Alabama Goes to Court to Protect Wrecked Slave Ship

(CN) – Alabama has filed an admiralty claim for the Clotilda, an 86-foot schooner that carried 109 enslaved Africans to the Alabama coast in July 1860, more than 50 years after the nation banned the importation of slaves.

An acoustic image of the shipwrecked slave ship Clotilda. (Photo via SEARCH Inc./Alabama Historical Commission)

After a four month voyage where one African died, the ship’s owner towed the Clotilda up the Spanish River, scuttled and burned it near Twelve Mile Island on the eastern bank of the river in an effort to obscure his actions.

In exerting the admiralty claim over the ship it believes to be the Clotilda, the Alabama Historical Commission said it is following protocol used to preserve other historical wrecks such as the Titanic.

“Interference with ongoing operations and/or future endeavors would substantially and irreparably harm efforts to document, protect and preserve the shipwrecked schooner Clotilda, and would be harmful to the public’s interest in this historically significant vessel, as well as create significant hazards to the safe and successful operations at the shipwreck site,” according to the nine-page complaint filed Friday in Mobile federal court.

In May, the commission announced it discovered the remains of the Clotilda. According to a redacted report with blacked-out portions describing the exact location of the wreck, the Clotilda rests in a ship graveyard under about five feet of water clouded by sediment.

Attorney John Kavanaugh Jr. of the Mobile firm Burr & Forman, deputized by the state, filed the claim on behalf of the commission, which says it has a mandate to preserve the ship under the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act and the Alabama Underwater Cultural Resources Act. The complaint asks the court to declare that the commission has the sole right to continue preserving and documenting the wreck.

The commission also wants the court to have third-party “interference be temporarily and permanently enjoined,” including over items that may have been taken from the wreck already.

Andi Martin, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Historical Commission, said one of the purposes of the admiralty claim was to recover any artifacts that may have been taken from the wreck, but the commission is unaware of any other party that may argue ownership in the courts.

“To the agency’s knowledge, there may not be any parties who may come forward, but therein lies the purpose for the admiralty claim,” Martin wrote in an email. “The federal court provides an open forum for anyone wishing to come forward. This is standard practice.”

After the abolition of slavery, those taken from Africa on the Clotilda and their descendants settled in a community called Africatown.

The commission’s May report said the wreck may be the impetus to establish a slave ship memorial in Africatown and it could be eligible to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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