In 1859, a two-masted schooner, the Clotilde, pulled into Mobile, Alabama’s harbor with a shipment of over one hundred slaves newly arrived from West Africa. The Clotilde’s arrival marked the last such shipment of slaves to the United States, and occurred in direct violation of an 1808 law titled “An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States.” The opening section of that law stated:
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.”
The fact of this law was well-known throughout the American South, and the Clotilde’s mission was a deliberate attempt at circumventing that law. It is not correct, however, to suggest that the ship was “captured.” In fact, its captain, William Foster, waited until nightfall to enter the harbor and the slaves were immediately transferred to another vessel in an attempt at concealing their presences. While the federal government had been alerted to the ship’s arrival and purpose, the slaves were sold, including many to the wealthy Alabama shipper, Timothy Meaher, who had commissioned the voyage in the first place. The Clotilde itself was scuttled by Captain Foster in the Mobile Bay.
The significance of the Clotilde lies in its representation as the final slave ship to enter a U.S. port. It was not, however, captured. Sadly, its crew and the shipper, Meaher, were ultimately successful in evading the law and selling more human beings into slavery.