously tossed overboard to ever-circling sharks. Many experienced sailors declared sharks could smell a slaving ship.
On Sunday, July 8, 1860, some 52 years after the United States had abolished the international slave trade, the Clotilda, captained by shipbuilder William Foster, sailed into Mobile Bay with 110 African men, women, and children between the ages of 5 and 23 on board. Life was soon to take a turn for these people and the Meahers, far different than they, or anyone, could have expected. For life, unlike a story, cannot be scripted, planned, or written; it must, and it will play out like the unwinding of a spinning top, moving here, spinning there, unveiling itself to its own unplanned, unrehearsed, natural design.
Federal authorities had been alerted to the illegal scheme months before, and were waiting; many say they were tipped off by the very Yankee merchants who were fearful of losing their wager to the Meaher Brothers. Captain Foster was alerted, and he slipped into a little-used docking area near what is the present-day Cochran Bridge in Mobile. Timothy Meaher arrived at the port in the morning’s wee hours and took charge. He transferred all the Africans to a riverboat, then burned the Clotilda to the waterline, before purposely sinking it in Mobile Bay, for it was evidence of the federal crime.
Meaher paid off Captain Foster and the crew and immediately transported them to Montgomery, where they were then paid to conveniently disappear from history and from inquiring eyes of federal officials who were investigating the matter. Meaher was able to document some 52 trips between Mobile and Montgomery during the period of the illegal slaving voyage. Thus, he was able to prove he was not personally involved.
The African slaves were distributed to those having a financial interest in the Clotilda venture, with Timothy Meaher retaining 30 of the Africans on his property near Mobile. Cudjoe Lewis was among the 30 held by Meaher. Since these Africans had been illegally brought in, they could not be legally enslaved, since clear title for them, as chattel, could not be passed. They were, however, illegally held as property and were treated as such.
These people were deposited on property owned by the Meahers, known as Magazine Point, and left to fend for themselves. Initially, thirty in number, they built shacks from materials they could find, raised food, hired themselves out to nearby farmers, and started a life for themselves. This little enclave became known as Africatown, and, over the years, it grew. When the Civil War ended, all slaves were declared free, and this little town continued to flourish as other freed slaves were welcomed. Many surviving members of the Clotilda voyage made their way back to Africatown. The residents continued to speak their native language, to observe tribal customs, to worship their gods, and to govern themselves based on their known values. Among the Africans was a man named Cudjoe Lewis, who was the last survivor of the original group, and who lived until 1935. Lewis’ African name had been Kazoola, but Meaher had changed it because he thought it wasn’t an appropriate Christian name.
After the Civil War, the elders petitioned the renewed federal government for assistance, particularly for transportation back to their native Africa. But, alas, all their requests fell on a deaf ear, and they were doomed to remain forever on a distant shore surrounded by foreign people, strange ways, and an uncaring attitude. Their only solace lay within themselves, and they told their children of Africa, a place of lush, green valleys, a place of plenty where there was little to want, nothing to fear, and everything for which to hope. As the years grew and memories faded, Africa became to them and their children an idyllic, half-remembered place which offset their present stark reality.
Cudjoe Lewis brought suit in court for reparations against the Meaher Brothers for kidnapping, illegal constraint, and for five years of wages until the passage of the 14th amendment on July 8, 1868. These charges were eventually dismissed without satisfaction to the Africans. After the Civil War, the American government encouraged freed slaves to immigrate to the developing west coast country of Liberia in Africa. Mr. Lewis petitioned the government for passage of his people to that country but was met with no positive results. Eventually, Lewis and his followers resigned themselves to being marooned along the shores of Mobile Bay, aliens on foreign soil, forever.
Slowly, over the years, their native language died out, the residents of Africatown converted to Christianity, and all became settled in present conditions. The people worked hard and saved their money, doing without all but absolute necessities, and they slowly bought land—the land they lived on and surrounding acres—until eventually, they owned their entire community.
Finally, they were relatively free. The grounds of the Union Baptist Church in Africatown holds the Cudjoe Lewis Memorial Statue, as mute testimony to his memory and legacy. Lewis, it is said, spent his entire life ‘wanting to go home.
Poster image from Pinterest board Africatown USA Mobile, Alabama, pinned by Blackman
Cudjoe Lewis image with children from Pinterest board to American History, Culture and Various Bits of Odd Related Information, saved by Elynor Vine.
Historic marker image from Pinterest board The Missing Piece of History, pinned by Cheryl Brown.