Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although banned by Congress in 1807, the importation of slaves into the United States continued through the next five decades. The arrest and prosecution of the crew of the Clotilde finally ended the illegal slave trade in the United States.

Summary of Event

Reports about the slave ships especially built to transport slaves between 1858 and 1861 are contradictory. Nevertheless, historians have managed to piece together an accurate account of the Clotilde, the last U.S. slave ship, which smuggled more than one hundred Africans into Alabama. The importation of slaves was outlawed by Congress in 1807, with the law taking effect in 1808. This brutal business continued without serious interference, however, until the early 1820’s, when federal officials began capturing slavers and freeing their prisoners. Public sentiment, even in the South, did not favor revival of the trade. To annoy northern antislavery and abolitionist advocates, numerous rumors were spread by slave traders and sympathizers about slavers landing on the southeastern coast. For example, the New York Daily Tribune received many letters reporting landings of slavers in Florida and the Carolinas. There were even rumors during the 1860’s of a prosperous underground slave-trading company operating in New Orleans New Orleans;and slave trade[Slave trade] . The Clotilde’s history, however, has been confirmed by eyewitness accounts and careful reconstruction of events by historians. Alabama;slave trade Slave trade;end of Dahomey Kingdom;and slave trade[Slave trade] Slave trade;and West Africa[West Africa] West Africa;and slave trade[Slave trade] Slave trade;and U.S. law[U.S. law] Foster, Bill Meagher, Timothy [kw]Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile (July, 1859) [kw]Slave Ship Docks at Mobile, Last (July, 1859) [kw]Ship Docks at Mobile, Last Slave (July, 1859) [kw]Docks at Mobile, Last Slave Ship (July, 1859) [kw]Mobile, Last Slave Ship Docks at (July, 1859) Alabama;slave trade Slave trade;end of Dahomey Kingdom;and slave trade[Slave trade] Slave trade;and West Africa[West Africa] West Africa;and slave trade[Slave trade] Slave trade;and U.S. law[U.S. law] Foster, Bill Meagher, Timothy [g]Africa;July, 1859: Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile[3300] [g]United States;July, 1859: Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile[3300] [c]Social issues and reform;July, 1859: Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile[3300] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July, 1859: Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile[3300] Gossalow Abaky Lewis, Cudjo

Congress had revived laws against slave trading and declared that anyone convicted would be hanged. The United States had been later than almost every other civilized nation in the world in abolishing slave trading. Even New York City, bastion of abolitionists, became a refuge for eighty-five slave ships, many of them built and sent to Africa from that city. Much profit could be made in the $17 million-per-year business. According to one account, 15,000 Africans were smuggled to the United States in 1859 alone, the last 117 of whom were brought by the Clotilde. In contrast, the British government, after issuing its injunction against the slave trade in the eighteenth century, seized and destroyed 625 slave ships and freed their 40,000 prisoners. In the United States, only the abolitionists consistently confronted the government for its apathy toward slave smuggling.

Timothy Meagher, with his brothers Jim and Byrns, masterminded the Clotilde project. Timothy, an imposing Irishman known for his adventurous character, was a plantation owner and captain of the steamboat Roger B. Taney, which carried passengers, cargo, and mail to and from Montgomery on the Alabama River. Apparently in a lighthearted argument with some passengers on his steamboat, Meagher made a thousand-dollar bet that within a year or two he would bring a ship full of slaves to Mobile Bay without being apprehended by federal officials. Meagher had many years’ experience in cruising the Alabama River. He knew his way around every hidden bayou, swamp, canebrake, and sandbar better than anyone else in the South. For his operation, he needed a slave ship. He purchased a lumber schooner called the Clotilde for thirty-five thousand dollars in late 1858 and rebuilt it as a 327-ton slaver. He hired his friend Bill Foster, who was experienced in constructing and sailing the old slavers, as skipper.

Foster was to sail to the west coast of Africa and seek the Dahomey Kingdom’s assistance in procuring two hundred young slaves. The Clotilde was equipped with a crew, guns, and cutlasses. To control the prisoners, Meagher supplied the ship with iron manacles, rings, and chains. Foster hired his crew from all over the South, enticing them with liquor, money, and promises of adventure. In the dead of night, massive quantities of food, mainly yams and rice, and drinking water were transported to the ship from Meagher’s plantation. To give the ship the look of a lumber schooner, some piles of lumber were placed on the deck. Captain Foster hired the infamous ruler of Dahomey and his drunken thugs to raid villages and capture two hundred young, healthy men and women. The attacks must have taken place early one summer morning in May or early June of 1859. The Dahomean band raided the two peaceful villages of Whinney and Ataka. They burned huts, injured women and children, and tied up more than 170 young Africans by their necks. The captives were forced into the hold of the Clotilde.

The return trip was an awful scene of helpless people, racked with convulsions, crammed into dark, damp quarters, lacking adequate food and water. Foster had as many as thirty-nine bodies thrown overboard before arriving back in the United States. The ship returned in July, 1859, and waited in front of Biloxi in the Mississippi Sound. Foster hired a friend’s tugboat and in the dead of night, pulled the Clotilde, undetected by government vessels present in Mobile Bay, to a prearranged location in the swamps of the Tombigbee River. Meagher was the best man to maneuver the craft in the treacherous bayous. The sick, exhausted Africans were moved quietly to an out-of-the-way plantation belonging to Meagher’s friend, John M. Dabney, who hid them in the canebrakes. From there, Meagher took charge of his steamer, the Roger B. Taney, and kept Foster and the Clotilde crew members hidden aboard her until they reached Montgomery, where they were paid off and whisked to New York City for dispersal.

The slaver Clotilde was promptly burned at water’s edge as soon as its African cargo had been removed. Meagher made elaborate preparations to throw townsfolk and government officials off the track. The Department of Justice was informed, however, and Meagher was arrested at his plantation and placed on trial in short order. Meagher’s trial was a sham. He was released on bond for lack of evidence. His efforts to conceal all signs of the ship and its cargo had paid off, but he had to spend close to $100,000 in lawyers’ fees and bribes. The prosecution was delayed, and the secessionists came to his rescue. News of the Clotilde’s landing and Meagher’s trial was drowned by the presidential campaign and widespread talk of civil war.

Government officials finally learned where the Africans were hidden. They commissioned the steamer Eclipse to find and transfer the Africans to Mobile. Meagher, learning of the government’s decision, got the Eclipse crew and government passengers drunk, giving him and his men time to move the prisoners to a friend’s plantation two hundred miles up the Alabama River.

Meagher’s slave-smuggling venture was a financial disaster. He bought the Africans from the Dahomey Kingdom for $8,460 in gold plus ninety casks of rum and some cases of yard goods. He was able to sell only twenty-five slaves; it is not clear what happened to the rest. There were reports that Meagher later transferred the others to his plantation near Mobile. Some ended up marrying and living in the vicinity. Some were reported to have died of homesickness or other maladies. Many others settled in cabins behind the Meagher plantation house, which was burned in 1905.

Significance

The destruction of the Clotilde might be said to symbolize the end of one of the most despicable enterprises in modern history and the beginning of the infusion of the vibrant African culture into North American society. In 1906, a journalistic account of the Clotilde episode appeared in Harper’s Monthly. The author, H. M. Byers, had found several soft-spoken Africans who told of having been smuggled aboard the Clotilde. They still maintained some of their own culture and language, along with their African gentleness of demeanor. Most of their children were married to local black residents of Mobile and neighboring areas.

Byers conducted extensive interviews with two who had endured the journey from Africa to Alabama: an old man named Gossalow, Gossalow who had a tribal tattoo on his breast, and an old woman named Abaky Abaky , who had intricate tribal tattoos on both cheeks. Gossalow and his wife had been stolen from the village of Whinney, and Abaky from the town of Ataka, near the Dahomey Kingdom. They had kept many of their old traditions in their original form with little modification. For example, they still buried their dead in graves filled with oak leaves. They spoke nostalgically of their peaceful West African farms, planted with abundant yams and rice. The last known survivor of the Clotilde, Cudjo Lewis Lewis, Cudjo , died in 1935.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Byers, H. M. “The Last Slave Ship.” Harper’s Monthly Magazine 53 (1906): 742-746. A sensationalized journalistic version of the episode, but filled with valuable and accurate details. Especially valuable are the author’s interviews with two surviving Africans who were smuggled into the United States aboard the Clotilde.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howard, Warren S. “The Elusive Smuggled Slave.” In American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. Provides various accounts of the Clotilde.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reynolds, David S. John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Biography of one of the major voices responsible for the abolition of slavery. Portrays Brown as a Puritan in the tradition of Oliver Cromwell and Jonathan Edwards—a man who saw the world as a battle of good versus evil, and who sought to avenge the evil of slavery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sellers, James Benson. Slavery in Alabama. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 1950. Conveys the historical and social mood of that period and gives some details of the Clotilde’s smuggling operation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spear, John R. The American Slave Trade: An Account of Its Origins, Growth, and Suppression. Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House, 1978. A well-researched and thoroughly documented book about the slave trade in general. Chapter 19 provides an account of the Clotilde voyage and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wish, Harvey. “The Revival of the African Slave Trade in the United States, 1859-1860.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 27 (1940-1941): 569-588. A comprehensive account of various smuggling operations just before the Civil War.

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