A 1930s Interview Of The Last Slave Ship Survivor Has Resurfaced

In the early 1930s - a period after the abolition of slavery, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston located the last surviving captive of the last slave ship to bring Africans to the United States. Ms. Hurston wrote the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God based on the interviews she conducted with the survivor but she struggled to release the book, at the time.

The interviews have now been released in a book called Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” which was released on May 8, 2018.

Zora Neale Hurston (Photo: Carl Van Vechten, 1938)

Ms. Hurston’s book tells the story of Cudjo Lewis, who was born in what is now modern-day Benin Republic. Originally named Kossula, he was only 19 years old when members of the neighbouring Dahomian tribe captured him and took him to the coast. There, he and about 120 others were sold into slavery and crammed onto the Clotilda, the last slave ship to reach the continental United States. Clotilda arrived in America just a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. 

Kossula's narrative provides a first-hand - and possibly the only - account of the disorienting trauma of slavery: being abducted from his home, forced onto a ship with strangers, spending several months together during the treacherous passage to the United States, and then getting separated onto different plantations in Alabama.

Describing the pain of parting from the only people he knew for months, Kossula told Ms. Hurston:

"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."

He also described what it was like to arrive on a plantation where no one spoke his language, and could explain to him where he was or what was going 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."

Lewis outside his home in Alabama in the 1930s. (Photo: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama. Colorization by Gluekit.)

When Kossula began to hear that the North had started a war to free enslaved people like him, the civil war had already been on for a while. And after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865, Kossula said that a group of Union soldiers stopped by a boat on which he and other enslaved people were working and told them they were free.

And while Kossula expected to receive compensation for being kidnapped and forced into slavery, he was angry and frustrated to discover that freedom didn’t come with the promise of “forty acres and a mule,” or any reparations. And the government refused to provide him or any other slaves land to live on. Eventually, he and a group of 31 other freepeople saved up money to buy land near the Alabama capital of Mobile, which they called Africatown.

After she finished writing the book, Ms.Hurston tried to publish the book. But because of her use of vernacular (modern day ebonics), a publisher turned the manuscript down. Her use of vernacular in her novels and 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. She disagreed, and refused to change Lewis’ dialect.

Her principled stance means that modern readers will get to hear Lewis’ story exactly the way that he told it.

A marker to commemorate Cudjo Lewis, considered to be the last surviving victim of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States, in Mobile, Alabama. (Credit: Womump/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

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