The Voyage of the Clotilda – Part 1

On December 1, 1806, the 9th Congress assembled to pass an act that would “prohibit the importation of slaves, into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and eight.” From 1808 forward, it was officially unlawful for any enslaver to traffic captured Africans “with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of color, as a slave, or to be held to service or labor.” Additionally, it was illegal for any American citizen to build or outfit a ship for the express purpose of engaging in the now illegal slave trade, or to assist in carrying out the crime – such as the crew or ship captain. Violators of the act risked prosecution, imprisonment for 5 to 10 years, or fines ranging from $5,000 to $20,000, depending on their involvement in the crime.[1]

Act of Congress to outlaw the international slave trade to America

The cost of violating Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution was hefty, but not enough to stop the international slave trade. Neither did it slow down the domestic slave trade, which became the largest source of income in the South, second only to the plantation system itself, and forced as many as 1.2 million enslaved men, women, and children between 1790 and the 1860s to travel sometimes hundreds of miles to new plantations in the South.[2] This mass migration during the “cotton boom” and increase in the domestic slave trade had anti-slavery advocates questioning which was worse. The black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal lamented, “We may declaim as much as we please upon the horrors of the foreign slave trade, but we would ask, are the horrors of the internal trade less – are the relations of life less endearing in this country than in Africa – are the Wood folks of the South less cruel than the slavers on the coast?”[3]

An unintentional consequence of outlawing the international slave trade and the surge of the domestic slave trade was the rising price of enslaved blacks already within American borders. In Richmond, Virginia in 1860, the price of a prime male fetched between $1,550 and $1,620, while enslavers in places as far south as Mobile could expect costs of $2,400 for the same.[4] These “exorbitant” prices drove planters to seek means to acquire cheaper labor. To circumvent the laws, enslavers would risk the trip to Africa, purchase captives, then return to America where the men would hand over their human cargo to the custom house officers as “informers”. As one violator admitted, “The law gave the informer half the value of the Negroes, which were put up and sold in the United States.”[5] Others would make the trip and individually sell the smuggled Africans to planters who had agreed to make their purchases beforehand. Ships like The Wanderer, which had landed over 400 captive Africans on Jekyll Island, Georgia on November 28, 1858, gained public notoriety.[6] However, like many other illegal slave trade endeavors, the enslavers were often not brought to justice and the captive Africans were sold across the South instead of being returned to their home country. One planter and businessman in Mobile was determined to add his name to the long list of men who got away with illegally importing Africans.

Timothy Meaher of Mobile, AL (1817-1892)

Timothy Meaher was second generation Irish, born in Whitfield, Maine in 1817. In the 1830s, he and his brothers traveled to Mobile to enter the shipbuilding business. By 1860, he and his two brothers, James and Burns, owned cotton plantations and lumber mills, and made a profitable business in steamboats, carrying goods and passengers from Montgomery to Mobile. He, like many other Southern planters of the time, believed that the international slave trade should have been reinstated so that the price of enslaved labor would decrease, therefore making the practice of slavery more affordable for all white Southerners. For this reason, however, many large planters opposed the reinstatement of the international slave trade because it would upset the balance of the Southern class structure between slaveholders and non-slaveholders, as well as devalue the enslaved they already held in bondage, therefore reducing their fortune and asset value.[7] In Mobile, where thirteen million bales of cotton were exported between 1817 and 1861, and a quarter of its 30,000 citizens were enslaved by 1860, any threat to the institution of slavery was distressing.[8]

One night on the Roger B. Taney steamboat between Montgomery and Mobile, Timothy Meaher and a few guests were discussing the latest attempt by Congress to suppress the illegal slave trade. The subject of whether someone could easily get away with smuggling Africans to America was hotly debated. According to one account, Timothy bet “a thousand dollars that inside two years I myself can bring a shipful of n—s into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.”[9] From that night onward, he would take action to make good on his bet.

Captain William Foster

The ideal choice of captains for the trip was William Foster, a thirty-seven-year-old native of Nova Scotia who had come to Mobile in 1843 to engage in shipbuilding. As an accomplished seafarer and close friend, Meaher hired him for the job of piloting the ship to Africa. Next, he would need a crew. This would prove more difficult, given the nature of the expedition. Sailors, regardless of their opinions on the slave trade, often did not want to have any part in the crime. This was mostly because if the ship were caught in the ocean, the men were liable to be stranded in Africa or a nearby island without any means to get home. Therefore, the crew of eleven hired by Foster were completely in the dark about the true intentions behind the trip to Africa.

Meaher’s ship of choice was the Clotilda, a fast schooner that Foster had built in 1855, and Meaher purchased it for $35,000.[10] A Mobile newspaper boasted about the ship, “This vessel in model and fastning does great credit to her builder, and afford another evidence of the capacity of our city for successful and economical shipbuilding.”[11] At 120 81/91 tons, eighty-six feet long, twenty-three feet wide, two masts, and one deck, the Clotilda could carry 190 people. Some modifications needed to be made to prepare the Clotilda for the Atlantic Ocean, making her into a “low craft with tall masts, long spars, and broad sails like the wings of a yachting racer.”[12] She would need to be fast to escape the ships patrolling the oceans against slave smugglers.

Painter’s rendition of the schooner Clotilda

American, British, and Portuguese navies had agreed to seize the smuggler ships with intermittent success in the endeavor. For instance, the Royal Navy managed to capture 1,600 ships since 1807 and were the more vigilant out of the three navies.[13] Britain had outlawed the slave trade nearly a year before America and had abolished the institute completely in most British colonies by 1833. However, Portugal abolished slavery on the continent in 1761, while leaving the institution alone in Brazil, where many enslaved Africans continued to be trafficked. Slave ships caught in the Atlantic would be seized, the crew arrested, and the Africans taken to Sierra Leon or Liberia – designated colonies for such purposes.

Patrol ships were just one of the many worries that plagued the Clotilda and its captain after it set sail on March 3, 1860 from Mobile. On March 17, the ship passed through a violent storm while evading a Portuguese man-of-war in a ten-hour pursuit. On April 14, the ship came within sight of the Cape Verde Islands and intended to make repairs, only to come between the crosshairs of another Portuguese ship. Foster changed course, “to get away from her not wishing to be boarded so early on the voyage, as he would have followed us for capture.”[14] They escaped again and pulled into Praia for repairs, where the crew finally discovered the truth of their voyage. The crew threatened to mutiny and to quiet their fears, Foster promised them double pay upon their return to Mobile with their African cargo.[15] After two and a half months at sea, the Clotilda arrived in the port of Ouidah in the Bight of Benin on May 15, 1860.

(to be continued…)



[1] An Act of March 2, 1807, 9th Congress, 2nd Session, 2 STAT 426, to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves; [Online Version,]

[2] Alfred H. Conrad and John R. Meyer, “The Economics of Slavery in the Antebellum South,” The Journal of Political Economy, Volume LXVI, No. 2, April 1958, p. 112

[3] “Domestic Slave Trade,” Freedom’s Journal, New York, October 17, 1828

[4] Price list of Betts & Gregory of Richmond, D.M. Pulliam Papers, Perkins Library, Duke University; Albert Burton Moore, History of Alabama, Alabama University, University Supply Store, 1934, p. 355

[5] Dr. Kilpatrick, “Early Life in the Southwest: The Bowies,” De Boy’s Review 13, 4, October, 1852, pp. 378-83

[6] Sylviane A. Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 21

[7] Ibid, pp. 18-19

[8] Ibid, p. 7, 11

[9] Quoted in Diouf, p. 21

[10] “Last Cargo of Slaves” Saint Louis Globe Democrat, November 30, 1890

[11] Untitled Newspaper Clipping, October 17, 1855, USA Archives, Mobile.

[12] Samuel Hawkins Marshall Byers, “The Last Slave Ship,” Harper’s Monthly 113, 1906, p. 744

[13] Warren S. Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1963, p. 18

[14] Diouf, p. 27; William Foster, “Last Slaver from U.S. to Africa. A.D. 1860,” Mobile Public Library, Local History and Genealogy, p. 3 [Online access:]

[15] Ibid, p. 4

5 Responses to The Voyage of the Clotilda – Part 1

  1. Great material, Sheritta. Can’t wait for next installment. Keep up the good work. We are proud of you.

    F. Norman Vickers, Pensacola CWRT

  2. Excellent introduction to a difficult, and not fully understood topic. Many assume that the “Erie” was “the last vessel involved in the American slave trade” as her captain, Nathaniel Gordon, was made an example and hanged in February 1862. And another assumption follows: that import of enslaved peoples after about 1820 was rare, an aberration. But just because a practice is made illegal does not mean that that practice comes to an end, especially with lax law enforcement, corrupt officials, and “the lure of easy money” (so says Glenn Frey). And one aspect of the practice gets little attention: the transport of slaves into America from the Caribbean, via “blown off course” coasting traders.
    Kudos to Sheritta Bitikofer for tackling this subject.

    1. Because it was mentioned in the above article, the story of the “Wanderer” was tracked down… and sketches of that vessel showed it to be nearly identical in appearance and dimensions to the famous racing yacht, “America” (for which the America’s Cup was named.) For a brief history of the Wanderer and her captured crew:

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