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July 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Divers Find the Last Slave Ship

from the July, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Alabama's Mobile River was confirmed in May to be the resting place of Clotilda, a 19th century twomasted schooner that's the last known ship to bring slaves from Africa to America. She was deliberately sunk in 1860, just north of the Mobile Bay delta, after an illegal trans-Atlantic voyage by American slave trader Timothy Meaher. The Clotilda's authentication was led by the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH Inc., a group of maritime archaeologists and divers who specialize in historic shipwrecks, as well as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, which became involved through its Slave Wrecks Project.

The dive team found the remains of the wreck, originally 90 feet long, in only 10 feet of water. "But the conditions are sort of treacherous," Kamau Sadiki, one of the SEARCH Inc. divers and current president of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, told "Visibility was almost zero and there's some current, but the most important thing is that you're among wreckage that you cannot see."

The African slave trade had been banned 50 years prior, but Meaher attempted to sneak more than 100 men, women and children into Mobile by night. He was caught, and the Federal government brought slavetrading charges against him; the captain of the Clotilda ordered the ship taken upriver to be burnt and sunk.

Plans are in the works for the wreck site to be turned into a National Park Service Blueway, a waterbased heritage trail. The Smithsonian is also considering how to preserve the Clotilda and where it could best be saved for the long term so it can reach the most people. Says Sadiki, "The Clotilda should be known by everyone who calls themselves an American because it is so pivotal to the American story."

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