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THE SURVIVORS OF CLOTILDA SLAVE SHIP


The Clotilda was the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States, arriving in Mobile Bay, July 9, 1860 -- more than half a century after the passage of a federal law banning the importation of captive Africans, and nine months before the beginning of the American Civil War.


On board the Clotilda were 110 African men, women, and children.  The last of its survivors lived well into the twentieth century, and bore witnesses to the final act of forced slavery in the American South.


Fortunately, several Northern journalists interviewed these survivors, and recorded the story of their lives as a free people living in Africa, and, too, their enslaved lives in the Antebellum South.  These records became the basis for English historian Dr. Hannah Durkin to write this book.  Be aware, portions of this book are extremely painful to read, but necessary, if we are ever to learn the lessons of enslaving people, and not repeat the atrocities that were committed in the name of the almighty dollar.  Ultimately, the resilience of the Clotilda captives is a story worth knowing, as it reminds us once again, of the triumph of the human spirit.


What's remarkable about their story, is the good life these people had enjoyed while living in Tarkar (located 75-miles southwest of present-day Nigeria), a home that was something akin to a Garden of Eden, where fruits and vegetables grew abundantly in the incredibly fertile soil  The womenfolk raised cows, pigs, goats and chickens, and as industrious business entrepreneurs sold them in the town's marketplace.  The Tarkar village was well run, clean and orderly, and their homes well-built and watertight. The people of Tarkar were peaceful and devoted to their religious beliefs, and lived in harmony with each other. "Nobody ever go hungry," said one of the survivors, who longed to return to his African home.


This is, of course, a far cry of what their enslavers said of them, that they were a shiftless, godless, brutal savages who lived a godless life in the dark African jungles, and who were far better off and happier as slaves living America.


THE CAPTURE


Despite living in a fenced compound as a means of defense against wild animals and unfriendly tribes, it was the warring tribe of nearby Dahomey that attacked them by surprise in the early morning hours of mid-April, 1860.  Dahomey warriors rounded up the Tarkar town's people, beheaded their leader, burned everything to the ground, and marched the chained captives 250 miles to the slave market at the port of Ouidah.  Why did the Dahomey people commit such unspeakable acts against their fellow countrymen?  For money, of course.  The captain of the Clotilda paid the Dahomey leader $100 for each captive.


From the port of Ouidah, the African captives were placed in the cargo-hold of a schooner that originally had been built to ship lumber. The Clotilda captives remembered the confined space as suffocatingly hot, and difficult to breathe in.  They were fed once a day, and provided filthy water to drink.  They would not see the light of day for another 44 days.  One man and three children died during the voyage, joining the 1.8 million Africans who perished on the Atlantic crossing to the Americas. Only towards the end of their journey, were the captives allowed on deck.  This was done not out of compassion, but to strengthen their atrophied leg muscles, so they would show better at the slave market in Mobile, Alabama.


This cruel and inhumane treatment continued once the ship made port in Mobile, with gruel being served in wooden troughs.  After that they were dressed in clothing made from feed sacks and, still chained, forced to walk to the slave market, for sale to the highest bidder.  The captain of the Clotilda was paid about $1000 per captive (later, he scuttled the ship to hide what was a crime under the 1860 laws of the U.S. government).


As always happened at these slave markets, wives were separated form the husbands, and children separated from their parents.  All of them were sold off as if they were so much cattle.  All of them were destined to live out their lives in brutal servitude, working under the blazing Alabama sun, while picking cotton--the money crop-- and making their enslavers rich.  Adding to their burden, the enslaved Africans lived without hope of ever returning to their African homeland.


AFTER SLAVERY


When the Civil War ended, they were released from bondage, but forever after tolerated as objects of ridicule and contempt.  Under these conditions, the survivors of the Clotilda slave ship continued to work the land of their former enslavers--with little or no pay.


A few managed to earn money by selling in town what they were allowed to grow.  Some saved enough money to buy a small plot of land, on which to build a small cabin, plant crops, raise chickens, and live independently.  Ironically, their homes and farms were neater and better organized than the homes and farms of their former enslavers.


If they became too successful, their former enslavers were quick to attack and destroy, and steal whatever gains they possessed.  As always, this was happened in the dead of night.  These African-Americans somehow managed to survive the persecution, and eventually unite in a town of their own creating, called Africatown.  Some of the womenfolk united  to create a cottage industry of weavers, that produced intricate and beautiful quilts (sewn together from rags and cast-off garments) which they sold.  Today, some of these very quilts are now on display in the Smithsonian Museum, in Washington D. C.


In the late 1880s and early 1900s, having learned about the Clotilda slave ship and its survivors, Northern reporters arrived in Alabama to learn more about who they were and how they lived.  What they discovered was a people that was sad, but determined to survive, while still harboring hope of returning to their African home.  Indeed, most well-remembered how much better off their lives had been living in Africa.  They also remembered vividly their capture and tortuous overseas journey to America, so much so one of them drew a map of their march from Tarkar to the slave market at the port of Ouidah.  Several photos were taken, photos that revealed their quiet dignity and resilience to the hardships of living in the Jim Crow South.  Photos were also taken of their homes, and the quilts they had made.


Many of these reports and photos were published in books and magazines, which proved embarrassing to Alabama's white citizenry, many of whom still clung to the fiction that African slaves were happier and better off living as slaves.  Indeed, they too wrote stories for publication, about what they described as the idyllic lives of enslaved Africans.


Many of the Clotida survivors outlived their captors, and lived well into their nineties.  Some produced heirs who would grow up and serve in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  Some of these heirs would participate in the famed civil rights march from Selma to Mobile, not far from where the Clotilda slave ship made port, in 1860.


- END -

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