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Wreck of last American slave ship from Africa found off coast of Alabama

The wooden ship transported 110 people from west Africa to Alabama in 1860.

The flags of the nations of Benin and Togo, the west African homes of the survivors of Clotilda (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)
The flags of the nations of Benin and Togo, the west African homes of the survivors of Clotilda (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)

Researchers working in the murky waters of the northern Gulf Coast have located the wreck of the last known ship to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States, historical officials said.

Remains of the Gulf schooner Clotilda were identified and verified near Mobile, Alabama, after months of assessment, a statement by the Alabama Historical Commission said.

The wooden vessel was scuttled the year before the Civil War to hide evidence of its illegal trip and had not been seen since.

“The discovery of the Clotilda is an extraordinary archaeological find,” said Lisa Demetropoulos Jones, executive director of the commission.

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Old Plateau Cemetery, the final resting place for many who spent their lives in Africatown (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)

She said the ship’s journey “represented one of the darkest eras of modern history”, and that the wreck provided “tangible evidence of slavery”.

In 1860, the wooden ship illegally transported 110 people from what is now the west African nation of Benin to Mobile. The Clotilda was then taken into delta waters north of the port and burned to avoid detection.

The captives were later freed and settled a community that is still called Africatown USA, but no one knew the location of the Clotilda.

A descendant of one of the Africans who was brought to the South aboard the ship said she got chills when she learned its wreckage had been found.

“I think about the people who came before us who laboured and fought and worked so hard,” said Joycelyn Davis, a sixth-generation granddaughter of African captive Charlie Lewis.

She added: “I’m sure people had given up on finding it. It’s a wow factor.”

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Joycelyn Davis, a direct descendant of slave ship Clotilda survivor Charlie Lewis (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)

A Mobile-area news reporter discovered wooden remains of what was initially suspected to be the Clotilda, but the wreck turned out to be that of another ship.

That publicity helped spark a renewed search last year that found another wreck now identified as the slave ship.

Officials did not say how much of the ship remains or what might become of its remnants.

But the dimensions and construction of the wreck match those of the Clotilda, the commission said, as do building materials including locally sourced lumber and metal pieces made from pig iron. There are also signs of fire.

“We are cautious about placing names on shipwrecks that no longer bear a name or something like a bell with the ship’s name on it,” maritime archaeologist James Delgado said in a statement.

“But the physical and forensic evidence powerfully suggests that this is Clotilda.”

Officials said they were working on a plan to preserve the site where the ship was located.

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Homes line Richardson Drive in Africatown in Mobile, Alabama, established by the last boatload of Africans abducted into slavery and shipped to the United States just before the Civil War (AP Photo/Julie Bennett, File)

The United States banned the importation of slaves in 1808, but smugglers kept travelling the Atlantic with wooden ships full of people in chains. Southern plantation owners demanded workers for their cotton fields.

With Southern resentment of federal control at a fever pitch, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could bring a shipload of Africans across the ocean, historian Natalie S Robertson has said. Clotilda sailed from Mobile to western Africa, where it picked up captives and returned them to Alabama, evading authorities during a tortuous voyage.

“They were smuggling people as much for defiance as for sport,” Ms Robertson said.

Officials said they planned to present a report on the findings at a community centre in Africatown next week.

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