Museum News

Statement on the Discovery of the Slave Ship Clotilda

National Museum of African American History and Culture Applauds The discovery of the Clotilda New Evidence Solves the Mystery of America’s Last Slave Ship

May 23, 2019
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

A critically important chapter in the history of the international slave trade opened this week with the discovery of the charred and submerged remains of the Clotilda, a wooden ship that carried 110 enslaved Africans from the west coast of Africa into Alabama’s Mobile Bay in the autumn of 1860.

One person died aboard ship, the remaining 109 were taken off ship and moved inland and sold into slavery. The ship was burned and deliberately sunk to destroy criminal evidence: Clotilda captain William Foster and Clotilda owner Timothy Meaher were involved in an illegal transport of human cargo, a crime for which they would be tried but not convicted.

Finding the wreckage—and confirming it as the Clotilda—is the result of nearly one year of historical and archaeological investigations led by the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH, Inc., a collection of maritime archaeologists and divers specializing in exploring historic shipwrecks. According to the Alabama Historical Commission, the Clotilda is believed to be the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to America.

Finding the Clotilda makes it possible to see the history of the slave trade in human terms, to bring that story out of the past into the present and to make it tangible. It also provides an opportunity for people to reflect and talk publicly, openly and in depth about one of America’s most painful legacies.

In 2018, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture joined the Clotilda research through its Slave Wrecks Project (SWP), an international network of four institutions and a host of local and regional partners. The project was created in 2008 to research and document the international slave trade through the lens of maritime archeology and the study of sunken slave ships.

The museum and SWP supported the Alabama Historical Commission in archaeological work and in designing a way to involve the community of Africatown in the process of preserving the memory of the Clotilda and the legacy of slavery and freedom in Alabama. Many of the residents of Africatown are descendants of the Africans who were brought to Alabama on the Clotilda.

“It has been a high honor for the museum to play a part in bringing forward this story and to use it as a platform to reinforce a crucial truth: that the story of slavery and freedom is central to the nation’s story and is still relevant to our own lives,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“One of the core components in the mission of the Slave Wrecks Project is to make sure that any archaeological work is deeply connected to local communities and addresses questions of race, reckoning and how the past continues to shape the present,” said Paul Gardullo, curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and co-director of SWP.

About the Slave Wrecks Project

The Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) is an international network of researchers and institutions hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Created to take a distinctive approach to the study of the transatlantic slave trade, SWP uses maritime archaeology, historical research and the study of sunken slave ships as its entry points. It also integrates technical training, diving training, support for heritage protection and deep community engagement into operations that connect local, national and global audiences.

The partnership has grown from a research collaboration into an organization that draws on archaeology, anthropology, history, the sciences and the humanities. The current partners are The George Washington University, the U.S. National Park Service, the Iziko Museums of South Africa and Diving with a Purpose, an affiliate of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.

The SWP network also works with institutions, researchers and community groups on research projects in South Africa, Mozambique, Senegal, Cuba, Brazil, Saint Croix, Florida and other sites in the U.S.

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened Sept. 24, 2016 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Occupying a five-acre site next to the Washington Monument, the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the Museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.

What SWP participants are saying about the discovery of the Clotilda:

"We applaud the Alabama Historical Commission for recognizing the importance of this approach wherein long-neglected histories are being recovered, restored, remembered, protected and shared."
Steve Lubkemann, professor of anthropology at The George Washington University and co-director of SWP

"This discovery brings a reminder that all of us need to become stewards of this story. To be true stewards we all need to understand the sacredness of this site as well as hundreds of other sites related to slavery. While the people of Alabama are the official custodians of this site, we all need to recognize our role in remembering, preserving and sharing this story."
 — Paul Gardullo, co-director of SWP

“It was an honor to engage with the residents of Africatown, many of whom are descendants of the captive Africans who were forced onto the Clotilda and into enslavement. While we can find artifacts and archival records, the human connection to the history helps us engage with this American story in a compelling way. The legacies of slavery are still apparent in the community. But the spirit of resistance among the African men, women and children who arrived on the Clotilda lives on in the descendant community.”
Mary N. Elliott, curator of American slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and leader of the community engagement activities for SWP

“Finding the Clotilda represents the final nautical bookend to one of the most horrific periods in American and world history. It was humbling and an honor to have worked on this project. It is my hope that this discovery brings a comforting peace to the Africatown descendants and begins a process of genuine community and memory restoration.”
— Kamau Sadiki, member of the peer review team that confirmed the identity of the Clotilda. Sadiki also works with SWP’s community engagement program training local residents to dive and conduct underwater research. He is the lead dive instructor for Diving with a Purpose, a group of black scuba divers advocating underwater archaeology and stewardship of the oceans.

“The Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH, Inc. did stellar work and rigorous research in challenging and dangerous conditions. This kind of archaeological work is painstaking and difficult under any circumstances, but the physical conditions of this particular site – zero visibility, high currents and potential entanglements – made this an especially difficult shipwreck to work on.”
— Dave Conlin, founding member of SWP and head of the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center. Conlin was also was part of the 2018 Clotilda search team and most recently served as a member of the peer review team that confirmed the identity of the Clotilda.

Media Contact(s): 

Fleur Paysour (202) 633-4761; paysourf@si.edu

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.