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The Last Ship That Brought Slaves From Africa to America: The Landing of the Clotilde at Mobile in the Autumn of 1859.


In 1858, during a trip to Montgomery on his steamboat, Robert B. Taney, Captain Timothy Meaher conceived of the voyage of the Clotilde. Captain Meaher bet some eastern gentlemen $100,000 that he could bring some Africans to Mobile without getting caught. He decided to get the slaves from the King of Dahomey because his kingdom was one of the chief slave trading states in Africa, and at the time, the trade was thriving in Dahomey where slaves were plentiful and cheap. There the captain secured 116 Tarkars, and within a few weeks successfully passed through a virtual blockade designed to prevent slave ships from landing at ports in the United States. The authorities moved in on Meaher quickly, he was arrested, charged and released on bond. Because of the Civil War and the inability of the United States government to prove its case, Meaher was released. An exhaustive search of the literature indicates the Clotilde was the last ship that brought Africans to America as slaves.

The saga of the Clotilde provides the symbolic foundation for the beginning and ending of two major periods in American history and cultural evolution. The beginning of a major period in U.S. Civil Rights is suggested to have started with the American public's awareness and reaction against the international slave trade during this historical time; and also a major ending to the illegal smuggling of Africans for the purpose of slavery in the U.S. was halted during the period of the Clotilde landing at Mobile. It must be understood that the voyage of the Clotilde occurred at the end of a series of U.S. legal prohibitions against the international slave trade. United States laws beginning in 1794, 1800, 1803, 1808, 1813, 1818 and 1820 prohibited the importation of Africans for the purpose of slavery, as well as made illegal the fitting out of vessels to maintain or support the trade. The United States in 1794 prohibited the outfitting of slavers within its ports if they were destined to carry slaves from one foreign country to another.(1)

This same law was repeated in 1818 with more severe penalties imposed for violations.(2) However, the slave trade flourished during the 1840's and 50's despite the existence of laws against it. The most distinguished and last recorded violation involved the Schooner Clotilde which landed illegally in Mobile, Alabama, with 116 Africans aboard. Although the voyage of the Clotilde was an event of paramount importance in the evolution of African International Human Rights, limited attention has been devoted to the area of its occurrence as a significant and exceptional historic event. This paper is designed to unravel some of the mysteries of the Clotilde.

Public interest in the Clotilde started immediately after the landing of the illegal cargo at Twelve Mile Island in 1859. Because the cargo was considered contraband and the crew of the Clotilde pirates, immediate investigations by federal agents and the eventual action by the federal court are recorded as the first public reaction against the incident. The press since 1859 covered the affair by interviewing the main personalities as well as keeping the incident before the public by periodically covering various aspects of the story.(3) The Clotilde was recognized in its time as the finest of its type for both speed and cargo capability. Thus it was selected to sail for Africa and was considered the personal property of Bill Foster who designed and built the vessel and who also served as captain during the African voyage.(4) The Clotilde was bought at a cost of $35,000 and overhauled and fitted out especially with a view to transporting Africans by Captain Timothy Meaher, a successful steam boatman.(5) Whether Meaher enjoyed an employer status to Foster or a business partnership is a vague certainty. Timothy Meaher, known during his time as one of the best and most successful of steam boatmen(6) commanded many vessels during his lifetime but became known and identified because of his associations with the Clotilde. He was also one of the pioneers in the navigation of the Alabama River.(7) During the year 1858, Captain Meaher commanded the steamboat Roger B. Taney, a weekly packet plying the Alabama River between Mobile and Montgomery. It was during one of such trips to Montgomery that the voyage of the Clotilde was conceived. A group of eastern gentlemen traveling on the Taney were discussing secession from the Union and Federal legislation making it a capital offense to import Africans.(8) The conversation also centered on the impossibility of importing Africans for the purpose of slavery because of government agents around U.S. ports and the fact that no man would risk his neck in the haphazard undertaking because of the strength of the newly passed law.(9) For these reasons the eastern gentlemen concluded that the importation of Africans would cease. Captain Meaher treated this assertion with levity that astonished his northern hearers and declared that nothing would be easier than to import a cargo of slaves, notwithstanding the new law and its severe penalty.

A bet or wager was made to this effect.(10) After a lengthy conversation Captain Meaher agreed to land a cargo of Africans in the South within two years and put up $100,000 as an indication of his faith and confidence in the venture. Upon his return to Mobile, Meaher began preparations to acquire the Clotilde. Although Captain Meaher did not participate directly in the voyage, he bore all expense and incurred all the danger associated with the wager. He knew that his chief problem would be the disposal of the cargo after its return from Africa. In this respect the Captain used all his influence and money power as a master of steamboats to ensure the success of the voyage. This was carded out by confidently selling the scheme to several prominent slave holders of that day who each agreed to take responsibility for a certain number of Africans.(11) The Captain attempted to make certain of his success by selling the cargo in the form of future commodities, thirty of which he reserved for himself.

The location and site for the voyage to Africa was decided shortly after the wager when Captain Meaher read in the Mobile Press Register of November 9, 1858; from the west coast of Africa we have advice dated September 21. "The quarreling of the tribes on Sierra Leone River rendered the aspect of things very unsatisfactory. The King of Dahomey was driving a brisk trade in slaves at from fifty to sixty dollars a piece at Whydah. Immense numbers of Negroes were collected along the coast for export"(12) (Roche, 1914; Delaney, 1953, p. 73). A voyage to what is now called Ghana began to unfold. Three weeks prior to the Clotilde's arrival in Ghana the Tarkar Tribe and village was raided by Dahomey warriors and the survivors taken to the west coast for trade.

Additional accounts of the Clotilde by Roche(13) (1914) and the Mobile Press Register(14) (1890) suggest varying events in the voyage. The Register tells the story that the Schooner sailed for land and boarded 160 Africans. Roche's description agrees more closely with Foster's account of 116 Africans being boarded at Whydah. However, Roche's account in leaving Africa differs widely from Foster's. She suggests that the Dahomey Tribe attempted to take back the Africans after they had secured the traded cargo from Foster and the incident prompted the Schooner to sail earlier than expected.

Once the Schooner had sailed for Africa, Meaher had given instructions to a number of his employees to keep a lookout on the return of the vessel and report its arrival immediately to him.(15) It was on a Sunday morning that the captain was informed by a runner that the Clotilde had arrived to within the sound near the Mississippi line.(16) Meaher was seated on the gallery at his home three miles from Mobile on Telegraph Road.(17) "The house was a two-story frame situated upon the crown of a red clay hill and faced the South. An ordinary picket fence surrounded the house which had a broad gallery extended across the front.(18) While seated on the gallery, Meaher's attention was arrested by the sound of a horse's hoof upon the surface of the road.(19) The horse and rider arrived at the gate before Meaher could stand to his feet and in an audible but scarce whisper the rider announced the niggers have come!"(20) (Mobile Press Register, 1890, November). Meaher began immediately to plan a safe landing for the cargo.

Prior to the arrival of the Clotilde with the cargo, rumors of the voyage had spread throughout the area and had stirred up the attention of the port authority. Meaher realized that government officials were matching his movements and planned accordingly.(21) Arrangements had been made to have a tug owned by Captain J. M. Hollingsworth, tow the Schooner to safety.(22) When the news came, Hollingsworth was attending service at St. John's Church.(23) It was at this church that Tim Meaher and one of his slaves James Dennison secured the tugboat pilot and his fastest tug, the Billy Jones.(24) Byrnes Meaher, the brother of Tim, was Captain of the steamboat Czar and was instructed to proceed to the mouth of the Spanish River and await the Clotilde's arrival. Tim Meaher also issued orders that supper must not be served on the Roger B. Taney on her trip to Montgomery until he boarded the boat the following night at some point up the Alabama River.(25)

After establishing these instructions, Meaher boarded the tug Billy Jones and proceeded down the Mobile Bay to Mississippi sound. It was here that they waited for night and passed through Polecat Bay, safely avoiding the Mobile River channel. The tug slipped behind the lighthouse on Batter Gladden and into the mouth of the Spanish River.(26) Roche suggests at this point that the Clotilde was towed directly to Twelve Mile Island where the crew and cargo were transferred to the Roger B. Taney. Once the Billy Jones had towed the Clotilde to Twelve Mile Island the cargo of Africans and the crew were transferred to the Czar.(27) The Clotilde was then towed to Bayou Cane where she was set ablaze and scuttled.(28) Additional accounts suggest the Schooner was scuttled in Bayou Sara.(29) The tugboat Billy Jones then returned to Mobile and the steamboat Czar proceeded up into the interior country to the plantation of John M. Dabney.

There the Africans were hidden in a cane brake on the Bigbee River and left to be taken care of by a few trusted men, including James Dennison the African slave.(30) The Cane Brake is a region south of Mount Vernon, Alabama named for its miles of towering cane and its wilderness-like features.(31) They remained in this region for eleven days changing each day from one part of the swamp to another. Once the Africans were considered safe, the Czar was taken down the Bigbee at the junction of the Alabama River to wait for the Roger B. Taney on its regular Tuesday trip to Montgomery,(32) with Tim Meaher and the crew of the Clotilde aboard, the Czar traveled to a point near the junction to intercept the Roger B. Taney and under cover of night the crew of the Clotilde was stored away in the upper portion of the boat, locked in and supplied with whiskey and cards.(33)

Meaher's arrival on the Taney was timed close to the prearranged delayed supper at the sound of the bell, which signaled the passengers to assemble for this event. Meaher assumed his normal seating at the Captain's position. "His face wore a most nonchalant appearance and gave forth not the slightest intimation that he had been engaged in other than the legitimate performance of his duties" Mobile Press Register, 1890, November). When questioned as to his whereabouts during the early beginnings of the trip Meaher gave evasive and noncommittal replies. Once the Taney reached Montgomery the officers and crew of the Clotilde were quickly placed on board a train and sent to New York City.

After eleven days near the Dabney Plantation Cane Brake, news of illegal importation had become well known and created considerable excitement and commotion.(34) Tim Meaher was arrested, charged and released on bond. The government by this time ascertained the location of the Africans near Dabney Plantation and chartered the steamboat Eclipse to go after them and bring them to Mobile.(35) Meaher, out on bail, learned of this intent through a friend and immediately set to work to checkmate this effort.(36) We have at this point two accounts of the story.

The Mobile Press Register's account (1890, November) suggests that the Roger B. Taney was used to transport the Africans from Dabney's plantation.(37) Roche (1914) indicates that the Africans were put aboard the steamer Commodore and carried to the bend in Wilcox County where the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers meet and the site of Byrnes Meaher's plantation.(38) Meaher utilized his influence to prevent the Eclipse from leaving the wharf before the Taney. By the time the Eclipse had left for the Dabney Plantation, the Taney had moved the Africans to Byrnes Meaher's plantation. Once the Eclipse reached the Dabney Plantation they spent ten days in a fruitless search for the Africans.(39) Meaher sent word to those who had agreed to take responsibility for the cargo to meet at the plantation to select their responsibilities. At this point the one-hundred sixteen that completed the voyage was reduced to thirty. The others going to Selma, some staying at Byrnes Meaher's plantation, six given to Bill Foster and thirty for Timothy Meaher.

In the spring of 1861, the case of the United States against Byrnes Meaher, Timothy Meaher and John M. Dabney charged with importing 102 natives of Africa for the purpose of slavery in the United States, on the Schooner Clotilde, was dismissed.(40) They were charged with importing 28 men, 25 boys and 25 girls in the United States Courts and saved because of the government's inability to prove the involvement of Tim Meaher. Meaher being able to account for fifty-two consecutive trips on the Roger B. Taney was convincing enough to convince the jury that he could not have imported Africans and made these trips also.(41) The case is also said to have been dismissed out of court because of the Civil War having developed and Judge W. G. Jones ruled that Mobile was out of the U. S. jurisdiction when the trial came up.(42) Other officials involved in the prosecution were R. B. Owen, clerk of court, A. J. Requier, District Attorney and C.M. Godbold, Marshall.(43) After the excitement of the incident had died, thirty Africans were brought to Yorkville near the Meaher Plantation on Telegraph Road, freed after the Civil War and established what has come to be called Africatown.


(1.) Howard, W. (1963). American slavers and the federal law. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 3.

(2.) Ibid., 26.

(3.) Roche, E. L. (1914). Historic sketches of the South. New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 72-73.

(4.) Byers, S. H. M. (1906). "The last slave ship." Harper's Monthly Magazine, 113, 744; Roche, 72-73.

(5.) Mobile Press Register. (1890, March).

(6.) The port of mobile magazine. (1964, January 27). "The last slave ship," 8-9.

(7.) Mobile press register. (1890, March).

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Roche, 71.

(11.) Mobile press register, (1890, March).

(12.) Roche, 73.

(13.) Roche, 88-89.

(14.) Mobile press register. (1890, March).

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) Roche, 94-96.

(17.) The mobile register. (1890, November).

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Roche, 94-97.

(22.) Mobile press register. (1890, November).

(23.) Roche, 94.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Roche, 96.

(27.) Craighead, E. (1930). Mobile: Fact and tradition. Mobile: Powers Printing, 357.

(28.) Mobile press register. (1890, November).

(29.) The port of mobile magazine, 9.

(30.) Harper magazine, 745 & Roche, 96-97.

(31.) Ibid.

(32.) Craighead, 358.

(33.) Mobile press register, (1890, November).

(34.) Ibid.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) Ibid.

(37.) Ibid.

(38.) Roche, 97.

(39.) Mobile press register, (1890, November).

(40.) Craighead, 357.

(41.) Ibid.

(42.) Ibid; U.S. vs. Meaher, D. C. Alabama, 1861).

(43.) Ibid.


American Anti-Slavery Society. (1859-1860). 27th and 28th Annual Reports.

Bancroft, F. (1931). Slave trading in the Old South. J. H. Furst, Baltimore.

Byers, S. H. M. (1906, October). "The last slave ship." Harper's Monthly Magazine, 63.

Catterall, H. (1968). Judicial cases concerning American slavery and the Negro. New York: Octagon Books.

Craighead, E. (1930). Mobile: Fact and tradition. Mobile, Alabama: Power Printing.

Delaney, C. (1968). Craighead's Mobile. Mobile, Alabama. C. M. Plummer Printing.

Delaney, C. (1953). Story of Mobile. Mobile, Alabama, Gill Printing.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1969). The suppression of the African slave trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. New York: Schocken Books, p. 334.

Franklin, J. H. (1969). From slavery to freedom. New York: Vintage Books.

Hamilton, P. J. (1952). Colonial Mobile. The First National Bank, Mobile, Alabama.

Howard, W. (1963). American slavers and the federal law. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Mobile press register, undated.

Mobile press register. (1890, November).

Mobile press register. (1890, March).

Mobile press register. (1964).

New Orleans Daily Picayune. (1860, July 12, 21, 29).

Northrup, D. (1964). Port of mobile news.

Northrup, D. (1994). Atlantic slave trade. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company.

Quarles, B. (1971). The Negro in the making of America. New York: Collier-MacMillan, London.

Roche, E. M. (1914). Historical sketches of the South. New York: Knickerbocker Press.

Spears, J. R. (1900). The American slave trade. New York: Scribner, E441.573.

Stamp, K. M. (1956). The peculiar institution of slavery. New York: Vintage Press.

Wish, H. (1940, June - 1941, March). The revival of the African slave trade in the United States 1856-1860, Mississippi Valley historical review, 28, pp. 569-588.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: James D. Lockett, P.O. Box 1430 Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, AL 35403.


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Publication:The Western Journal of Black Studies
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Date:Sep 22, 1998
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