Researchers studying the wreckage of the last US slave ship, buried in mud on the Alabama coast since it was scuttled in 1860, have made the surprising discovery that most of the wooden schooner remains intact, including the pen that was used to imprison African captives during the brutal journey across the Atlantic Ocean. While the upper portion of the two-masted Clotilda is gone, the section below deck where the captured Africans and stockpiles were held is still largely in one piece after being buried for decades in a section of river that hasn't been dredged, said maritime archaeologist James Delgado of the Florida-based SEARCH Inc.
"It’s the most intact [slave ship] wreck ever discovered," he said. "It's because it's sitting in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta with fresh water and in mud that protected it that it's still there." At least two-thirds of the ship remains, and the existence of the unlit and unventilated slave pen, built during the voyage by the addition of a bulkhead where people were held as cargo below the main deck for weeks, raises questions about whether food and water containers, chains, and even human DNA could remain in the hull, said Delgado. "It's a stunning revelation," he said in an interview.
The Clotilda was the last ship known to transport African captives to the American South for enslavement. Nearly 90 feet in length, it departed Mobile, Alabama, for an illegal trip across the Atlantic and back to purchase people decades after Congress in 1808 outlawed such trade. The ship's voyage was financed by a wealthy businessman whose descendants remain prominent in Mobile. The Clotilda's captain transferred its human cargo off the ship once it arrived in Alabama and set fire to the vessel to hide evidence of the journey. But most of the ship didn't catch fire and remained in the river.
Shown on navigational charts since the 1950s, the wreckage was publicly identified as that of Clotilda in 2019 and has been explored and researched since then, Delgado said. The state has set aside $1 million for preservation and research, and additional work planned at the site in early 2022 could show what's inside the hull, Delgado said. But far more work is needed to determine whether the ship could ever be pulled out of the mud and put on display, as some have suggested. "Generally, raising is a very expensive proposition. My sense is that while it has survived, it is more fragile than people think," said Delgado.
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