An Alabama shipwreck reveals the untold story of the international slave trade

Defying federal laws that punished slave trading with death, slavers smuggled enslaved Africans into the United States for the last time in 1860.

National Geographic used detailed records and measurements to create illustrations of the Clotilda and her transatlantic journey.
Jason Treat and Kelsey Nowakowski, NG Staff. Art: Thom Tenery

One dark night in July 1860, fire danced over the waters of Mobile Bay as a schooner was set ablaze. She was the Clotilda and had just illegally smuggled 110 West Africans into the United States on the eve of the Civil War. The perpetrators hoped to erase proof of their illegal voyage, by setting her on fire, but the ship could not stay hidden forever.

On May 22, 2019, a collaboration of the Alabama Historical Commission, National Geographic Society, Search Inc., National Museum of African American History and Culture, Slave Wrecks Project, and National Park Service identified the slaver Clotilda. The search for the shipwreck had taken years of intensive work, oten complicated by the fact that the surrounding waters are packed with many other shipwrecks from years past. Meticulous historical research paired with cutting-edge archaeology proved that this ship was indeed the long-lost Clotilda, the last American slave ship. (Before the last slave ship was found, experts had been searching for the Clotilda for more than a century.)

In the antebellum South, enslaved labor had been powering the region’s economy for hundreds of years. The international slave trade supplied much of this labor force during the colonial era, and the domestic trade took over in the 19th century. While the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which lasted between 1525 and 1866, displaced more than 12 million Africans by forcibly sending them to the Americas, the Clotilda’s captives were the last of an estimated 389,000 brought from Africa to North America from the early 1600s to 1860. (See the evidence that helped archaeologists identify Clotilda.)

Read This Next

Ötzi the Iceman: What we know 30 years after his discovery
Sanctuary gives hope to chimps, rescuers
Golden hour dazzles at these 10 national parks

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet