USM Researchers Reflect on Discovery of Slave Ship as New Exhibit Opens
Fri, 07/28/2023 - 09:13am | By: Van Arnold
The unique Africatown Heritage House opened its doors earlier this month, treating visitors to “Clotilda: The Exhibition” that chronicles the voyage and sinking of the last known slave ship. The museum and exhibition might never have happened without the expertise of marine scientists at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM).
The $1.3 million public building sits just north of Mobile, Ala., within the Africatown community that the Clotilda survivors founded after they were freed from slavery following the Civil War. Inside the 2,500-square-foot exhibit is a chronological telling of the Clotilda slave ship’s origins, its survivors and how the Africatown community was settled.
Environmental author Ben Raines, believing he had uncovered evidence of the Clotilda, reached out to USM researchers in April 2018 for help in locating the schooner. The USM contingent conducted a hydrographic survey of the Mobile River on the east side of 12-mile Island using the RV LEMOYNE, which was outfitted with sonar capable of both bathymetric mapping and side scan sonar imagery. Raines has since written a book about the experience: “The Last Slave Ship.”
Although the team found hard evidence of 19th-century construction such as nails, and believed the size was identical to the dimensions of the Clotilda, researchers were told their findings weren't consistent enough to confirm the discovery. However, one year later further exploration and analysis by a different team led archaeology experts to conclude that the USM group’s initial discovery was indeed authentic.
Dr. Anand Hiroji, Assistant Professor of Hydrographic Science, and Graduate Researcher Kandice Gunning were part of the USM team that made the historic discovery. Were they annoyed that USM’s find was overlooked initially?
“It did bother me, especially for other team members who spent years of time going through historical evidence to identify the location we surveyed,” said Hiroji. “The survey location was calculated from evidence-based study. It wasn’t just luck.”
Noted Gunning, “I won’t say I was bothered by USM not receiving initial credit. The omission seemed comical really because if not USM, which group found it? I’ve since moved past the blunder.”
The new exhibit includes a brief history of the transatlantic slave trade that was outlawed in the United States 53 years before the Clotilda’s harrowing 45-day journey with the 110 enslaved Africans from Benin on board. The display features numerous Clotilda artifacts – ceiling plants, nails, and bolts from the ship.
Gunning regards the Africatown Heritage House as a magnificent contribution and deserving homage to the people of the area.
“The opening of the new museum symbolizes an initiative to protect and preserve the history of the people and stories that have impacted Africatown, America, and the world at large,” said Gunning. “It is an incredible opportunity to teach and bind communities through the recovered relics and stories, hopefully reaching an even wider audience to tell the journey of the Clotilda and its discovery. A consoling tribute to the lives lived and lost.”
Journals kept by Captain William Foster during the Clotilda’s journey from Africa to Mobile Bay indicate that he burned and sank the ship in the summer of 1860, fearing that authorities might learn the true nature of the vessel’s voyage.
Members of the team that initially located the Clotilda included:
- Ben Raines (reporter, Al.com)
- Monty Graham (then director of the USM School of Ocean Science and Technology)
- Maxim van Norden (then USM Hydrographic Science program coordinator)
- Kandice Gunning (USM graduate student)
- Marvin Story (Senior Hydrographic Technician and skipper)
- Alexander Kochersperger (USM graduate student)
- Ashley Boyce (USM graduate student)
- Jennifer Rhodes (USM graduate student)
- Anand Hiroji (Assistant Professor of Hydrography)
Neither Hiroji, nor Gunning retained any physical artifacts from the ship. Hiroji explained that he did indeed collect a unique and invaluable piece of history from the experience.
“I still have the very first acoustic image of the Clotilda as it appeared on the screen,” he said. “It may be the first time that the Clotilda was imaged after it was sunk. There were many other sunken ships and barges in the area. The newer wrecks were considerably intact with modern shipbuilding materials and techniques. Clotilda did not look like a ship; it was more like a pile of wood.”
The role hydrography played in the ship’s discovery cannot be overstated. USM is the only university in the United States to offer an undergraduate program in hydrography and one of just two to offer master’s and doctoral degree programs in the challenging field.
“Hydrography was the reason the ship was found,” said Gunning. “The combined stories of the ship’s journey gave a general location, but hydrography was the method responsible for pinning it. From instrumentation selection and setup, to survey planning for increased area coverage, to efficient data processing without compromising object detection, hydrography played an enormous role in finding the Clotilda.”
Hiroji and Gunning share immense pride in being part of a highly skilled and motivated team that produced historic results. Both say they plan to visit the Africatown Heritage House at their earliest opportunity.
Visit the Africatown Heritage House to learn more.