CUDJO LEWIS | The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It Just Surfaced
BY ISMAIL AKWEI
Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving captive
of the last slave ship to bring Africans
to the U.S. (Credit: Erik Overbey
Collection, The Doy Leale McCall
Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
University of South Alabama)
The story of the last illegal shipment
of 110 slaves to the United States
from the Kingdom of Dahomey
(present-day Benin) in 1860 is
widely known, but the account of
the survivors was unavailable until
May 8, 2018.
Thanks to a resurfaced 1931
interview with the last survivor of
the slave ship Clotilde, Cudjo Lewis,
which was published after 87 years
by American publishers HarperCollins.
95-year-old Lewis told his story to
African American writer Zora Neale
Hurston, who was a known Harlem
Renaissance figure and gained
popularity for the novel Their Eyes
Were Watching God.
However, the manuscript including
other works of hers was rejected
by publishers following a public
fallout. She was accused of
molesting a 10-year-old boy.
Hurston was later exonerated
because she was out of the country
when the crime was committed;
however, her vindication came too
late as she had died alone and
poor in 1960. She was also buried
in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce,
Barracoon, The Story of the Last
“Black Cargo” is one of Hurston’s
unpublished non-fiction books
which she wrote after she visited
Plateau, Alabama, in 1927 to
interview Cudjo Lewis.
He gave a firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and enslavement, over 50 years after the transatlantic slave trade was
outlawed in the United States. Hurston documented Lewis’s story in his dialect, just as he told it.
Lewis was born as Kossola or Oluale Kossola in what is now known as Benin around the 1840s. His father was named Oluwale and his
mother Fondlolu. He had five siblings and twelve half-siblings from his father’s other two wives.
He was taken prisoner in 1860 by the Dahomey army as part of a slave raid and was sent to the slave port of Ouidah along with other
captives. They were sold to Captain William Foster of the Clotilde, a ship based in Mobile, Alabama, and owned by businessman Timothy
The owner is reported to have bet a friend that he could smuggle in a group of slaves from Africa aboard the ship.
About 120 of them were bundled onto the ship and brought to Alabama
despite the outlaw of slave trade in 1807. To avoid detection, they snuck the
slaves into Alabama at night and hid them in a swamp for several days.
“We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother. We seventy days cross de
water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we
cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my
sleep when I dream about my mama,” Lewis told Hurston.
They burned the 86-foot sailboat on the banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta to
hide their crime following a tip-off to the authorities of their activities. They
were cleared of charges of illegal possession of captives as the slaves and
evidence were not found.
The remains of the boat were reported to have been discovered by a journalist in January 2018.
The incident happened months before the 1861 civil war and Lewis, together with the other slaves, were dispersed and hidden by
Meaher, his family and associates. Lewis was bought by James Meaher, brother of the businessman, and he worked as a deckhand on
“We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis.
Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses
but dey doan know whut we say,” he told Hurston.
Lewis chose to be called Cudjo, as Kossola was difficult for Meaher to mention. Cudjo is a West African name given to boys born on
Monday. Historian Sylviane Diouf believes the surname Lewis was a corruption of his father’s name Oluwale.
He worked at the Meaher shipyard with other slaves through to the end of the Civil War in 1865 when the confederate army surrendered.
Lewis said they didn’t know about the war and a few days after it was over, a group of Union soldiers stopped by where they were working
and told them they were free.
He told Hurston about his frustration following his discovery that the promise
of “forty acres and a mule” to enslaved Africans after the emancipation was
not fulfilled by the government.
The group worked in lumber mills and sold produce to raise money to be able
to return to Africa, yet they were unsuccessful. An attempt to get their former
captor to offer them land also proved futile.
They continued to raise money and later in 1872, Lewis and a group of 31
other freed people bought a land near the state capital Mobile. Lewis bought
about two acres of land for $100 in the Plateau area which they called
The group developed Africatown into a community of people with a shared African background. They appointed leaders and built a
church, a school, and a cemetery.
Hurston’s use of vernacular dialogue in
both her novels and her anthropological
interviews was often controversial, as
some black American thinkers at the
time argued that this played to black
caricatures in the minds of white people.
Hurston disagreed, and refused to
change Lewis’ dialect—which was one
of the reasons a publisher turned her
manuscript down back in the 1930s.
Many decades later, her principled
stance means that modern readers
will get to hear Lewis’ story the way
that he told it.
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