(Reuters) – The last ship known to smuggle slaves from Africa to the United States has been discovered in Alabama’s Mobile River, nearly 160 years after it was deliberately sunk, a historical commission said on Wednesday.
The Alabama Historical Commission, in a post on its Facebook page, called the effort to locate the ship, the Clotilda, a “yearlong scientific investigation.”
The Clotilda was discovered by a company called SEARCH Inc in collaboration with the commission and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Clotilda has previously been documented by historians as the last ship known to bring African captives to the United States. It operated in secret, decades after Congress banned the importation of slaves into the country in 1807.
The Clotilda carried 110 men, women and children from Africa to Alabama in 1860, according to the 2007 book “Dreams of Africa in Alabama” by Sylviane Anna Diouf, who relied on testimony from the slave traders and their captives.
The ship is believed to have been intentionally sunk in 1860 to hide evidence of its use in the slave trade.
Three years later, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring the end of slavery in the United States.
“The discovery of the Clotilda sheds new light on a lost chapter of American history,” said Fredrik Hiebert, archaeologist-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, which supported the search.
Hiebert spoke to National Geographic magazine, which first reported the discovery.
Researchers used insurance records to determine the Clotilda’s dimensions and its other unique characteristics, such as planks of southern yellow pine over white oak frames, according to National Geographic.
The team behind the search for the Clotilda discovered a ship with its identifying features under water in a section of the Mobile River, according to National Geographic.
A representative from the Alabama Historical Commission could not be reached for comment late on Wednesday.
Among the captives on the Clotilda were Cudjo Lewis, who lived until 1935 and was long described as the last survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States.
Importing slaves into the United States had been illegal since 1808, and southern plantation owners had seen prices in the domestic slave trade skyrocket. Many, including Meaher, were advocating for reopening the trade.
Meaher chartered a sleek, swift schooner named Clotilda and enlisted its builder, Captain William Foster, to sail it to the notorious slave port of Ouidah in present-day Benin to buy captives. Foster left West Africa with 110 young men, women, and children crowded into the schooner’s hold. One girl reportedly died during the brutal six-week voyage. Purchased for $9,000 in gold, the human cargo was worth more than 20 times that amount in 1860 Alabama.
After transferring the captives to a riverboat owned by Meaher’s brother, Foster burned the slaver to the waterline to hide their crime. Clotilda kept her secrets over the decades, even as some deniers contended that the shameful episode never occurred.
After the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, the Africans longed to return to their home in West Africa. Lacking the means, they managed to buy small plots of land north of Mobile, where they formed their own tight-knit community that came to be known as Africatown. There they made new lives for themselves but never lost their African identity. Many of their descendants still live there today and grew up with stories of the famous ship that brought their ancestors to Alabama.
“If they find evidence of that ship, it’s going to be big,” descendant Lorna Woods predicted earlier this year. “All Mama told us would be validated. It would do us a world of good.”
Earlier this year, researcher Hannah Durkin of Newcastle University in Britain published a paper naming the last known survivor as Redoshi, who also went by the name Sally Smith.
She died in 1937, two years after Lewis, and also was a captive of the Clotilda, according to Durkin’s findings.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis I Editing by Dan Whitcomb I Reuters I JOEL K. BOURNE, JR. I National Geographic