Dirty Boots: “Finding the ‘Clotilda'”

It has been confirmed that they’ve found the Clotilda. This last known slave ship to enter the United States came into Mobile Bay in the early 1860s, just prior to the Civil War, with a load of enslaved people purchased on the western coast of Africa, and was sunk shortly after unloading its human cargo in order to hide the evidence of what was by then illegal.  According to Smithsonian.com:

The authentication and confirmation of the Clotilda was led by the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH Inc., a group of maritime archaeologists and divers who specialize in historic shipwrecks. Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) joined the effort to help involve the community of Africatown in the preservation of the history, explains Smithsonian curator and SWP co-director Paul Gardullo.

This discovery puts a Southern historical puzzle piece into place that had been missing for more than a century-and-a-half.

While this discovery may seem of little interest outside of a community of historians, it goes an issue larger than that one ship. One of the modern tragedies of American slavery, something that is less often discussed in mainstream conversations about race, involves the inability of many Africans American to pursue and trace their family histories. In most cases, usable records cease in the mid-1800s, because slaves were inventoried as chattel, not recorded as human beings. There are also extremely scant records about slaves’ given African names or their places of origin prior to their forced entry into the peculiar institution. Even in this age of Ancestry.com and 23andMe, millions of African Americans can only trace their direct family lineage back to the late 1800s at best and, using DNA testing, can only find approximations of their place of origin.

While identifying the wreckage of slave ships doesn’t resolve this problem, since manifests and other records wouldn’t have been left on the vessels, this discovery does something important: it proves and formalizes the existence of a ship and a voyage that cannot be documented through official records from the time. In addition to the family-history road blocks in census records, the absence of records about illegal slaving voyages can mean that one’s ancestors never officially arrived— which is absurd. Identifying the waterlogged remains of an illegal slave ship is not, as some might claim, dredging up unwanted history; it is further acknowledgment of slavers’ inhumane and dehumanizing methods by turning myth into truth. Yes, this ship did exist, and it was hidden because it was evidence of a crime.

Carving kernels of truth out of the shells of myth means doing a good deal of thankless, often ignored work. It can mean spending hundreds of hours sifting through records to find that one tiny mention that points to the correct path. It can mean traveling, searching, and interviewing in inhospitable conditions, where locals can’t or won’t help and where landscapes have changed. It can mean devoting years of one’s life to a quest for an under appreciated treasure. Most Americans will pass by the news this discovery without so much as glancing up, but that doesn’t diminish its significance.


“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige,” a weekly column published every Tuesday afternoon, offers a Deep Southern, Generation X perspective on life in the 21st century.

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