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Exploration of sunken slave ship reveals charred timbers, other artifacts

The Alabama Historical Commission conducted a 10-day marine assessment of the Clotilda, a sunken ship that illegally transported slaves to America in 1860 and was scuttled in the Mobile River.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) — The last ship to bring slaves to the United States from Africa in 1860 was set ablaze near the mouth of the Mobile River following the illegal voyage, and a recent archaeological assessment of the sunken vessel revealed the charred timber and other parts that remain.

“We have just concluded the 10-day project to assess Clotilda. As you’ve heard, we did it on time, and we’ve made some interesting discoveries. With those discoveries have come additional questions,” James Delgado, maritime archaeologist with SEARCH Inc., said at a Thursday night meeting in Mobile, Alabama. “As the next few months unfold, given the number of scientists, the number of laboratories that we’re working with, answers will also come.”

Starting May 2, the Alabama Historical Commission, or AHC, conducted a scientific exploration of the infamous vessel, in partnership with SEARCH Inc., Diving with a Purpose, Resolve Marine, and others. Working from a large, red barge anchored near the wreckage, a series of scuba divers explored the site, retrieving timber and other artifacts from the muddy water.

According to Delgado, the project included a conservation analysis that required careful treatment of the retrieved pieces, including the disarticulated timbers that were found scattered outside the ship.

“As every timber came out, the way we worked this was basically a military style using the triage system,” he said. “What we would do is we would lay everything down on the deck of the barge directly adjacent to a large bin that was filled with river water. We didn’t want to take that timber out and then shock it basically and upset the equilibrium that might have preserved it by putting it into a different type of water. So, river water to river water, and we didn’t keep them out that long.”

Before the scientific assessment could even begin, however, Delgado said the team had to remove the trees that had accumulated along the wreckage.

“Major focus at first was to gain access to Clotilda, for the first time being able to go into a variety of areas, but also to relieve the stress from the number of trees that have come down the river over the years and lodged against it or in it,” said Delgado.

The story of the Clotilda dates back to the eve of the American Civil War, when the importation of slaves had already been banned approximately five decades before. An Alabama plantation owner named Timothy Meaher masterminded the affair, in which 110 slaves were brought back across the Atlantic Ocean from the African country now known as Benin. Having completed the trip, the perpetrators burned and scuttled the Clotilda somewhere in the swampy waters of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in effort to hide the evidence of their crime.

For years afterwards, the ship’s exact whereabouts remained something of a maritime mystery until its wooden remains were positively identified in May of 2019, after a local journalist named Ben Raines had located the ship a year before.

According to Delgado, the latest exploration revealed several significant pieces that further confirmed the identity of the wreckage and provided additional clues into the ship’s destruction.

“We did find more diagnostic artifacts that, of course, spoke more to the fact that, yes, this is Clotilda. We found more material, more wood now that was very definitely burned,” he said.

Divers also recovered a lead pipe, which was preliminarily identified as being a hawse pipe used for raising and lowering the anchor, as well as a cast iron pulley that was most likely a piece of the ship’s steering mechanism.

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An artifact retrieved from the site of the Clotilda shipwreck sits aboard the Resolve Marine barge. (Daniel Fiore/Alabama Historical Commission via Courthouse News)

The success of the project was due in part to the river conditions over the prior two weeks, which Delgado said were the best the team had ever experienced while working at the site.

“The river was basically flat. The current was negligible,” he said. “Sediment movement was practically nothing.”

Project manager Aaron Jozsef with Resolve Marine concurred, saying, “From a weather standpoint, we were totally blessed.”

In addition to the notoriety attached to the ship itself, the story of Clotilda is also significant because of the survivors. Following the Civil War, more than 30 of the slaves that had been transported aboard the ship, and survived their subsequent years of captivity, united to form a community called Africatown. That community, which is located just north of downtown Mobile, still exists today, though it has been largely industrialized and its population has decreased greatly from its high point in the 1960s.

For the remaining residents, many of whom are directly descended from the survivors of the Clotilda, the discovery of the sunken schooner has provided hope that the area can be revitalized. A new museum is currently under construction, and a new welcome center is also being developed using restoration funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The ultimate fate of the Clotilda is yet to be determined, but there are those who believe that the ship should be raised in its entirety and displayed in a world-class museum in Africatown. Raines, whose new book “The Last Slave Ship” details the journalist's discovery of the ship and the complex history of Africatown, contends that the vessel is too important to leave submerged.

“This is a globally important archaeological artifact,” Raines said in a phone interview on Monday. “This is the most intact slave ship ever found. It is the only slave ship ever found involved in the American trade, and it is the best documented ship in terms of what we know about the people who did it, the white enslavers, and the African American people who were captured and on the ship.”

According to Raines, a museum in Africatown large enough to house the Clotilda would be the best way to preserve not only the story of the Clotilda but also the African diaspora.

“Ultimately, the Clotilda is sort of the origin story for the African diaspora, and I mean globally, not just in Alabama or America, but all people whose ancestors arrived in the hold of a ship,” he said. “It’s wholly unlike anything else in the historical record for any enslaved people. That’s why the Clotilda is so important. Not just because it was the last slave ship, but because it is the best documented.”

In this undated image released by SEARCH Inc. in May 2019, archaeological survey teams work to locate the slave ship Clotilda, in delta waters north of Mobile Bay, Ala. Remains of the schooner were identified and verified near Mobile after months of assessment. (Daniel Fiore/SEARCH, Inc. via AP)

According to Darron Patterson, the president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, the most important thing for the descendants is that their legacy be preserved.

“The main agenda should be Africatown,” he told Courthouse News on Monday. “We’re trying to make sure that as we go forward that everybody understands that the main thing is the survival of that community and the heritage honoring those 110 souls.”

Specifically, he said that they would like to see additional support from the city of Mobile.

“The biggest thing for us is getting the city onboard,” he said. “Montgomery and cities like Montgomery have embraced their slave history and because of that, the entire community can prosper. We’d like to see the city of Mobile take the same tack, aggressively undertake what is going to be a major tourist boom here when Africatown becomes what it will become in about two or three years.”

In the meantime, four of the artifacts retained from the recent archaeological exploration will be preserved by the project’s conservation partner, Terra Mare Conservation. Those items include the possible steering apparatus, the lead pipe, a muddy plank and a section of the hull.

“Terra Mare has been working with AHC on those to develop a conservation plan to get them preserved so that they can be out of the water and available and visible and to be displayed in a museum setting,” Delgado said. “Those four artifacts really help tell the story if you will, not only in terms of the scientific assessment, and how to conserve them and what would happen if more of Clotilda was to come up, but they speak to the human side of the story.”

Speaking at the community meeting on Thursday, conservator Claudia Chemello cautioned that the conservation would not be a short process, however, as the items present a variety of different challenges.

“It takes a long time,” she said. “The steering part that was shown on the slide, it has at least three or four different materials together on one artifact. That is the most challenging conservation problem.”

The rest of the items that were retrieved from the water during the project were returned to the wreck for onsite conservation.

According to the AHC, the data that was collected during the project will be analyzed and eventually put into a report, which will enable the AHC to develop a management plan for the wrecked vessel.

“As the guardian of the Clotilda, the Alabama Historical Commission takes the stewardship of this priceless artifact extremely serious,” Lisa Jones, state historic preservation officer and executive director of the AHC, said in a statement. “The preservation of the Clotilda is important to Africatown and the nation. Careful consideration for the protection, preservation, and interpretation of the Clotilda has been methodical, strategic and deliberate.”

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