Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist, discovered the last living captive on the last slave ship to transport Africans to the United States, some 60 years after slavery was abolished. Hurston, a well-known Harlem Renaissance figure who later wrote the novel Their Eyes Were Watching Heaven, conducted survivor interviews but was unable to publish them as a book in the early 1930s. In fact, they were only released to the general public in Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Freight," which was published on May 8, 2018.
Author Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960).
Cudjo Lewis was born in what is now Benin, a West African republic, and the story of his life is told in Hurston's novel. He was just 19 years old when he was kidnapped and taken to the coast by members of the nearby Dahomian tribe. His original name was Kossula. He was sold into slavery there, along with about 120 other people, and loaded onto the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the continental United States. The Clotilda took its captives to Alabama in 1860, just a year before the Civil War broke out. Even though slavery was legal in the US at the time, the international slave trade was not, and had not been for over 50 years. The United States, along with many other European countries, had banned the practice in 1807, but Lewis' journey shows how slave traders used the law to continue transporting human cargo.
To escape capture, Lewis and the other survivors were snuck into Alabama at night and forced to hide in a swamp for several days. To hide the evidence of their crime, they set fire to an 86-foot sailboat on the banks of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta (its remains may have been discovered in January 2018). Lewis' story is particularly moving because it provides a firsthand account of the perplexing agony of slavery. After being abducted from his house, Lewis was forced into a ship with strangers. The abductees spent several months together on the perilous journey to the United States, but were then split up in Alabama and sent to different plantations.
A plaque honoring Cudjo Lewis, the last remaining survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States, can be found in Mobile, Alabama. "We're very sorry to be separated from one another," Lewis said to Hurston. For seventy days, we've been crossing the water from de Africa land, and now we're a part of one another. We'll yell before we scream. We can't bear our sorrow because it has such a heavy appearance. Maybe I die in my sleep when I dream of my mother. Lewis also describes how it felt to arrive on a plantation where no one spoke his language and couldn't tell him where he was or what was going on. "We donan know why we are taking 'away from our country to work lak dis," he told Hurston. " Everyone is staring at us strangely. We'd like to talk about big udder colored people, but Dey Doan is aware of our plans. Lewis admitted that he was unaware of the Civil War when it first broke out. However, he discovered around halfway through that the North had launched a war to free enslaved people like him. Lewis claims that a group of Union soldiers stopped by a boat on which he and other enslaved people served a few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865 and told them they were free.
Cudjo Lewis at home.
The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama, Erik Overbey Collection
Lewis was furious when he discovered that the offer of "forty acres and a mule" or any other kind of compensation did not come with emancipation. He and a group of 31 other free people saved money to buy land near Mobile, which they called Africatown, after the government failed to provide him with land to live on after stealing him away from his homeland. Hurston's use of vernacular dialogue in both her novels and anthropological interviews was often controversial, as some black American intellectuals at the time argued that it played on white people's stereotypes of black people. Hurston disagreed and refused to alter Lewis' dialect, which was one of the reasons why her book was rejected by a publisher in the 1930s. Several decades later, her principled stance means that new readers would be able to hear Lewis' story as he told it.
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