The Event: The last sailing ship rumored to have completed a voyage to West Africa for the purpose of obtaining and transporting a cargo of African slaves to the southern United States prior to the beginning of the Civil War
Significance: The case of the Clotilde marks the end of successful slave trading by American vessels and is notable both for the evasion of U.S. Navy patrols attempting to interdict such voyages and the eventual failure of the federal government to successfully prosecute those responsible.
The story of the slaving voyage of the schooner Clotilde begins in 1858 on a steamboat on the Alabama River when a wealthy shipyard owner named Timothy Meaher, during a discussion of secession and the federal campaign against the importation of Africans as slaves, wagered a group of other Southerners $100,000 that he could accomplish such a feat within two years’ time. Beginning in 1794, a series of U.S. laws barred both such importation and the fitting out of vessels intended for use in the slave trade, with government agents in all major ports to search for infractions. Despite the strengthening of legal penalties for individuals engaged in slave trading, the importation of slaves continued, although the bulk of the slave population of the southern states was by this time native born.
Learning that the wars of the kingdom of Dahomey had resulted in a large supply of captives for export at the slave port of Whydah, Meaher chose the Clotilde (which he had constructed in 1856) for the expedition because of its speed and cargo capacity: eighty-six feet in length and twenty-three feet wide with a copper-clad hull. One hundred and sixty slaves were purchased and taken aboard inWest Africa and transported to a prearranged location on the Alabama River. Widespread rumors of the voyage had alerted the federal authorities, who regarded the slave cargo as contraband and the crew and officers of the ship as pirates. To avoid authorities, Meaher arranged for the slaves to be transshipped to a steamboat and taken up to the canebrake region, where they were hidden for twelve days, while the Clotilde itself was set afire and scuttled and the crew smuggled to Montgomery and sent by train toNewYork City. During this time, Meaher was arrested, charged with illegal importation, and released on bond. Efforts by the federal authorities to locate the slaves proved fruitless, as the sponsors of the voyage were alerted by Meaher and dispersed the group according to the original agreement.
Formal legal proceedings against Meaher and his associates were dismissed in the spring of 1861 because the federal government was unable to prove its case because of the manner in which Meaher had supposedly arranged affairs to mask his involvement. Local opinion varied as to the reality of the entire affair, with the idea that the whole business had been a hoax gaining some acceptance due to lack of agreement as to the precise sequence of events. A second complicating factor was that by the time the trial was to have begun, Alabama had seceded from the Union and the Civil War had been declared, with a federal judge ruling that the locale of the incident was now beyond U.S. jurisdiction. The combination of narrative detail and lack of solid evidence against any of the principals substantiated in a court of law makes the Clotilde case a perfect example of the tangled legal obstacles faced by federal authorities in the prosecution of slave traders and their supporters.
Robert B. Ridinger
See also: Abolitionist movement; African immigrants; Alabama; Civil War, U.S.; Slave trade.