60 years after the abolition of slavery, an anthropologist made a remarkable discovery: She located the LAST surviving slave on the last ship to bring Africans to the United States.
In his own words, a heartbreaking story of a young African man who had been kidnapped from his home, crammed into a boat for months, and sent off to America to be sold as a slave…
The Lost Interview
In the 1930s, Zora, an anthropologist, conducted many interviews with the last survivor. But, she had struggled to find someone who would publish her findings a book. Black emancipation was the last thing people were interested in reading about. In fact, they are only now being released to the public in a book…
Zora’s book tells the story of Cudjo, who was born in what is now the West African country of Benin. He was only 19 years old when members of the neighboring Dahomian tribe beat him, captured him, and took him to the coast to be sold off.
Tried To Avoid His Capture
A significant time in Cudjo’s life, he was a young man who had dreamt of marrying his childhood love and starting his own family. He had known of friends and family who had been kidnapped by slave traders and sent off to unknown lands, but he had tried his best to evade them and was hopeful he would be one of the lucky ones, but he was wrong…
A Night That Would Shatter Lives
Like most nights, after an evening meal with his parents and sisters, they would often exchange tribal folklore until the spell of sleep took over. But, this night would be very different than the others. This night would shatter lives….
Cudjo and his family had finished their nightly tradition and were in the midst of sleeping when numerous men with swords barged into their home. Startled and terrified, Cudjo and his family asked them what they had wanted and demanded they leave. But, there was no chance they would not leave until they got what they had come for…
Last Time To See Them
The men from the neighboring Dahomian tribe beat Cudjo and told him to say his goodbyes. There was no room or time for questions or objections. His family had been helpless to the merciless intruders. Cudjo looked at his family, especially his mama, knowing it would be the last time he would ever see them again…
The Clotilda Ship
When Cudjo had been brought to the shore, as he looked around, men like himself stood on platforms, helplessly waiting to be sold. Within a few minutes, but what had seemed like days, Cudjo and about 120 others were sold into slavery and crammed onto the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the continental United States…
Around The Law
The Clotilda brought its captives to Alabama in 1860. Even though slavery was legal at that time in America, the international slave trade was not. America had outlawed the practice in 1807, but Cudjo Lewis’ journey is an example of how slave traders went around the law to continue bringing over human cargo.
Snuck Into The Night
To avoid detection from authorities, Cudjo’s captors snuck him and the other survivors into Alabama at night. They were forced to hide in a swamp for several days. They sat quietly, in the darkness and cold, awaiting their unknown fate…
Lucky To Survive
At this point, it had been several days that the fearful captives had battled hunger and thirst, but even then, they were still lucky to survive. Due to hunger, physical abuse, and filthy conditions, countless captives had died on their voyages…
A Ship Set On Fire
To hide the evidence of their crime, the 86-foot sailboat was then set ablaze on the banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (its remains have been uncovered in January 2018). This would guarantee destroying any possible trace of human cargo entering the country.
The Grim Reality
Cudjo’s narrative provides a first-hand account of the devastating trauma of slavery. His interview gave the world a magnified lens into the grim reality of the process of slavery, and the forgotten horror of the voyages to unknown places.
Friendship In The Midst Of Tragedy
The captives spent several months crammed together during the treacherous passage to the United States. But, they still were able to form friendships in the midst of their tragedy, only to be separated in Alabama to go to different plantations.
After months crammed together in filthy conditions, there was still light to be found. In his own words, Cudjo describes dealing with the separation from the other captives who had become like his family. “We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother,” Cudjo told Zora. “We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry.”
Dreamt Of HIs Mom
But, Cudjo’s anguish is reflected the most when he speaks about his mom. During the interview with Zora, Cudjo could barely find the words to describe the emotions he has felt throughout his life when he thinks of her. He often stops the interview to cry: “My grief so heavy I cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”
White Man’s Property
When Cudjo finally arrived to the slave plantation, no one spoke his language, nor could they explain to him where he was or what was going on. He only knew one thing, something that didn’t require any language whatsoever. He knew he was a white man’s property and forever enslaved to him…
The War In The Background
But while Cudjo worked for years as a slave, something radical was happening in America that would forever change the course of its’ history. Cudjo had no idea that the the Civil War had begun. But part-way through, he began to hear that the North had started a war to free enslaved people like him. He dismissed the thought, thinking that day would never come. He had lost all that was important to him, including his dignity, there was no room for hope in his mind.
Words He Thought He Would Never Hear
A few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865. One day, when Cudjo and other enslaved people were working on a boat, union soldiers walked by and told them something Cudjo never thought he would ever hear…you’re free…
Where Do I Go?
Not sure where to go or simply, what to do next, in a country which had been nothing but terrible to him. He didn’t have a dollar in his pocket nor a place to sleep. Cudjo expected to receive some sort of compensation for being kidnapped and forced into slavery, and was frustrated to discover that emancipation didn’t come with the promise of “forty acres and a mule.”
Did He Find A Home?
Frustrated by the refusal of the government to provide him with land to live on after stealing him away from his homeland, he and a group of 31 other free people saved up money to buy land near the state capital of Mobile, which they called Africatown. Cudjo would never see his family again but dreamt about his mama until the day he died.