The last known slave ship set sail toward America in 1859, and earlier this month, its final resting place is believed to have been uncovered.
For the first time, what appeared to be a soggy collection of charred wood and iron spikes were recently found scattered in the mud on a remote island north of Mobile, Ala.
The Clotilda was once believed to be lost forever, but Ben Raines, a reporter with AL.com, thinks he has finally found its wreckage.
“What we have is a circumstantial case, but it’s a pretty strong one,” he told InsideEdition.com. “The boat that I found is in the right location […] It was burned, like the Clotilda was […] And then the beam of the ship, the width of the ship, matched the Clotilda exactly.”
The slave ship was believed to have brought at least 110 captives from Africa to Mobile Bay in Alabama more than 50 years after it became illegal to import slaves to America.
Raines explained it had started as a bet between two wealthy men to prove that it was possible for the schooner to pass under the noses of federal authorities.
“They brought the ship up the bay at night, towed it behind a steamboat. They’d taken the mast down,” Raines explained. “Alabama was, of course, a very pro-slavery state, so he pulled it off.”
He said they unloaded the slaves that survived the journey in a swamp to avoid authorities, and lit the ship on fire to destroy the evidence.
“A great place to hide a ship, especially if you were up to illicit activities and then wanted to burn it, which was precisely why they did it there,” Raines said. “No one’s ever known where the ship was, except perhaps close relatives of the men who perpetrated this incredible crime.”
Raines said he had always been fascinated with the wreckage.
Over the years, he researched the schooner and its route along the coast of Alabama, and chatted with elders in his community about what they believed happened to the ship.
On Jan. 2, Raines decided to go fishing for the boat himself.
“I went out to look for it, the tide was extremely low, and got out there,” he said. “It was 25 degrees — chilly boat ride — and started cruising around the area where this fellow thought it would be,” he recalled. “[We] came up on the bank, and it looked like a big dinosaur backbone coming out of the mud.”
Several days later, he brought an expert on wooden ships to the wreckage, and after taking measurements and observing how the original schooner must have been built, they confirmed it was most likely the ship they were searching for.
“The ship had signs of being burned all over it, scarred wood, a patina on the chain plates, big wrought iron components. And then the beam of the ship, the width of the ship, matched the Clotilda exactly,” he explained. “I was excited and it was also a little bit of dread because I knew it was about to get a lot more complicated. I knew this was going to be a really big deal, and it was going to be a profoundly powerful experience for many, many people.”
When the Civil War ended and slaves were granted freedom just years later, the former captives of the Clotilda developed Africatown, where they continued speaking their native language, used traditional gardening and cooking techniques and attempted to preserve African culture.
The final passenger of the Clotilda died in 1935, at 94 years old.
Raines said he now hopes the wreckage can be confirmed by a historian and hopefully be able to help today’s poverty-stricken Africatown and the descendants of the Clotilda, including Questlove of The Roots, who recently discovered his ancestors arrived on the infamous slave ship.