The year was 1859 and although America had slaves, it was illegal to bring slaves into the country because of the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves signed by Thomas Jefferson. But wealthy Mobile, Alabama slave owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could successfully bring a load of slaves directly from Africa and avoid naval forces.
According to historical records of the Mobile Public Library Digital Collections, Meaher had learned of a war being waged by Glele, the king of Dahomey, modern-day Benin, Badohou. At the time, the kingdom was a center of commerce and was known for palm oil and slaves. Meaher hired Captain William Foster and a crew of 12 who set sail on March 4, 1860 aboard the Clotilda for the voyage to West Africa. Foster had $9K (around $255K in 2018) in gold to purchase slaves from the king. He arrived in Dahomey on May 15, 1860, and made plans to purchase 125 war captives from Ghana for $100 each. While loading the slaves aboard the Clotilda, he spotted two naval vessels that were on anti-slavery patrol and fled with only 110 slaves.
The Clotilda made it back to the Alabama River where the slaves were unloaded and the ship was burned to destroy evidence of the crime. Meaher kept 30 of the slaves for his own plantation and distributed the rest. However, none of the Clotilda slaves could legally be enslaved since they were smuggled into the country. They were, however, held as property in a strange twist of legality. Meaher and Foster’s deception and crime were discovered and they faced trial. Still, no conviction was achieved and both men escaped justice.
After the Civil War, the Clotilda slaves started their own community known as Africa Town. They built schools and businesses and the community thrived, even now in 2018. The Clotilda was back in the news last month when its wreckage was found on Jan. 24, 2018 by an Alabama reporter named Ben Raines (al.com) in the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a few miles north of the city of Mobile, Alabama. In a preliminary review, a team of archeologists says that “based on the dimensions of the wreckage and its contents … the remnants were most likely those of the slave ship.”
Many of the residents of Africa Town believe they should have a say in how the wreckage should be treated and the best way to tell the story of the Clotilda.