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The Clotilda, Last Known Ship To Bring Slaves To The U.S., Discovered In Alabama

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new chapter in the search for the Clotilda. That is the last known American slave ship. It sailed from West Africa to Mobile, Ala., in 1860. Now, by then, importing slaves from abroad was illegal. So after the captives - 110 of them - were smuggled ashore, the ship was burned to destroy the evidence. Ever since, people have been trying to find it. Last year, a journalist named Ben Raines told me he had been out searching at low tide when he saw the bow of a ship rising out of the mud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BEN RAINES: You can see the stem, which is the - on the front of a ship, you know, those big beams of wood that come up where you would affix the big statue of a lady. Those big timbers were there, and they were unmistakable.

KELLY: And did your heart stop, thinking, oh, man, have I actually found this thing?

RAINES: It did. It did. It was actually breathtaking. And I thought, this might be it.

KELLY: Alas, it was not, even though a lot of the clues had lined up. Well, fast-forward to this week, and the Alabama Historical Commission has announced the Clotilda has been found - really. And Ben Raines is back with us. Welcome back.

RAINES: Oh, it's so good to be here.

KELLY: So how sure are you this time?

RAINES: Well, I'm pretty darn sure. But the archaeologists are even more sure. And they have assembled a lot of very compelling evidence.

KELLY: Which is what? Walk us through the evidence that this is, in fact, the Clotilda.

RAINES: So there's a bunch. First, it is located immediately adjacent to property that the family that brought the ship in - in the 1850s - owned back then. Second, this ship is exactly the right length and exactly the right width of the Clotilda. It's made of exactly the right woods that are listed in the ship registry from when the ship was built. It has been burned, just as the Clotilda was reported to have been burned.

And then this ship bears scars of having been dynamited. So one of the descendants of Timothy Meaher, the captain that paid for the voyage that brought the captives to America, his still-living great grandson, I believe, has been going around Mobile for years telling people that he and his father dynamited the Clotilda back in the '50s so nobody would ever find it.

KELLY: And how far is it from the wreck that you had stumbled on last year?

RAINES: It's probably about 300 yards. It's in that same stretch of river.

KELLY: Oh, wow. Yeah. You were so close.

RAINES: Exactly (laughter) - yet so far.

KELLY: (Laughter) Well, walk us through the discovery and why you decided to stick with it all this time.

RAINES: Well, so my reporting - I looked at all the primary historical documents. And I realized back when I first started that everybody who had ever looked for it had been looking too far north based on an interview that Meaher gave way back in 1890, where he was trying to lead everybody astray. The captain said he burned it right where I found it by 12 Mile Island. So I went with that.

You know, after the first ship wasn't it, everybody left. So I called the University of Southern Mississippi and asked them if they would bring their survey team over and do a bathymetric sweep of this portion of the river. And, you know, they really deserve the credit. We went out, and we looked at the 11 ships that showed up in their survey.

We almost didn't look at this ship because it looked so inconsequential on the survey. It looked like a pile of logs. So the day of discovery, when - I got in the water alone. And I started pulling these logs off this spot that was supposed to be a ship. I dove down. I wrestled this piece up. And I said to the guys on the boat, guys, we just found a ship from the 1850s. And they all immediately put their wetsuits on and jumped in.

KELLY: It sounds like you had another moment where your heart stopped and you thought, OK, I - maybe I really have found this thing this time.

RAINES: Yeah. And I'll tell you, the moment yesterday when they announced that it was the Clotilda was a better moment than that one. It was a long time coming for me. And I'm just so ecstatic for Africatown.

KELLY: I should jump in and explain. Africatown is a community where many of the descendants of those original 110 people brought over on the Clotilda - where they settled and still live.

RAINES: Yeah. Actually, the original slaves bought the land from the family that enslaved them and built a community there that still exists today. But it has been surrounded by chemical plants and paper mills. It has - the state put a huge road right through the heart of the town. It's really been decimated. And so they're going to take this ship. They're going to put it in a museum in Africatown, I believe, and put Africatown on the map as this incredible story of resilience.

KELLY: Oh, really? So it's going to become a museum, a tourist attraction where people can come and learn the story.

RAINES: In fact, Africatown got several million dollars last year from the BP oil spill sediment to build a welcome center and tell their story. So now that museum looks like it may house one of the most, you know, important American shipwrecks ever found. It's really an extraordinary moment for them. I'm just so elated to have been a part of it.

KELLY: Well, congratulations on a story that I know has been a long time coming to the end for you. But it sounds like a happy ending. Congratulations.

RAINES: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

KELLY: That's Ben Raines, author and documentary maker in Alabama, talking about the - we think - conclusion of his hunt for the Clotilda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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