Ben Raines holds the first piece of Clotilda to see the light of day in 160 years. Raines and a team from The University of Southern Mississippi discovered the wreck in April 2018, though it was not confirmed and announced until May 2019.
Photo | Courtesy of Joe Turner
By Ben Raines
This is the story of how I found Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the United States.
It is a compelling tale, and even as I write these words, new chapters unfold, involving the archaeologists digging up the ship, the descendants of the slaves who arrived aboard Clotilda, and a legal battle over what to do with the shipwreck itself, which has already become a cultural touchstone for the African American community. The tale involves pirates, scoundrels and a surprising and persistent attempt by one of the country’s most prestigious publications to claim credit for the find. Ultimately, the Clotilda saga, which began with a frivolous bet among rich white men, encapsulates an uplifting human story of resilience and even triumph in the wake of unimaginable tragedy.
The ship’s discovery was announced in May, just a few months before the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves brought to this country. The timing made for a perfect bookend to America’s history as a slaving nation, closing the loop between the arrival of the first slaves in Port Comfort, Virginia, in 1619 and the arrival of the last slaves brought to these shores aboard Clotilda in 1860. The discovery was revealed more than a year after I found the ship, but that’s how long it took a team of archaeologists to confirm the find after an exhaustive analysis.
Out of 20,000 ships used in the global slave trade, just 13 have been found, and Clotilda is the only ship ever found that brought slaves to America. Remarkably, the descendants of those smuggled slaves still live in Africatown, a community on the edge of a swamp north of Mobile, about five miles from the island where I located the shipwreck.
The town was founded after the Civil War by Clotilda survivors on land they bought from the plantation owner who had enslaved them. The original name was African Town, because the founders, who had only been in America for five years at Emancipation, ruled it according to the laws and customs of their homeland. By the early 1900s, Africatown was the fourth largest community founded by African Americans in the nation, attracting the attention of Booker T. Washington, Zora Neale Hurston and others. By the 1950s, there were movie theaters, grocery stores, barbershops, restaurants and 12,000 residents.
Today, Africatown is a shambles. All the businesses and most of the people are gone. Fewer than 2,000 people live in neighborhoods dotted with vacant lots, ramshackle houses and potholed streets. Its modern history involves shuttered factories, a legacy of pollution from heavy industry and the construction of a major highway through the heart of town that destroyed hundreds of homes and split the community in two.
During the 20 years I spent covering the environment for the Mobile Press-Register, I sometimes wrote stories about problems in Africatown. Usually, my work was tied to oil spills, sewage overflows or other environmental issues linked to the massive presence of heavy industry — think paper mills, asphalt factories and oil storage tank farms — surrounding the small community. I had only the loosest familiarity with Africatown’s origin story then, which was treated as a sort of urban legend by many Mobilians, despite the multiple books that have been written about Clotilda. But the discovery of the ship changes that equation. The town’s history has been made real.
When I visited Africatown a few days after the discovery was announced, an old woman I’d never met grabbed me on the street and hugged me. With tears in her eyes, she said, “You’re the man who found the ship. You don’t know what this means. They’ve been calling us liars for years.” Descendant Lorna Woods, 69, grew up hearing the story of Clotilda from her grandmother, who was raised in Africatown and knew many of the former slaves. Today, she visits schools with a homemade, fold-out display covered in yellowed newspaper clippings and black and white photos of her ancestors.
“My grandmother and my mother, they were proud we came from the Africans, but most people tried to hide it,” Woods recalled. “We’ve lost so much of the history because people were ashamed to be called African. The people in Mobile started saying none of it was true. But now, with the ship, they can’t do that anymore. We’ve been telling the truth all along.”
Lately, Africatown feels suddenly ascendant, as if a new wind is stirring. There are plans to tear down the long-abandoned Happy Hills housing project and build a museum dedicated to the Clotilda story, where the remains of the ship could be displayed, and visitors could board a replica of the ship, complete with a representation of how the slaves were chained in the hold during the Middle Passage. A new tour bus company takes foreign tourists through Africatown and to the key locations in the Clotilda story. A new park is being built along the riverfront at the spot where the slaves camped out in the first days after they were freed.
Four million dollars has been dedicated for an Africatown Welcome Center in a vacant lot across from the cemetery where those brought here by Clotilda are buried. The old welcome center, which was housed in a mobile home, was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina and never rebuilt. If all the dreams and proposals come to fruition, Africatown is poised to become one of the most important stops in the burgeoning Civil Rights tourism industry. Residents hope the economic impact will rescue Africatown from its death spiral.
This is as it should be, for Clotilda is an even more powerful totem than just a slave ship. It is the last slave ship. The wreck is an internationally important artifact. What’s more, we know more about its voyage and the fate of the 110 souls imprisoned on board than is known about any of the millions of people brought in bondage to this country.
We know exactly what part of Africa they came from, who captured and sold them, who bought them, exactly when they arrived, the ship that brought them here, where they ended up after the Civil War and where their descendants are today. With the recent publication of “Barracoon,” Zora Neale Hurston’s masterful oral history, we have a first-hand account of an African slaving raid, the horrors of the Middle Passage and what life was like for the newly freed slaves — all straight from the mouth of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last two survivors among the Clotilda captives, who died in Africatown in 1932.
I confess I didn’t really understand how important and powerful the discovery of the wreck would be when I decided to look for the ship in the fall of 2017. My involvement began with a phone call from my friend Jeff Dute.
“Why don’t you look for the Clotilda? Nobody’s ever found it. That’s one of the biggest mysteries out there,” Jeff said, adding it would probably be more fun than a lot of the things I wrote about.
I knew a local businessman and historian, something of an eccentric, spent thousands and thousands of dollars in an unsuccessful search for Clotilda in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And I knew the Alabama Historical Commission had inexplicably refused to give novelist Clive Cussler permission to hunt for it around the same time, even after his team found Hunley, the first submarine used in war. I had been an investigative reporter for 20 years, but the idea of hunting for the ship myself never crossed my mind. It sounded so outlandish, like trying to find buried pirate treasure. After I hung up with Jeff, I typed the word “Clotilda” into Google.
And so it began. No greater purpose than trying to solve a mystery because it was there, waiting to be unriddled. Conveniently, the hunting grounds were right in my backyard, just a half hour from my front door. I had intimate knowledge of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the alligator-infested swamp where the ship was purportedly burned. I’ve run a side business as a licensed captain taking people on nature tours in the same area for years.
Now that the ship is found, I can say the hunt was, by turns, fun and exhilarating, then embarrassing and devastating, and finally truly humbling and among the most profound experiences of my life. We may as well start with the embarrassing part, which involved journalistic failure on a massive scale.
“It’s too big”
Like any good investigative reporter, I started with research. I read all of the Clotilda-related books, including Sylviane A. Diouf’s excellent account, “Dreams of Africa in Alabama,” which serves as a sort of master key for the story of the ship and its human cargo. I also read Emma Langdon Roche’s “Historic Sketches of the South,” published in 1914. It is the first and most important history of Clotilda, and was written while eight of the survivors were still alive. Together, the books paint an exceptional picture, capturing the horrors of a slaving raid, the Middle Passage, life as a slave and what it was like to be emancipated into the Jim Crow South. The books also hold clues about where the ship might have ended up.
In broad strokes, the story of Clotilda centers on a bet made aboard a steamboat in 1859, as the slave-owning riverboat captain Timothy Meaher and his passengers discussed the news that a group of South Carolina plantation owners were accused of illegally importing 471 slaves from Africa, a cargo worth millions of dollars in today’s currency. The event had radicalized Meaher, who bet $1,000 he could smuggle a load of slaves into the country in defiance of a federal ban on the importation of slaves that had been in place since 1808. He sent his friend Capt. William Foster and Clotilda to Africa in 1860 with 27 pounds of gold and instructions to barter for as many souls as possible.
The ship returned four months later with 110 slaves. While Clotilda was crossing the ocean, Meaher bragged of the caper to anyone who would listen and became paranoid federal agents planned to arrest him as soon as Clotilda returned. As Roche described it, “the destination and purpose of the Clotilde [sic] had been noised about, and Meaher realized that officials were watching his movements.”
When word came the ship had arrived and was anchored at a secluded rendezvous point on the coast, Meaher fired up the family’s steam-powered tug boat and towed Clotilda up Mobile Bay to a desolate spot deep in the Delta swamp. Meaher’s brothers arrived with another steamboat, loaded up the slaves and hid them in the woods on one of their plantations. The men decided to burn Clotilda to hide evidence of their crime.
A slave ship was an awful, stinking thing. After two months with 110 captives in the hold, even an empty ship would be evidence enough to convict the men of slaving. Left alone with the ship after the Meahers headed upriver with the slaves, Foster removed his desk, chair and clock from his cabin on the ship, loaded the hull with seven cords of pine fatwood, and struck a match.
This proved to be a wise move. Within days of Clotilda’s arrival, stories announcing that the ship had successfully smuggled Africans into the country appeared in numerous newspapers around the country. In short order, the Meaher brothers, Foster and another man were arrested and charged with slaving. All were quickly released when officials were unable to find any trace of the Africans or the ship that brought them here.
While the lives of the captives who arrived aboard Clotilda have been well documented, the fate of the ship itself remained a mystery for the next 160 years. I found numerous clues to its location in an assortment of historical documents and the half-dozen books on the topic, written between the late 1800s and today. In retrospect, all of the texts got the location of Clotilda’s final resting place wrong. They place it variously in Bayou Connor, Bayou Corne, Bayou Canot or the Spanish River. These places all exist, but they are not where I found the ship. In fact, I ruled out all of those locations before my first trip into the swamp because they had all been searched in recent years using modern survey equipment.
Recall the eccentric historian I mentioned. His name was Jack Friend. He authored the definitive history of the Battle of Mobile Bay, where Admiral David G. Farragut is said to have yelled, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Upon Friend’s death in 2010, his papers were donated to the history museum in Mobile. I spent an afternoon in late 2017 going over Friend’s research with John Sledge, a city historian and author of “The Mobile River,” an authoritative history of the city’s seaport. In his obituary, Sledge said Friend “personified the phrase ‘a gentleman and a scholar.’” The first thing that jumped out at me in the boxes of Friend’s papers was a formal report compiled by the survey company he hired for his Clotilda search.
The survey started at the mouth of Bayou Canot and headed north, encompassing the places once known as Bayou Corne and Bayou Connor. The crew used side-scan sonar, a magnetometer and a sub-bottom profiler. Together, the three techniques paint a picture of the riverbed and any objects sitting on it, detect any metal items, such as anchors or ship fittings, and probe a dozen feet below the muddy bottom looking for things that might be buried under river sediment. Friend’s search turned up nothing in any of the locations suggested in the books and documents.
I expected as much. My research had already suggested a different location, farther south, next to Twelve Mile Island in the Mobile River, a few miles north of Timothy Meaher’s plantation and shipyard. While going over the primary sources used by Clotilda researchers, a significant discrepancy caught my eye. The books and articles all seemed to focus on a series of newspaper interviews given decades after the fact by Meaher, the steamboat captain and plantation owner who financed Clotilda’s trip to Africa. In the interviews, Meaher states the slaves were offloaded to his steamboat in the Spanish River, and then Clotilda was towed to Bayou Connor and scuttled.
As someone who frequents these locations regularly, this jumped out at me. The Spanish River and Bayou Connor are miles apart, with lots of lonesome and secluded swamp in between. Why would you unload the slaves in one spot, then spend another hour towing the slave ship north before burning it? It just doesn’t make sense. Multiple witnesses — including Foster, the Meaher brothers and their trusted slave, James Dennison — all agree Clotilda was towed into the swamp through the Spanish River in order to bypass the port of Mobile, which sits on the Mobile River.
But the Spanish River is particularly narrow, with bars so shallow they can ground even a rowboat, never mind a steamboat or oceangoing sailing vessel. An old riverboat captain like Meaher could have accomplished the treacherous trip towing Clotilda through the Spanish River in the dark, but I can’t imagine there would have been room enough anywhere in the Spanish River for Clotilda and a steamboat large enough to carry 110 slaves to pull up alongside each other for the transfer of the captives.
The river is only two miles long, and the channel as it runs today is not big enough for such a transfer between boats that together would have been more than 60 feet wide. Plus, the Spanish River runs into the Mobile River within sight of the downtown port, which our band of criminals was trying to avoid at all costs. It seemed the last place one would pick to make a discrete transfer of more than 100 chained captives. Better to keep heading north, toward the plantation where the slaves were to be stashed, and affect the transfer in a more secluded spot.
After we examined Friend’s papers, I told Sledge my theory the ship was along the back side of Twelve Mile Island. What’s more, I told him I thought Friend and the book authors and researchers who had repeated Meaher’s description of where the ship was burned had been duped. After the slaves arrived, Meaher spent the next 30 years enjoying the fame his association with Clotilda had brought. He was frequently interviewed by newspapers and magazines from around the country, which treated the Clotilda story as a swashbuckling adventure.
He had become enough of a celebrity in his lifetime that The New York Times published an obituary upon his death, describing him as “the importer of the last cargo of slaves brought to the United States.” But even after the Civil War, Meaher worried federal officials or the former slaves would try to press charges against him if they were to locate the wreck. I think he used the interviews, including one of his last in 1892, to throw people off the trail. By saying the wreck was in Bayou Connor, he was sending any would-be searchers miles away from where the ship actually was. I believe that’s why Friend’s search started at the mouth of Bayou Canot and worked north. He bought Meaher’s deception.
My theory was based partly on something I discovered in a resource unavailable to Friend — an account by Foster, who actually sailed Clotilda to Africa. At the time of Friend’s survey, Foster’s account had not come to light. (Though it was available to the book authors, who apparently rejected it in favor of Meaher’s seemingly more detailed account.) It was only revealed after some of Foster’s relatives attempted to sell the captain’s possessions from the ship — the desk, chair and clock — to one of Meaher’s descendants in the early 2000s.
To their credit, Foster’s descendants donated the captain’s handwritten account to the Mobile Library around that time, though not the furniture. (I have confirmed Foster’s descendants have other Clotilda-related items, including, I believe, the original journal Foster kept during the voyage. I have appealed to them to donate any artifacts they have for the new Africatown museum, or to the Smithsonian, but the relatives have not yet responded. Perhaps they will read these words and be inspired. Neither family — Meaher or Foster — has been willing to speak to the press or to the Clotilda descendants to date. However, I have recently tracked down a descendant of Foster’s who is coming to Mobile in the new year to meet with his Clotilda counterparts.)
Photos | (From left) Ben Raines, Joe Turner, courtesy of Search Inc.
(From left) This is the stretch of shoreline where Clotilda was discovered. It is in the Mobile River alongside Twelve Mile Island. This is a handmade wrought iron nail. Made by blacksmiths in the days before the mass availability of screws, the presence of these square-cut nails was one of the first signs the ship was the right age to be the Clo- tilda. This is a side-scan image of Clotilda as captured by the archaeologists. You can see the sides of the ship and the bow. The dotted lines represent where the stern is believed to lie. It is buried under mud.
Foster wrote his account in 1890, 30 years after the fact, and it is clear it was an attempt to claim some of the fame Meaher had been enjoying. It is titled “The Last Slaver,” and mentions Timothy Meaher just once, and only as the driver of the steamboat. Foster also describes the captives Meaher paid for as “my slaves.” It clearly burned Foster to see Meaher celebrated as having brought the last cargo of slaves to the country when the steamboat captain had actually remained safely behind in Mobile, while Foster faced four mutinies among his crew and several narrow escapes from the British anti-slaving fleet during the voyage.
The 12-page journal contained a tantalizing tidbit regarding the destruction of the ship. Foster recorded the scene this way: “At Twelve Mile Island I transferred my slaves to a river steamboat and sent them up into the canebrake to hide them until further disposal. I then burned my schooner to the water’s edge and sunk her.”
Now, this made sense! Twelve Mile Island would be a perfect place to both burn a ship and swap illegally imported slaves from one vessel to another — much more remote and discrete than the Spanish River. The northern tip of Twelve Mile Island is 12 miles from the port of Mobile (hence the name), meaning it is about seven miles farther from downtown Mobile than the Spanish River. Plus, the water around Twelve Mile Island is plenty wide for two ships to tie up side by side.
While the west side of Twelve Mile Island was and still is the main river channel, the east side of the island is desolate and never visited by commercial traffic. I floated my theory by Russell Ladd, a man who had been plying the waters around Twelve Mile Island for 70 years. His father knew Timothy Meaher’s sons and grandsons. Ladd said, “that’s where Daddy always said it was.” As I dug in on my research, I discovered the Meahers have owned the land around the east side of the island since the 1850s. What better place to transfer a cargo of illegal slaves and burn and sink a ship than alongside a chunk of swampland you own?
I had a location. All that remained was to find a ship. For that, I planned to make use of the lowest tides of the year, which typically occur in January. On the second day of 2018, I headed up the river toward Twelve Mile Island. I actually launched my boat at Meaher State Park, which is named for one of the brothers who drove one of the steamboats as they moved the slaves and the ship into the Delta.
Thanks to the infamous “bomb cyclone of 2018” then ravaging the northeast, a stout north wind had blown much of the water out of Mobile Bay. Tides in the Delta were about three feet lower than normal. After a 20-minute run in 30-degree weather, I was at Twelve Mile. Almost immediately, I found the bones of a ship. At normal water level, the vessel would be completely underwater, but on this day, it was largely uncovered. I took aerial photos with my drone, and close-ups of the construction techniques and types of wood. I took Winthrop Turner, a shipwright expert in 19th century ship construction to the site. He identified the vessel as a schooner built between 1840 and 1875. That fit, as Clotilda was christened in 1856.
His descriptions and my photos were enough to intrigue a pair of marine archaeologists in nearby Pensacola. The University of West Florida’s John Bratten and Greg Cook were part of a team that discovered and explored a dozen Spanish galleons from the 1500s sunk in Pensacola Bay. They knew their stuff.
Within a few days, they were on my boat headed to the ship. Their team made careful measurements, took lots of photos and concluded we had a ship that was definitely built in the 1850s or 1860s, and appeared to be precisely the same width as Clotilda. We were unable to get a reliable length for the wreck, as it disappeared into the mud, but the team estimated it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 feet. That was pretty close to Clotilda’s known length of 90 feet.
I spent three weeks studying the wreck further and assembling everything known about the ship. On Jan. 23, 2018, I published a story with the headline, “Wreck found by reporter may be the last American slave ship, archaeologists say.” The story went viral on an international scale. I was interviewed by NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS Evening News, BBC, the biggest newspapers in England, Spain and France, and dozens of other outlets. I was hailed as the man who finally found Clotilda, the last slave ship.
My bosses were elated. I also got a call from Lisa Jones, the head of the Alabama Historical Commission, chewing me out for looking for the ship without her permission, which was odd as there is no law requiring permission to hunt for a shipwreck. Not to mention, the historical commission had certainly never looked for Clotilda.
Two months later, it was announced an international team was coming to Mobile to investigate the wreck. The team included the Slave Wrecks Project, Smithsonian Institution, National Park Service, Divers with a Purpose, Alabama Historical Commission and a marine archaeology company called Search Inc. The leader of the investigation was Search’s Dr. Jim Delgado, a celebrated marine archaeologist who led one of the last expeditions to the Titanic.
Bizarrely, the Alabama Historical Commission told my editors I would not be allowed to accompany the group when they explored the ship I found. I sent texts to Sen. Doug Jones and Rep. Bradley Byrne, who had been following news of the find, to tell them the state was blocking my access to the site and I would be unable to report any discoveries. Within a half hour, the head of the historical commission called and apologized and said I was welcome up the river. This would not be our last interaction regarding Clotilda. At every turn, the commission attempted to block me from the site, for reasons I still don’t understand.
I spent a lot of time talking with Delgado that first day, who was most interested in hearing how I honed in on this particular stretch of the Mobile River. We talked of the discrepancies in the historical record, the realities of geography regarding the locations mentioned, about Jack Friend’s survey and Foster’s journal account. After about three hours, he pointed toward a pair of divers trying to find the end of the ship. Using long metal poles, the divers were able to probe through the mud and find the outline of the ship.
“You see the divers are measuring it, with John [Bratten] at this end of the tape,” Delgado said, pointing to a man holding a large measuring tape on a reel a few feet from us. “Right now, they are at 157 feet, 4 inches.” I remember a profound sinking feeling.
“That’s a big boat,” I said. “It’s too big.”
“Well it is too big. So … ” Delgado stared at me for a minute, his mouth puckered in like someone holding bad news they don’t want to tell you. It was the first inkling I had likely made a massive journalistic error in front of millions of people around the world. “I don’t want you to take this too hard. This is how you look for ships. It’s not easy. I mean, you came out here and found a ship of the right design, from the right era, in the right place. That’s pretty impressive. And look at the attention you’ve brought to this story and the area. It’s international. I don’t want you to feel badly. Or be embarrassed. You’ve done something incredible, even if this is not it. I think you have figured out where it is. I think Clotilda will be found right around here.”
“Mmmm. So it’s not Clotilda. Well, that’s going to be a hard story to write,” I said as a deep funk settled over me.
“A lot of people wanted this to be it. But maybe now we’ll find it. You’ve got everyone thinking about it. And talking about it. When we have the press conference, there’s not going to be any of this [Delgado put his thumb to his nose and wiggled his fingers while saying, ‘neener-neener,’ meant as a taunt]. Finding ships is hard work. We all make mistakes. All you can do is look. Like John and Greg [Cook] said, based on what you could see when you found it, there was nothing to say it couldn’t be Clotilda. It was only after we put the dive gear on that we could start to measure it.”
I remain grateful to Delgado for trying to let me down easy. He spent about 45 minutes at the stern of my boat, both of us in drysuits, trying to keep me afloat in the face of what he knew was going to be publicly humiliating for me. I think he knew I was going to take it hard. And I did. It was a long night when I got home. I’ll say that. And much whiskey was drunk. I knew exactly how far the story had spread, how many people on both sides of the Atlantic were excited.
In the two months since the first story, I’d taken the ambassador of Benin (where the Clotilda slaves were from) to see it, I’d been quoted in the national press and featured on the major nightly news shows. I started to steel myself against the coming letdown. As a reporter, I prided myself on seldom ever having a correction, despite doing complex, in-depth reporting. I had earned dozens of journalism awards and a lot of trust from my editors over the years. Now, on the biggest story I’d ever broken, a story that had spread worldwide, my central premise was wrong.
My father, Howell Raines, a career journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, tried to soften the blow. “You published a piece full of caveats. You quoted archaeologists, you took experts to the site. You used the word ‘may’ in the first sentence and everywhere else. You’re totally covered from a journalism perspective,” he said.
Perhaps I was. Sort of. From a journalism perspective. But in the court of public opinion in our soundbite world, I knew I was toast.
After all, my soundbite was I’d found the last slave ship.
The next morning, a little bleary from the night before, I showed up in Africatown for the press conference where they planned to reveal to the public it was not the right ship. The list of all the reasons this could not be Clotilda was excruciating to hear in detail, for it highlighted how badly my ship missed the mark. As the presentation concluded, one of the descendants, Thelma Maiben-Owens, who runs the community garden in Africatown, wrapped me in a hug and quietly sang the words of a gospel song in my ear: “There’s a bright side somewhere, don’t give up and don’t give in.” She let me go, looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t you stop until you find it, Ben.”
A new find
Later, as I left the meeting, two guys who worked for a company called Fathom Undersea Research and Engineering introduced themselves to me. I recognized the company they worked for, as it had recently located a Dutch ship from the 1700s off the Alabama coast. They told me a decade prior they had tried to look for Clotilda, while they were being paid to search the Mobile River for Civil War ironclad warships. They said their survey carried them up the river close to the bottom of Twelve Mile Island. They told me they figured, as I had, Meaher had always lied about where the ship was. Even before my conversation with them was over, I knew exactly what I was going to do.
These guys had searched the river below Twelve Mile. Jack Friend had searched the river right above Twelve Mile. But no one had ever searched Twelve Mile Island itself, which is precisely where the captain of the ship said he burned it. I would immediately conduct the first ever modern survey of the Twelve Mile Island section of the Mobile River. It would be much better, I reasoned, to find the ship on my second try than go down in history as the guy who spectacularly failed to find Clotilda. After the meeting, I had to write the story describing my failure. The headline was, “Wreck found by reporter not the Clotilda, last American slave ship.”
The backlash started right away. That afternoon, on NPR, Mary Louise Kelly did a quick 30-second recap of our earlier interview to let listeners know I’d found the wrong ship. Other media followed suit. Perhaps the lowest point was hearing my voice on the radio show “On The Media” early one Sunday morning, as I drove to the boat ramp to take a group on a nature tour.
I immediately recognized the clip that was playing. It was from a video I made that ran with my original story. In it, I’m sitting on the bow stem of the wrong wreck. Gesturing from atop the wreck, I said, “Seeing this sort of dinosaur backbone ridge coming up out of the water, with all these giant iron spikes and charred wood, I just had this overwhelming feeling of, ‘that’s the final resting place of the Clotilda.’” Then host Brooke Gladstone cut in after the clip and said, “yeah, not so much.”
It was, without a doubt, the worst professional embarrassment I’d ever had. But Thelma’s advice rang in my head. I wouldn’t give up. The next morning, I called Monty Graham, the head of marine sciences at The University of Southern Mississippi. Graham is an old friend, and he’d been following my reporting on the ship. I asked if he would bring a Southern Miss crew to Alabama to do a full-scale bathymetric survey of the Mobile River around the east side of Twelve Mile Island. Such surveys normally cost around $10,000 and include a boat equipped with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of survey machines connected to multiple laptop computers, which collect reams of data from the survey equipment in real time. Graham didn’t hesitate. “I’d love to do something to help Africatown, and it’ll be good for our grad students. How about next week?” he said.
The University of Southern Mississippi’s hydrographic science team showed up. It was led by Max van Norden, Dr. Anad Hiroji, Marvin Story, Kandice Gunning, Ashley Boyce, Jennifer Rhodes and Alex Hersperger. By the end of their search, Graham’s crew had located 11 possible targets in the two-mile stretch of river. It took a full week for the team to collate all the data and produce a three-dimensional picture of the river bottom. Armed with the coordinates to various targets the team detected, we began examining them. We immediately ruled out most of them for being either too large, or vessels with steel hulls instead of wood. We settled on one target in particular, which was about 90 feet long.
On the side-scan sonar imagery, you could see the wooden deck, with missing planks and several open hatches. It looked really promising. A week later, just two weeks after all the visiting archaeologists left Mobile with no plans to return, Graham was on board my boat with divers from Underwater Works dive shop and my mechanic, Joe Turner, who served as our captain. It was early April, and the spring floods were on. The current was running hard and the river was so muddy it looked like chocolate milk. As soon as we began exploring the most promising wreck, we knew it couldn’t be Clotilda. The deck was the only thing on the entire ship made of wood. The hull itself was made of steel, indicating a ship from the Edwardian era, right around 1900, not an Antebellum-era wooden schooner like Clotilda. It looked like we were done. The best candidate from the Southern Miss survey was a bust. We agreed to head back to the dock.
As everyone packed up their dive gear for the run back, I called up the survey chart on my phone. A bathymetric survey looks sort of like a topographical map, except instead of lines indicating changes in height, different colors are used to show the depth of the water. Most of our chart was yellow. The anomalies showed up in slightly different colors, as the water was slightly shallower where something protruded from the bottom. The spots Graham’s team honed in on were marked on the survey. Peering over my shoulder, Chas Broughton from the dive shop pointed at a slightly discolored area that had not been highlighted. “What’s that?” he said. I remarked it looked like a shoe.
“Not to me. That looks like a ship. Let’s check it out,” Broughton said. Graham called the lab from the boat and described the spot to his tech. She found it on the map and texted us the GPS coordinates. It was about 300 yards north of the first ship I’d found. The tech said it appeared to be about 90 feet long. My heart started beating faster.
We anchored the boat over the spot and I jumped overboard. Nobody else was willing to get back into the cold water at the end of a long day, so I got in alone. It was about chest deep. By the time I was neck deep, I could feel logs and things on the bottom. I started diving down and picking them up, moving them out of the way. Graham and crew on the boat were laughing, saying I had discovered a pile of sticks. I kept pulling up logs. Then I felt something bend beneath my foot as I put my weight on it. My first thought was it might be a piece of wrought iron, a sign that whatever was on the river bottom was made in the 1850s, like Clotilda.
Keeping my foot firmly pressed against the bent piece so I wouldn’t lose it in the heavy current, I slipped beneath the water’s surface again. Even with a mask on, it was impossible to see anything through the muddy water. Diving blind, I used my leg as a guide, running hands down thigh and calf, then over my dive boot until I grasped the metal under my foot.
I could feel it was hammered through a thick plank of wood, clearly a piece of hewn lumber, not a log. I tugged lightly on the plank, unsure if it was just stuck in the mud or part of the larger structure I was exploring. After a moment, the old nails holding it fast gave way and it came free in my hand.
I popped back up on the surface and held the piece aloft. It was about five feet long, with several large, rusty nails poking out of it. They were square cut, and clearly handmade by a blacksmith. I called to my friends on the boat, “Guys, we just found something from the 1850s.”
Graham and Broughton got in and within minutes, we knew we had found a ship. A ship that appeared to be the same length as Clotilda. Nearby on the bank, I spied a concrete survey marker that had been newly painted bright red. In big block letters, the marker bore the name “Meaher,” a reminder the family still owned this stretch of shoreline, as it had since the 1850s.
A few days later, I called the Alabama Historical Commission to report we had located the remains of another ship from the 1850s, and it appeared to be about 90 feet long. After a stunned silence, I offered to provide them coordinates to the ship as well as our full bathymetric survey. They got Delgado on the phone and began asking me questions about the find. I told them it was the only object we encountered that could possibly be Clotilda. Two days later, the Alabama Historical Commission announced the state had hired Delgado and Search Inc. to come survey the Twelve Mile Island area in the hope of finding Clotilda.
Their announcement said National Geographic would be paying for the survey work. It made no mention of the fact my team had already discovered another ship, or that we had provided them with coordinates to the wreck. State officials said they had signed a confidentiality agreement with National Geographic and would not be able to share any information with me or the public about our find. I was told I would be arrested if I revealed the location of the ship I found to anyone.
A billion hits
Flash forward four months and Delgado showed up again, this time with a camera crew and writer from National Geographic Magazine, along with the society’s chief archaeologist, Fredrik Hiebert. Their plan was to replicate the Southern Miss survey entirely, down to using the same types of equipment. In retrospect, it seems apparent this was done primarily so National Geographic could claim their work located the ship we had given them the coordinates to.
Before they started their work, Delgado got on my boat. He wanted me to take him to our find and show him the pieces I had stashed in shallow water along the shoreline. As we sat on the deck of my boat, with Delgado holding a piece of the ship, he said, “Ben, if you managed to drop in and find the Clotilda this time, I’ll make sure everyone in the world knows you did it.” He also promised to let me know every time his team came to Alabama, which the state historical commission refused to do. He was true to his word.
While we were all up the river, I had a conversation with National Geographic’s writer, a guy named Joel Bourne. We discussed how cool it would be if a newspaper reporter managed to find Clotilda. Later, Hiebert, the National Geographic Society’s chief archaeologist, got on my boat so I could interview him for a feature article. During our discussion, I asked about National Geographic paying for the state’s survey. He said the magazine’s recent blockbuster article about the tomb of Christ had been the first thing on their website to get a billion hits. If the new ship turned out to be Clotilda, they were sure it would be their next billion-hit story, he said.
(From left) Cudjo Lewis, known in his native land as Kazoola, was the last survivor of Clotilda. He lived in Africatown until 1935, when he died at age 94. He is the subject of the book “Barracoon” by Zora Neale Hurston. A plank from the wreck of the Clotilda appears to show signs of having been burned. The ship was burned near Twelve Mile Island to hide evidence of the crime. Capt. Tim Meaher (top) was the man who paid for and thought up the illegal scheme to kidnap Africans and smuggle them into the U.S. 52 years after the practice was made illegal. Capt. William Foster (below) captained Clotilda on its illegal run.
To understand what a billion hits means on the internet, a little math is useful. Media websites charge an advertiser about $6 to show an ad to 1,000 people. A typical article will have four or five ad positions. So, multiply the number of ad positions by 1 billion views, and you are talking about tens of millions of dollars in ad revenue. Let’s not forget National Geographic is no longer a nonprofit. It is now owned by Disney, a company that definitely likes to make money. I bring this up because I think it has everything to do with what transpired in the coming months.
The first day, the National Geographic team mimicked our survey, slowly towing the survey equipment up and down the river, just as we had. The second day, apparently without even analyzing their data from the survey, which would typically take many days, they began diving on the wreck we found, bringing up more pieces. Delgado pulled me aside at the end of the day. He said he couldn’t really talk about anything due to the non-disclosure agreement, but wanted to tell me one thing. He smiled and said, “We’re in the ballpark.” I asked if he meant the ship was the right size. “Let’s just say if you see us diving on it for the next three days, that tells you a lot about what we think.” And that’s exactly what they did. Delgado and Search returned four times over the next several months, collecting wood samples and mapping the wreck.
By the time December rolled around, Delgado’s team had been studying our find for five months. He suggested I attend an upcoming public meeting of the historical commission’s board of directors. He was to speak about an exploration of the Selma munitions foundry performed by his staff at Search. Most of the armory’s equipment had been pushed into the river at the end of the Civil War to keep it out of Union hands. I had written an article about the work, and it made for an interesting presentation.
When it was over, Delgado said though he wasn’t scheduled to talk about the Clotilda work, he knew the board was curious. He recognized me from the podium, explaining my role in the discoveries, and then presented a PowerPoint slide show laying out everything known about the wreck. In short, he said the new ship was “exactly” the size of Clotilda, both width and length. It was made of the exact types of local Alabama trees recorded on the license when the ship was built. It even had remnants of copper sheathing attached to the outside of the hull, as Clotilda did. Then Delgado said it bore signs of having been dynamited. My heart jumped as I suddenly remembered something historian John Sledge said after I shared my Twelve Mile Island theory. He told me Joe Meaher, who is Timothy Meaher’s great-grandson, claimed to have dynamited Clotilda with his father in the 1950s. I published a story about Delgado’s revelations, noting these were the most expansive comments to date from any of the researchers participating in the exploration of the ship we found.
A few months later, in April, I had a phone conversation with Delgado. He told me his scientific report on whether the ship was Clotilda had been sent out for peer review. I asked if he concluded it was the ship. “There’s no smoking gun that says, yes, this is definitely it, like the ship’s bell with Clotilda engraved on it. But there is an awful lot of evidence pointing in that direction. I think you’re going to like the report. I told everyone we’d have to let you see it before it was released publicly,” he said.
It was a surprise, then, when a friend at NPR texted me on May 22 a link to National Geographic’s blockbuster story announcing Clotilda had been found. “Why aren’t you mentioned? Isn’t this the second ship you found?” the text said. The story made no mention of me or the team of scientists from The University of Southern Mississippi whose survey helped locate the wreck.
Then New York Times reporter Richard Fausset, who knew I’d found the ship, called to tell me the Alabama Historical Commission’s media person told him I had nothing to do with finding Clotilda, that National Geographic and Delgado found it. I looked up the press release from the Alabama Historical Commission about the ship.
Like the National Geographic article, it made no mention of me or Southern Miss, or the fact we handed the state and National Geographic the coordinates to the ship. I reached out to the president of the board of directors over the historical commission, Walter Givhan, a retired Air Force general and university chancellor. Givhan and I are related through marriage, and he was as puzzled as I was by the press release, as he knew I found the ship. After some investigating, he texted me the media officer’s claim to the Times was an “old data point — not happening now. I’m working this quickly and I would ask for your patience as I do.”
Then I had a phone call from Rep. Bradley Byrne, who also knew I found the ship. The congressman told me the commission would either correct the record or not find the funding they asked his office to secure. He promised to recognize me from the podium at the big celebration in Africatown in a few days.
I could tell the fix was in. We were being written out of the story on purpose. I had a hunch about one reason this might have happened. I had left the Press-Register, Birmingham News and Huntsville Times, and their associated website, al.com, in April after a 20-year career to work on a book and several documentaries. My departure was five weeks before the find was announced, and was well known to the Alabama Historical Commission, and, I suspect, to National Geographic. I think with me out of the picture as a reporter with some of the largest papers in the state, they felt there was no need to mention my work.
I immediately called Delgado. He told me I was included in his scientific report, which had not been released publicly yet, but he couldn’t be responsible for what National Geographic’s article said. He promised he would set the record straight with anyone he spoke to. In short order, and true to the promise he made on my boat the first time he touched a piece of Clotilda, Delgado was quoted by NPR saying, “Ben was the first to touch it, Ben was the first to suspect it.” He told al.com I was “the first to actually drop down on it and touch it.”
I want to thank Dr. Jim Delgado especially for acknowledging my involvement immediately, that first day. It was important because he was the lead archaeologist on the dig, and lead author of the scientific report. A lesser person might have been tempted to let the National Geographic story stand, suggesting he found the ship. But Delgado — ever the scientist, archaeologist and gentleman — told the truth and I am most grateful.
While having National Geographic imply their work found Clotilda was outrageous, I was pleased the nation’s most important journalistic organizations got it right. Washington Post reporter Nicole Ellis said, “Ben Raines spearheaded an expedition that ultimately led to finding the Clotilda.”
The New York Times’ lead story about the find described me as “Ben Raines, the documentarian and former journalist who found it.” NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, who had interviewed me with the first, wrong ship, had me back on “All Things Considered” and asked me to “walk us through the discovery and why you decided to stick with it all this time.” CBS News opened their piece saying, “Ben Raines went to the spot where a dark piece of American history, buried deep in the mud, found the light of day.” The Times of London, ABC Spain, England’s Channel 4 and numerous other organizations reported I found the ship. National Geographic was the only outlier, but this was extra problematic because their original story was a scoop and remained the most visible item on the internet by far. It was being aggregated all over the web.
I reached out to National Geographic Magazine’s editor in chief, Susan Goldberg, via email to inquire why their story suggested their efforts located the ship, rather than the work of my team. I noted the national media described me as the person who found Clotilda. Only National Geographic claimed otherwise. The University of Southern Mississippi, I wrote, “performed the first ever modern bathymetric survey of that portion of the Mobile River, complete with side-scan sonar, magnetometer and sub-bottom profiler. They analyzed the data. And they found Clotilda four months before your team ever visited Alabama. The University of Southern Mississippi team, a diverse, multicultural group, deserves immense credit for helping me identify Clotilda. The fact that you mimicked precisely their survey four months later with the coordinates to Clotilda already in hand does not change the facts of our discovery. Your continuing actions harm all of us by stealing the international recognition that should be ours.” I closed with, “I regard my exclusion from the narrative you presented as journalistic skullduggery at its worst.”
Goldberg responded: “We have updated the Clotilda article to include your name, and I apologize that the story did not name you in the first place. That happened because of an internal miscommunication, and I appreciate you pointing out our lapse.”
I quickly checked the National Geographic website. They had, indeed, added my name to their story, but only in the context of being a local reporter who found the first, wrong ship. I wrote back to Goldberg she had only compounded the magazine’s errors, and included a picture of me holding up the first piece of Clotilda to see the light of day since 1860.
(From left) Hundreds of descendants of the slaves who arrived aboard Clotilda celebrated the ship’s discovery on May 30 in Africatown. This chimney marks the spot where former slave Peter Lee’s house stood. It is the last structure still standing in Africatown that was built by the captives who arrived aboard Clotilda. Lorna Woods points to the grave of her ancestor Charlie Lewis, and others who arrived aboard Clotilda. Woods says Mobile should step up and help celebrate Africatown’s place in history.
“I am the first person to have touched the ship in 160 years, as testified by your lead archaeologist. To exclude me from the tale of discovery as [National Geographic writer] Joel Bourne has done is preposterous,” I wrote. “To attempt to claim all credit for the find as National Geographic has done is not journalism. It is, to use a now common phrase, fake news … I remain stunned at the ongoing National Geographic response. I expected much more when I examined your résumé. I am an honest journalist who accomplished something extraordinary. Can you say the same of your staff for their work on the Clotilda story?”
Goldberg responded: “We will re-review the story. If we believe any updates are warranted, we will make them.”
It took six days and many more emails before National Geographic’s story grudgingly acknowledged my survey with Southern Miss was the first to locate the ship. But the way they worded it suggests we found something but were too stupid to know what it was. What’s more, the National Geographic story still makes the claim their team honed in on the Twelve Mile Island area. I provided all of the scratch work to Goldberg to show her this was untrue, that through careful research of historical documents I honed in on that area nearly a year before anyone on her staff ever came to Alabama. But she never responded. Likewise, she did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story. I understand why. Goldberg was a longtime newspaper editor before joining National Geographic. She knows when she is playing a losing hand.
Once National Geographic caved and made several corrections to their story to include my team, so did the Alabama Historical Commission, issuing a new press release “to include the contributions of Ben Raines” on the morning of the Africatown celebration. From the podium, Rep. Byrne singled me out, saying, “We would not be here today but for the hard work and perseverance of Ben Raines. Ben, you’ve been recognized a couple of times today, good on you my brother.”
Bourne, the National Geographic reporter, sought me out during the giant celebration as hundreds of people danced to the beat of African drumming and descendants hollered out the names of their ancestors. Bourne knew of my complaints. He was cc’d on the emails to Goldberg. When he pressed me, I reminded him of our conversation on the water, at the site, when we’d discussed how cool it would be if a reporter actually managed to find the long-lost ship. I asked him why he’d left me out of his article, especially after he interviewed me and had his photographer board my boat and shoot a portrait of me the first day.
“I guess I probably should have included you,” was all he could muster.
“Probably?” I said.
“Definitely. I definitely should have fought harder to include you,” Bourne replied, implying his editors wanted me deleted me from his story. The next day, National Geographic published a piece about the Africatown celebration. In it, for the first time, Bourne and the publication described me as “Ben Raines, the former reporter who initially located the wreck that was later identified as Clotilda.” Of course, the damage was already done. For more than a week, National Geographic told the world — perhaps 1 billion people — the team they funded found Clotilda, with no mention of the group I put together, which actually located the wreck.
The magazine’s staff knew I provided our survey and the coordinates to what turned out to be Clotilda four months before National Geographic ever came to Alabama. My search was the reason they were in Alabama. Their chief archaeologist, Fredrik Hiebert, discussed the excitement around my new find with me during a visit to the National Geographic headquarters in Washington in October 2018. Bourne discussed it with me on the river during the organization’s first trip to Alabama in July 2018.
Delgado, who is a National Geographic Explorer and former host of a National Geographic television show about finding ships, was quoted widely in other media saying I found the ship beginning the first day National Geographic published their false narrative. It seems clear National Geographic told a purposefully misleading story — when they were well aware of the truth — in order to claim credit for work my team did and reap the associated benefits. In fact, it seems like a pretty open-and-shut case.
Discussing National Geographic’s behavior, Darron Patterson, the president of the Clotilda Descendants Association — who is himself a longtime newspaper reporter — said, “the charlatans are coming out of the woodwork and revealing themselves, even at National Geographic.” Patterson and I discussed the code of honor required of a journalist. I do not believe this behavior lives up to it.
Perhaps it was just all about the money from ad revenue, which may have been in the tens of millions of dollars. Or perhaps Goldberg and her underlings simply wanted America to believe National Geographic had been the one to find the ship. After 23 years of newspapering, I understand breaking big stories often involves sharp elbows. But I’m still surprised the magazine wasn’t more gracious. Setting aside as best I can my personal competitiveness, I believe National Geographic would have had a stronger story by telling how an Alabama-born reporter brought this historical tragedy to a point of closure for Africatown, and helped rescue this piece of our shared history for all to know.
Delgado made a similar point a few weeks ago in Mobile at a large coastal science conference, when he delivered the keynote lecture about Clotilda. Calling the ship a find of national and international significance, he opened his remarks by acknowledging I found the ship and then used the example of my search for Clotilda to inspire the young scientists in the audience and watching on the web.
“For every young person watching and listening tonight, this happened in Mobile’s back yard. I want to point out something that was made very clear by your own Ben Raines, with his perseverance and his initiative to try and find the Clotilda, an effort that ultimately succeeded. And that is, you don’t need to go far to make a discovery. You don’t need to go far to find something that is important. It is literally in your own backyard,” he said.
No matter what, the cursed ship has the chance to become an incredible blessing for Africatown and the descendants of the slaves who were chained in her hold. I am incredibly proud to have played a role in the discovery and elated my reporting might help right the many wrongs heaped on the community.
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