Africatown: America's Last Slave Ship and the Community It Created

Image of Africatown: America's Last Slave Ship and the Community It Created
Release Date: 
February 21, 2023
St. Martin's Press
Reviewed by: 

“Africatown, throughout, has a sense of immediacy and intimacy, the readers almost seem to learn this important saga of African American history with the author.”

Not all African American history is forgotten or lost. In recent years, the story of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to violate the United States law against importing enslaved people, has proven that point. The National Archives Southeast Region has records of many other such ships not so well remembered.

The Clotilda has drawn international attention, however, because the secret of the ship’s location was discovered only in 2018. That discovery revealed much documentary history including the story of how the 110 people who made up its cargo built new lives for themselves in America in their own African Town, today’s Africatown near Mobile.

Nick Tabor has written the latest book on this epic tale, Africatown: America’s Last Slave Ship and the Community It Created. The story has many moving parts beginning with the ship itself, sunk in a graveyard of abandoned vessels on the Mobile River.

“The last surviving shipmate died in 1940.” Scholarship, by Zora Neale Hurston, who visited the town and researched its history, appeared in 1920. The notoriety of this story has since inspired intense scholarship and several books.

Such resources are rare to nonexistent for other communities. This author begins Africatown in Africa and the environment of slavery in the 1850s. Traditional enslavement in Africa involved incorporating captives and products into the society of the victors. The author tells the story of Kossola of later Africatown, captured in a raid by a Dahomean army with women warriors. The Dahomeans not only sold slaves but also engaged in beheadings, human sacrifice, and piracy.

Europeans had made slavery about profit but, by the 1850s, “European demand for enslaved people had been on a downward spiral.” The slave industry had “reverted to “the ragtag nature of its early years.” Thousands of captives were still crowded into barracoons (slave prisons) but the trade across the Atlantic was illegal. Europeans now sought labor-intensive palm oil.

New England-native Timothy Maeher of Mobile was responsible for the Clotilda affair. Starting as a deckhand, he acquired extensive holdings in lumber and riverboats in a rapidly growing city where cotton had made Mobile America’s third most important port. Maeher, however, had a reputation for being ambitious, bumptious, and reckless. He “was mean-spirited even in normal circumstances and had a notorious temper.”

As industrial cotton production increased worldwide by 40 percent, Maeher advocated reopening the slave trade with Africa and for the American occupation of Central America for exporting new cotton plantations and expanding African slavery. At that time, ships set also tried to smuggle enslaved Africans into the United States.

Built in Mobile in 1855, the Clotilda only traveled to American ports connected to the slave trade and rumors had it that the ship smuggled enslaved workers from Cuba through the Gulf Coast bayous. Maeher sent the ship to Africa for slaves under Captain William Foster. Problems plagued the voyage including the inexperienced crew mutinying for more pay and the danger of capture by the Royal Navy.

The arrival of the Clotilda and its cargo off the coast of Mobile became national news almost immediately in 1860. Then President James Buchanan did all that he could to stop the illegal slave trade and he was succeeded by Abraham Lincoln. An investigation took place, but the Clotilda was destroyed and its cargo, in a legal limbo, became the secluded property of Timothy Meher.

With the end of the Civil War, the families brought by the Clotilda found themselves abandoned. They initially tried to raise money to pay William Foster to return them to Africa. They had become a community in the barracoons at Ouidah, on the Clotilda, and on Mobile plantations.

The people of the Clotilda finally formed Africatown. They suffered during the dangerous violent times of Reconstruction even as they hopelessly longed to return to Africa. In the generations that followed their story would not die although its people suffered the problems of Jim Crow and other racism, even violence, into modern times.

Africatown today “is no longer bordered by lush forests and rivers” but, as with too many poor neighborhoods in America, is in an industrial area. “Pollution is rampant.” “Africatown was plagued by a cancer epidemic.” It is a historical site and just maybe that will save its people. Ironically, Masher became a post-war hero, including celebrated for the Clotilda affair!

African Town/the Plateau/Africatown would survive through good times and bad, including national notoriety during the time of the Harlem Renaissance through the fame of its elderly leader Cudjo Lewis. Africatown devotes much space to the extensive historiography of the story of these people.

Much of this story is effectively and simply explained in just the introduction. Africatown, throughout, has a sense of immediacy and intimacy, the readers almost seem to learn this important saga of African American history with the author.

Better copy editing would have made the text smoother, however. Although sometimes abrupt and crude, overall the prose flows and reads well, both fast and enlightening.

More explanation of terms such as the “middle passage” or of the international efforts to end the transatlantic slave trade (middle passage) would help some readers. Africatown has annotation, a bibliography, illustrations, and a list of persons interviewed.