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.