Cudjo Lewis: The Last Survivor of the Last Slave Ship, But Not The Last Slave…

Article 1 Section 9 of the United States Constitution (1787) stipulated that the slave trade could not be interfered with for the next twenty years. Only beginning in January 1, 1808, could laws become effective to end it. It did not, however, require Congress to ban it.

Nevertheless in 1807 the United States took steps to end the international slave trade officially with the U.S. Slave Trade Act, specifying that, as of January 1, 1808 it would be illegal to import into the United States “negroes, mulattos, or persons of color” as slaves. However, if it turned out that Africans did reach the United States illegally, they could still be sold and enslaved. Moreover, the Act did nothing to prohibit slavery already in place.

[Even worse, the effort to end the slave trade – seemingly so progressive on its surface, created even more of a horror story for enslaved women. Now the only legal [sic] way owners had to increase their number of slaves was either by enforced “mating” of their slaves, or by enforced mating with their slaves. Not only were women of child-bearing age raped repeatedly, but infertile women were punished by being sold away from their families and friends. (Usually, buyers were unsuspecting, because they too would have wanted to use female slaves for forced reproduction. That this occurred frequently is attested to by the number of judicial cases brought by new owners for fraud in such circumstances.) (If you have the stomach, you can read more about the egregious practice of the rape of women slaves here. The link to download this scholarly study from the Washington & Lee University (Law School) Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice is on the right-hand side.)]

So the slave trade and the increase of slaves already within the borders of the U.S. [read: rape of enslaved women helpless to resist] continued. Tougher laws against importation were enacted, but with small penalties and without much enforcement. In 1850, the South even tried to get international slave trading re-opened! They did not succeed, but illegal importation did increase between 1850 and 1860.

Location of Benin

Location of Benin

In 1860, the schooner Clotilda, carrying between 110 and 116 captives from Benin and Nigeria landed in Mobile, Alabama. The Clotilda is believed to have been the last slave ship to bring slaves to the United States. (Timothy Meaher, a Mobile businessman, sent the Clotilda to Africa on a bet that he could “bring a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.” He of course won the bet.)

Arriving as a slave on that vessel was Cudjo Lewis from Benin. Lewis was one of 32 slaves who ended up on Meaher’s estate. Freed in 1865, he became a leader of a group of Clotilda veterans in Mobile. They started their own community they named African Town with the goal of preserving African traditions. Lewis outlived his fellow Clotilda companions, dying on July 26, 1935 at the estimated age of 94.

Cudjo Lewis

Cudjo Lewis, also known by his African name of Kazoola

Up until World War II, African Town remained a rather distinct community in Mobile County. Now called AfricaTown, it is still home to the descendants of the men and women from the Clotilda. It was incorporated into the city of Mobile in 1948. As of December 2012, it was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Parks Service.

africa-town-01

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