- Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America, and: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA: Spirit of Our Ancestors
On the eve of the Civil War, Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Alabama planter, boasted that he could bring “a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses,” defying the federal ban on international slave trading. Mea-her was right: in mid-1860 his partner, Captain William Foster, sailed to Ouidah (located in Benin) aboard the schooner Clotilda and purchased more than one hundred captives whom he then took across the Atlantic and successfully smuggled up the Alabama River, near Mobile. Although the United States made transatlantic slave trading a federal crime in 1808, illegal slave trading continued throughout the antebellum period. While many leading experts on the transatlantic slave trade have argued that only a small number of African captives were smuggled into the U.S. after 1808 ( www.slavevoyages.org ), Sylviane A. Diouf and Natalie S. Robertson both argue that officials made little effort to enforce the prohibition or prosecute offenders and that illegal slave trading was more prevalent than is commonly believed.1 Indeed, Diouf argues that presidential pardons for anyone convicted of illegal slave trading were relatively easy to obtain (16).
In Dreams of Africa in Alabama and The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, Diouf and Robertson tell the remarkable story of the 110 Clotilda survivors, the last known African captives brought to the United States. When they arrived in Alabama after spending six weeks at sea, the largest group of the Clotilda Africans—sixteen men and sixteen women—became Meaher’s slaves, working on his plantation and steamboats. They endured five years of slave labor, but the end of the Civil War soon brought freedom. After a jubilant celebration the Clotilda Africans tried to find a way to get back to their homes and families in West Africa. Yet, like most manumitted Africans who tried to make it back “home,” they never found a viable plan and were forced to remain in Alabama. They did so, however, on their own terms. In 1868 they pooled their meager [End Page 471] resources, purchased land, elected leaders, and established their own community, which they called “Africa Town” (known today as “Africatown” and located in Mobile County). The founders of Africa Town and their descendants lived through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, struggling to maintain a cohesive community in the face of hostility from whites and blacks alike. Cudjo, the last survivor, lived until 1935 and even today some of the Clotilda Africans’ descendants continue efforts to preserve the history of this extraordinary settlement and celebrate their West African cultural heritage.
In The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA, Robertson’s primary goal is to recover the West African backgrounds of the Clotilda captives. Therefore, she devotes only one full chapter to their experiences in Alabama (Ch. 7—“The Founding of AfricaTown”). For, as Robertson explains, her goal is to “metaphysically reconnect Cudjo and some of his shipmates back to their West African ancestral homelands by delineating their geographical and cultural origins to degrees of specificity that have not been reached by previous investigators” (6). Through extensive field research and interviews conducted in Benin and Nigeria over a period of several years, Robertson reveals that most, but not all, of the Clotilda captives came from Yoruba cultures in southwestern Nigeria and that they were captured in raids by Dahomey. Robertson skillfully traces individual survivors back to specific geographic regions and makes plausible arguments as to where they likely came from based on admittedly tenuous evidence. A second goal for Robertson is to “explore the extent to which the Clotilda descendants continued...