Exploration of Sunken Slave Ship Reveals Charred Antlers and Other Artifacts
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – The last ship to bring slaves from Africa to the United States in 1860 was set on fire near the mouth of the Mobile River following the illegal voyage, and a recent archaeological assessment of the sunken vessel has revealed the charred wood and other remaining parts.
“We have just completed the 10-day project to assess Clotilda. As you heard, we made it in time and made some interesting discoveries. These discoveries have prompted additional questions,” said James Delgado, maritime archaeologist at SEARCH Inc., during a Thursday night meeting in Mobile, Alabama “Over the next few months, given the number of scientists, the number of labs that we work with, answers will come as well.”
Beginning May 2, the Alabama Historical Commission, or AHC, conducted a scientific exploration of the infamous vessel, in partnership with SEARCH Inc., Diving with a Purpose, Resolve Marine and others. Working from a large red barge anchored near the wreck, a series of divers explored the site, scavenging wood and other artifacts from the muddy water.
According to Delgado, the project included a conservation analysis that required careful treatment of salvaged pieces, including disjointed antlers that were found scattered outside the ship.
“As each wood came out, the way we worked was basically a military style using the yard system,” he said. “What we would do is put everything on the deck of the barge directly next to a large bin full of river water. We didn’t want to remove this wood and then shock it and upset the balance that could have preserved it by putting it in another type of water. So river water to river water, and we didn’t stop them from getting in that long.
Before the forensic assessment could even begin, however, Delgado said the team had to remove the trees that had accumulated alongside the wreckage.
“In the beginning, the main objective was to access Clotilda, for the first time to be able to go to a variety of areas, but also to relieve the stress due to the number of trees that have come down the river over the years. and lodged against or in it,” Delgado said.
The history of the Clotilda goes back to the eve of the American Civil War, when the importation of slaves had already been prohibited about five decades before. An Alabama plantation owner named Timothy Meaher orchestrated the affair, in which 110 slaves were brought across the Atlantic Ocean from the African country now known as Benin. After completing the voyage, the perpetrators burned and scuttled the Clotilda somewhere in the swampy waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in an attempt to hide evidence of their crime.
For years after, the ship’s exact whereabouts remained a maritime mystery until its wooden remains were positively identified in May 2019, after a local journalist named Ben Raines located the ship a year earlier.
According to Delgado, the latest exploration revealed several important pieces that confirmed the identity of the wreckage and provided additional clues to the destruction of the ship.
“We found more diagnostic artifacts which of course spoke more to the fact that, yes, it’s Clotilda. We have found more material, more wood now that has most definitely been burned,” he said.
The divers also recovered a lead pipe, which was initially identified as a hawse pipe used to raise and lower the anchor, and a cast iron pulley which was most likely part of the ship’s steering mechanism. .
The success of the project was due in part to the river conditions over the previous two weeks, which Delgado said were the best the team had ever experienced while working at the site.
“The river was mostly flat. The current was negligible,” he said. “Sediment movement was practically nothing.”
Project manager Aaron Jozsef of Resolve Marine agreed, saying, “From a weather standpoint, we’ve been totally blessed.”
Besides the notoriety attached to the ship itself, the story of Clotilda is also significant because of the survivors. After the Civil War, more than 30 of the slaves who had been transported aboard the ship and survived their subsequent years of captivity, united to form a community called Africatown. This community, located just north of downtown Mobile, still exists today, although it has been largely industrialized and its population has declined significantly since its peak in the 1960s.
For the remaining residents, many of whom are direct descendants of Clotilda survivors, the discovery of the sunken schooner gave hope that the area could be revitalized. A new museum is currently under construction and a new visitor center is also being developed using restoration funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The Clotilda’s ultimate fate remains to be determined, but some believe the ship should be raised in its entirety and displayed in a world-class museum in Africatown. Raines, whose new book “The Last Slave Ship” details the journalist’s discovery of the ship and the complex history of Africatown, argues that the ship is too important to leave submerged.
“This is an archaeological artifact of global significance,” Raines said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s the most intact slave ship ever found. It’s the only slave ship ever found involved in the American trade, and it’s the most documented ship in terms of what we know about the people who did, the white slavers and African Americans who were captured and on the ship.”
According to Raines, a museum in Africatown large enough to house the Clotilda would be the best way to preserve not only the history of the Clotilda but also that of the African diaspora.
“At the end of the day, the Clotilda is sort of the origin story of the African diaspora, and I mean globally, not just in Alabama or America, but all the people whose ancestors came in the hold of a ship,” he said. “It’s totally unlike anything in the historical record for any enslaved people. That’s why the Clotilda is so important. Not just because it was the last slaver, but because it’s the best documented.
According to Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, the most important thing for descendants is that their legacy be preserved.
“The main agenda should be Africatown,” he told Courthouse News on Monday. “We’re trying to make sure that as we move forward, everyone understands that the main thing is the survival of this community and the legacy honoring these 110 souls.”
Specifically, he said they would like to see additional support from the City of Mobile.
“The most important thing for us is to get the city involved,” he said. “Montgomery and towns like Montgomery have embraced their slave history and through this the whole community can thrive. We would like to see the city of Mobile take the same approach, aggressively embarking on what is going to be a major tourism boom here when Africatown becomes what it will be in about two or three years.
In the meantime, four of the artifacts preserved during the recent archaeological exploration will be preserved by the project’s conservation partner, Terra Mare Conservation. These items include the steering gear, if any, the lead pipe, a mud board, and a section of the hull.
“Terra Mare worked with AHC on these to develop a conservation plan to preserve them so they can be out of the water and available and visible and displayed in a museum setting,” Delgado said. “These four artifacts really help tell the story if you will, not only in terms of scientific assessment, and how to preserve them and what would happen if more Clotilda were to appear, but they speak to the human side of the story. .”
Speaking at Thursday’s community meeting, curator Claudia Chemello warned conservation would not be a short process as the elements present a variety of different challenges.
“It takes a long time,” she said. “The direction part that was shown on the slide, it has at least three or four different materials together on an artifact. That’s the most difficult conservation problem.
The remainder of the items that were recovered from the water during the project were returned to the wreck for safekeeping.
According to AHC, the data that was collected during the project will be analyzed and eventually incorporated into a report, which will allow AHC to develop a management plan for the wrecked vessel.
“As custodians of the Clotilda, the Alabama Historical Commission takes the stewardship of this priceless artifact extremely seriously,” said Lisa Jones, state historic preservation officer and AHC executive director. in a press release. “The preservation of the Clotilda is important to Africatown and the nation. Careful consideration of the protection, preservation and interpretation of the Clotilde has been methodical, strategic and deliberate.