The Survivors of the Clotilda


Almost from the moment it docked in Mobile Bay, Alabama, much has been written about the Clotilda, the schooner that brought 110 captive Africans to the U.S. in 1860, more than five decades after the slave trade had been outlawed. The illegal voyage was conducted with stealth, but the arrival of the ship was an open secret that drew international headlines, though no punishment for the wealthy enslavers responsible. Interest in “the last slave ship” gradually waned until the late 2010s, when the search for (and eventual discovery of) the ship’s wreckage spurred a new cycle of research and media interest, including the first publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1920s interviews with survivor Kossula Lewis.

Historian Hannah Durkin’s considerable scholarship draws on these sources and others in The Survivors of the Clotilda: The Lost Stories of the Last Captives of the American Slave Trade. She cuts through the myths around this notorious story while keeping a tight focus on the 103 surviving young adults and children, whose lives were forever changed by displacement, family separation and enslavement.  

Durkin has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Nottingham and has long focused on the history of transatlantic slavery. In 2020, her research revealed that the last living survivor was not Lewis, as previously thought, but Matilda McCrear, who was just 2 years old when she, her mother and five siblings were kidnapped from their West African village. Matilda, her mother and sisters ended up on the Clotilda; she never saw her two brothers again. 

That is just one of many painful moments for the survivors, who endured five years of enslavement. After the Civil War, they requested repatriation to Benin, to no avail. Though they mourned their homeland, they found ways to carry on their language and traditions. Some founded Africatown, a community on the outskirts of Mobile that became a thriving all-Black enclave. Others ended up elsewhere in the Black Belt, including Gee’s Bend, a famous wellspring of quilting art that draws heavily from West African influences. 

Because it tells the stories of so many people in so much detail, The Survivors of the Clotilda is dense and can lack a clear narrative thread. Yet this multitude of stories allows readers to see a variety of reactions to and experiences of enslavement, turning the Clotilda survivors into a microcosm of the nearly 13 million Africans who were kidnapped during the transatlantic slave trade. This authoritative work will be appreciated by anyone looking for a comprehensive account of one of history’s most infamous moments.

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