The Untold Story of the International Slave Trade

November 22, 2019

Defying federal laws that punished slave trading with death, slavers smuggled enslaved Africans into the United States for the last time in 1860.

One dark night in July 1860, fire danced over the waters of Mobile Bay as a schooner was set ablaze. She was the Clotilda and had just illegally smuggled 110 West Africans into the United States on the eve of the Civil War. The perpetrators hoped to erase proof of their illegal voyage, by setting her on fire, but the ship could not stay hidden forever.

On May 22, 2019, a collaboration of the Alabama Historical Commission, National Geographic Society, Search Inc., National Museum of African American History and Culture, Slave Wrecks Project, and National Park Service identified the slaver Clotilda. The search for the shipwreck had taken years of intensive work, oten complicated by the fact that the surrounding waters are packed with many other shipwrecks from years past.

Meticulous historical research paired with cutting-edge archaeology proved that this ship was indeed the long-lost Clotilda, the last American slave ship. (Before the last slave ship was found, experts had been searching for the Clotilda for more than a century.)

In the antebellum South, enslaved labor had been powering the region’s economy for hundreds of years. The international slave trade supplied much of this labor force during the colonial era, and the domestic trade took over in the 19th century. While the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which lasted between 1525 and 1866, displaced more than 12 million Africans by forcibly sending them to the Americas, the Clotilda’s captives were the last of an estimated 389,000 brought from Africa to North America from the early 1600s to 1860. 

Banning the trade

After the War for Independence, the new nation’s divided attitudes toward slavery became apparent as its founding documents were being written in the 1780s. To join the free and slave states, several compromises were made over the institution, including the legality of the international slave trade. The vaguely worded Article 1, Section 9, says that the government will not interfere in “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” before 1808, protecting the trade for 20 years. (How did slavery begin in the United States?)

Two decades later, the Slave Trade Act criminalized the “importation of any negro, mulatto, or person of color from any foreign kingdom, place, or country into the United States for the purposes of holding, selling, or disposing of such persons as slaves .” Effective January 1, 1808, the act further states that violators would be guilty of a high misdemeanor, punishable by not more than ten, but not less than five years in prison.

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