The Alabama Historical Commission has been awarded ownership of the last ship known to carry enslaved people from Africa to the United States.
Chief U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose, in Mobile, ruled last month that the Clotilda wreckage and all artifacts related to the schooner are under the ownership of the state through the AHC, barring a compelling claim.
“It is further ordered, adjudged and decreed that any party alleging a claim or lien against the unidentified shipwrecked vessel believed to be Schooner Clotilda, subsequent to the date of the signing of this Order is in default, and bears the burden of establishing good cause for having the entry of default set aside,” Dubose wrote.
In a complaint filed in July of last year, the AHC argues that because the shipwreck was discovered “embedded,” or submerged in land underneath the Mobile River that federal law dictates the state can claim ownership.
“Pursuant to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, the United States has title to any abandoned shipwreck that is embedded in submerged lands of a State; embedded in coralline formations protected by a State on submerged lands of a State, or on submerged lands of a State and is included in or determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register,” the complaint reads. “The title held by the United States to any abandoned shipwreck … is transferred to the State in or on whose submerged lands (it) is located.”
The complaint states AHC is working in concert with the National Geographic Society and other partners to “explore, document and protect” the shipwreck.
“These efforts have been, and will continue to be, conducted in accordance with all appropriate maritime archeological protocols, carried out by licensed contractors specializing in such endeavors,” the complaint reads. “Upon the filing of this action, an artifact or artifacts will be turned over to the United States marshal for the Southern District of Alabama for symbolic attachment and arrest.”
The Clotilda is believed to be the last ship carrying enslaved people to the United States. It arrived in Mobile in July of 1860, some 50 years after the international slave trade was abolished. The ship was carrying 109 enslaved people from present-day Benin.
“To hide the evidence of their crime, the owner and captain of the Clotilda arranged to have the vessel towed by steam tug up the Spanish River, following the waterway to the junction of the Mobile River. At that point – at or near Twelve Mile Island – the captives were transferred to other vessels, and the CLOTILDA was burned and scuttled,” the AHC complaint reads. “Extensive exploration and scientific study has confirmed the CLOTILDA has been found some 159 years after its last voyage.”
For more of our stories on the CLotilda discovery click here.
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