Historians have been searching for the last slave ship that came to America. They found it in Alabama

An illustration shows slaves being shackled on board a slave ship. Full Credit: Rischgitz/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The search for the last American slave ship is over.

The wreck of the schooner Clotilda, believed to be the last known ship to bring enslaved people to the US from Africa, has been found in the Alabama’s Mobile River, the Alabama Historical Commission announced.

“The discovery of the Clotilda is an extraordinary archaeological find,” Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the Alabama Historical Commission, said in a statement. “The voyage represented one of the darkest eras of modern history and is a profound discovery of the tangible evidence of slavery.”

A dark journey

The Clotilda had a brief and wretched history.

By the mid-1800s, importing slaves into the US had long been illegal, although some smugglers defied the law, especially in the South.

According to historical accounts, the Clotilda made its illicit journey after Timothy Meaher, a local plantation owner, made a bet that he could sneak slaves past federal officials and into the country.

He bought the two-masted schooner and paid a captain, William Foster, to sail it to West Africa and collect 110 slaves from what is now Benin. Foster ferried them back across the Atlantic to Mobile, where he smuggled the ship past authorities in 1860 under cover of darkness.

The captain then navigated the Clotilda up the Spanish River, transferred the slaves to a riverboat and burned the ship, sinking it.

Slave descendants will be consulted

Many of the ship’s slaves, freed five years later at the end of the Civil War, settled a community north of downtown Mobile that became known as Africatown. Some descendants of the original slaves still live in the area. Now that the ship has been found, the descendants will be consulted on decisions about its future.

“This would have obvious impacts on them, and we would work with them to get a sense of their feelings, what they would like to see occur with the site, and have them involved in the research as much as they would like to be,” Gregory D. Cook, an assistant professor of maritime archaeology at the University of West Florida, told CNN last year.

Interest in finding the Clotilda reignited in January 2018 after AL.com reporter Ben Raines discovered the remains of a ship near Mobile. Experts and volunteers got to work to determine whether the remains really belonged to the last known slave ship. It was determined this particular shipwreck wasn’t the Clotilda — the remains were too big — but everyone agreed to keep searching.

The ship carried the last surviving slave

In addition to being the last slave ship, the Clotilda carried the woman who has now been identified as the last survivor of the US-African slave trade.

A woman named Redoshi was kidnapped in Benin at the age 12 and sent to America aboard the Clotilda, according to research from a lecturer at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.

Redoshi was forced to marry on board the ship.

She and her husband, known as William or Billy, were bought by Washington Smith, a founder of the Bank of Selma and owner of the Bogue Chitto plantation in Alabama, where she was enslaved and renamed Sally Smith, working in the house and the fields for almost five years.

After emancipation in 1865, she continued to live on the Smith plantation and came into contact with early civil rights activists such as Amelia Boynton Robinson.

Her life was documented by Boynton Robinson as well as other activists and historians, and Newcastle lecturer Hannah Durkin drew on their work.

Redoshi died in Alabama in 1937, two years after Oluale Kossola, or Cudjo Lewis, who was previously thought to have been the last survivor of the US slave trade.

While other people born into slavery would have lived past 1937, Redoshi was the last surviving slave abducted from Africa.

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