“Barracoon” Zora Neale Hurston’s story of the last surviving slave from The Clotilda

Although the international slave trade had been outlawed in America more than half a century earlier (The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807), in 1860 Captain William Foster and three co-conspirators (the Meaher brothers) purchased 125 men, women, and children, from Benin and Nigeria, to traffic them into the United States in The Clotilda ship.


In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston, a student from Barnard College, recorded Kossola’s life – the last survivor of The Clotilda.

“Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas only one man is left,” she wrote—a man whose voice was crucial because the burgeoning body of literature on the African slave trade contained endless “words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.” Hurston framed Kossola’s testimony as the last opportunity to reduce that deficit.

Kossola was only 19 when the Army of Dahomey raided his inland village of Bantè, beheading his king and countless others, and kidnapping for the slave trade anyone who wasn’t elderly or injured. Hurston’s book returns the wound of slavery to its raw and bloody state.

“Cap’n Jim he took me,” Kossola said of James Meaher. He labored gruellingly and without pay, for five years and six months. Finally, on April 12, 1865, Union soldiers picking mulberries along the shoreline saw Kossola and the other slaves on Meaher’s steamboat and hollered a message at them: “You free, you doan b’long to nobody no mo’.”

62 years later, when Hurston met Kossola, many other men and women liberated by the war were still alive […] but Kossola’s account both began and ended in freedom: even in the final years of his life, he considered himself more African than American, and he could remember clearly an earlier, unquestioned liberty in his homeland.

He could not, however, return to it. Emancipation freed slaves only from bondage, not from destitution; the Clotilda survivors had no way of paying for their passage home. When they resolved, instead, to build a village of their own: they saved enough money to buy the land that became Africatown.

This story (that got nearly lost as Barracoon is only published 90 years later) is just a vivid reminder of the cynical “business model” of slavery where slaves were used as “assets” to secure credit lines (see https://virginie.pontruche.fr/2017/04/14/nola-new-orleans-louisiana/ )