The launch last month of “The 1619 Project” by The New York Times unleashed a barrage of partisan volleys and countervolleys consisting mostly of debatable claims, finger-pointing, and innuendo. It’s predictable for the polarized times we live in. Some of the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for reparations for the nation’s original sin of slavery (were the 360,000 Union deaths not enough?); and we’ve elected a president whom many consider racist — an accusation resorted to glibly, promiscuously, and with a keyword so broadly defined and overused it’s become as meaningless as the word “love.”
The NYT presents the project as an appropriate bookend to the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship, the White Lion, to arrive at the continental US, at Jamestown. But perhaps a more apt bookend might be the arrival of the last slave ship, the schooner Clotilda, in 1859 (or 1860, according to some sources), 240 years after the White Lion docked at Point Comfort in Virginia.
It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air.
Although the transatlantic slave trade had begun in the early 1500s with destinations to the Caribbean and Brazil, the 20-odd Angolans aboard the White Lion — taken against their will — were classified as indentured servants, some of whom later acquired their freedom, as per that definition. Children of those Africans who did end up as slaves were born free — according to the laws of that time.
It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air. Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), whose four grandparents had all been slaves, interviewed Cudjo Kossola Lewis, the second-to-last survivor of the Clotilda, in 1927. She’d trained as an anthropologist under the tutelage of Franz Boas, considered the “Father of American Anthropology,” and this was her first serious project.
Boas had introduced and firmly established the concept of cultural relativity as an investigative axiom: “a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.” As a field tool, the concept allowed Hurston to present Kossola’s narrative more objectively, through his eyes. She’d attended Howard, Barnard, and Columbia with classmates Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead (who got a bit creatively carried away with the cultural relativity bit in the South Pacific).
Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” the book that resulted from Hurston’s interviews with Kossola, remained unpublished until May 2018. Back in 1931, Viking Press rejected it. They would only accept the manuscript if Hurston rewrote Kossola’s vernacular into standard English. They had a point (though not the one I want to make right here). Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription (which she thought essential) and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming. Additionally, according to novelist Alice Walker’s foreword in the book, “There was concern among ‘black intellectuals and political leaders’ that the book laid uncomfortably bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade.”
And that’s not the only inconvenient truth buried in Barracoon. Hurston, a black female anthropologist, was an independent thinker. She opposed school integration and programs that guaranteed blacks a right to work. In 1955 she claimed that "adequate Negro schools" already existed. (See John M. Eriksen, Brevard County, Florida: A Short History to 1955, chapter 13; and "Negro Writer Opposes Court Ruling,” Titusville Star Advocate, September 30, 1955, p. 2.) And she was a Republican during the New Deal.
Although John McWhorter, a linguist and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian by David and Linda Beito ("Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty," Independent Review 12, Spring 2008) She was no social conservative and, in foreign policy, was a noninterventionist. And then there are the controversial watermelons.
Although John McWhorter has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian.
Kossola lived life to his own rhythms, tending his gardens and active in his church. To ingratiate herself with him and unlock a volubility concealed behind an apparent reticence, Hurston would bring peaches, hams, and watermelons as gifts. Once they shared an entire iced watermelon, gnawed down to the rind, taking up all their allotted interview time but unlocking a trust and warmth that sealed a lasting friendship. Whether the association of watermelons and blacks’ taste for them already existed is a question best left to pop historians. But Alice Walker in her foreword to Barracoon again picks up a racial trope, “Imagine how many generations of black people would never admit to eating watermelon!”
* * *
Kossola, an Isha Yoruba, was captured in a slave raid by the army of King Glélé of Dahomey (in present-day Benin), which consisted of about 7,000 male and 5,000 female warriors — the renowned Dahomey Amazons. He was 19 and engaged to be married. His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle. Kossola reported that they were the equal of any man. The old and infirm were decapitated on the spot (so much for the nurturing nature of the gentler sex). Meanwhile, the male Dahomey warriors were stationed at the gate posts to ambush and capture the fleeing villagers, Kossola among them.
After about four weeks in transit, three spent in a barracoon — a holding cell for newly-captured slaves — the captives were treated to a big feast by their captors: “the people of Dahomey come bring us lot of grub for us to eatee ’cause dey say we goin’ leave dere. We eatee de big feast,” recalled Kossola.
Captain William Foster, owner, builder, and skipper of the Clotilda — which was anchored outside the surf zone (the port of Whydah lacking any docking facilities) — purchased 130 of the captives. He chose equal numbers of males and females. Although offered, he “preemptorily” [sic] forbade their branding. Each captive cost $50 to $60 on the coast but could be sold in Alabama for about $800 apiece (nearly $23,000 in today’s money).
His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle.
Foster’s fellow investors in this slaving venture consisted of the brothers Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher from Maine. The Captain carried $9,000 in gold. The Clotilda was manned by a crew of 12 (all Yankees), including him. Although the importation of slaves had been illegal since 1808, the Meahers, who owned a mill and shipyard, built swift vessels for blockade running and “filibustering expeditions.” At the time, smuggling slaves from Cuba was common practice.
Transporting and loading the captives into the Clotilda through the heavy Atlantic surf required the services of skilled men of the Kroo tribe, men, an ethnic group of independent operators who specialized in negotiating breakers with sleek surf boats. Their skills as mariners were so expert that the Royal Navy enlisted many of them from 1820 to as late as 1924. But Kroo canoes had limited capacities. Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded onto the Clotilda.
After 116 of the slaves had been brought on board, Foster became aware of possible treachery involving Dahomans planning to recapture the cargo and holding him hostage. He immediately gave orders to abandon the cargo not already on board “and to sail away with all speed.”
Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded on board.
The Clotilda got away, but the next day was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail. The slaves down in the hold were in cramped conditions (although they had much more space — five feet of headroom — than many slaves in previous Middle Passage transports) After being kept below decks for 12 days, mainly because of real or false alarms, they were brought on deck so they might limber up. The captain ordered the crew to help them walk and exercise. For the rest of the passage, except for the twentieth day, when another British cruiser was spotted, and near the end, on the approach to Mobile, they spent most of their time on deck — 116 slaves to 12 crew. Only two died. The crossing took 70 days.
According to Hurston, the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay under cover of darkness in August 1859 (other sources say July 9, 1860). Fear of discovery and prosecution, and the fact that blacks illegally brought in could not be enslaved, made their sale problematic. In fact, Foster and the Meahers were later tried in federal court in Mobile, though not convicted, for lack of evidence: the Clotilda and its manifest had been burned and sunk, the black captives well hidden. Other sources say they were found guilty and charged heavy fines, which were never paid. The outbreak of the Civil War prevented further pursuit of the case.
Forty-eight of the slaves were secretly sold. The remaining 60 (according to one of the discrepant sources) were divvied up among the principals: James Meaher took 32 (16 couples), Burns Meaher took ten, Tim Meaher eight, and Captain Foster ten. Kossola went to Jim Meaher, where he acquired the name Cudjo Lewis. “Cudjo” was a name given by the Akan people of Ghana to children born on a Monday, while “Lewis” is probably a corruption of Kossola’s father’s name, Oluale, which Meaher had difficulty pronouncing.
The Clotilda was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail.
Cudjo reported that they were not immediately put to work; first they were trained by American slaves, who ridiculed the Africans for their ignorance and “savage” ways. He became a stevedore loading wood for Jim Meaher’s cargo boats on the Mobile to Montgomery run. He was worked hard, but praised his master for taking good care of his slaves:
Cap’n Jim, he a good man. He not lak his brother, Cap’n Tim. He doan want his folks knock and beat all de time. He see my shoes gittee ragedy, you know, and he say, ‘Cudjo, if dat de best shoes you got, I gittee you some mo’!’ Now das right. I no tellee lies.
“Cap’n” Tim’s brother Burns was also cruel, but it seemed to have its limits. Cudjo reported that their slaves worked the brothers’ plantation fields:
Dey got overseer wid de whip. One man try whippee one my country women and dey all jump on him and takee de whip ‘way from him and lashee him wid it. He doan never try whip African women no mo’.
This astonishing account of slave resistance without repercussions is reminiscent of a similar incident reported by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
* * *
Douglass was a proud, headstrong man. Like my brother John, who was drafted for the Korean War — and looking forward to proudly serving his country, only to be discharged for being “temperamentally unsuited to taking orders” — Douglass was not cut out for servitude, though instead of “proudly serving his master,” he just complied with performing his duties . . . as long as he was treated with respect.
As a boy, Douglass had not only been treated well, he’d been taught to read and write. But he ended up with a master with “quite a number of differences” with him. During the nine months he spent with Master Thomas, “he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.” So Thomas decided to send Douglass to Edward Covey, a man who, for a price, specialized in breaking recalcitrant slaves.
After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back.
Covey set about the task with alacrity, putting Douglass to brutal work in the fields: “During the first six months, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.” He was treated so brutally that he admitted that at one point “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.” But this was not to be permanent.
After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back . . . come what may. During a two-hour tussle, Douglass “drew blood” and got, by far, the better of the encounter. Covey retreated. “The whole six months afterward, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave.” From then on, civility — or what passes for civility in a master-slave relationship — was the order of the day. Douglass performed his duties; Covey let him be.
Douglass’ analysis of the event demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom of this young man. Covey could only go so far. Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide — not to mention that Douglass wasn’t his slave (or that Douglass had seriously beaten Covey).
Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first rate . . . negro-breaker. It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me — a boy about sixteen years old — to the public whipping post, his reputation would have been lost; so, to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished . . . I was nothing before; I was a MAN NOW.
The incident was so pivotal to his life that Douglass filled 11 pages of his first book on it, and 32 in the subsequent autobiography. In contrast (and I digress here somewhat), David W. Blight in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, gives it only two pages and ignores Douglass’ analysis and insights.
Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide.
I suspect an ideological bias, such as surfaces in his introduction:
[Douglass was] a proponent of classic nineteenth-century political liberalism . . . he strongly believed in self-reliance . . . but fundamentally was not a self-made man.
Let’s take a closer look at these assertions. Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies, to these libertarian sensibilities, that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth. Classic liberalism is alive and thriving today. And to say that Frederick Douglass, the epitome of a self-made man, was not a self-made man is to contradict all the evidence contained in Blight’s flawed tome. In at least a dozen instances in the book — instances of Douglass solving problems, escaping bondage, rising to the occasion, creating opportunities, helping others — Blight is unambiguously forced to aver that Douglass was in fact a “self-made man,” using those exact same words (p. xv).
Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Douglass’ examination of Mr. Covey’s behavior is a classic liberal analysis of conduct based on economic self-interest, a perspective that Blight either refuses to acknowledge or completely ignores. It does not fit his worldview, and he refuses to give it air time — in spite of the fact that Douglass’ analysis of the event was a formative experience in his life.
Blight reveals his biases more artlessly whenever he mentions Republicans — never mind that, for abolitionists, Republicans were the only game in town. About the 2013 unveiling of a statue of Douglass in Washington DC, Blight’s introduction condescendingly observes:
Congressional Republicans walked around proudly sporting large buttons that read FREDERICK DOUGLASS WAS A REPUBLICAN. Douglass descendants present, as well as some of us scholars with, shall we say, different training and research, smiled and endured.
Yes . . . that was in 2013. But Blight can’t help projecting modern biases into the past, through subtle wording and innuendo throughout the book, especially when Douglass becomes active in Republican Party politics. This is but one reason why the book was a chore to get through. Blight is no Ron Chernow or Robert Caro.
* * *
But back to Cudjo Kossola Lewis. The Africans were unaware of the start of the Civil War, but when the Union blockade and the surrounding fighting made food scarce, “Cap’n Jim Meaher send word he doan want us to starve, you unnerstand me, so he tell us to kill hogs. He say de hogs dey his and we his, and he doan wantee no dead folks.”
On April 12, 1865, only three days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but five or six (some sources say four) years of Cudjo’s life as a slave in America, Union soldiers told him he was free. The Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.” Their first inclination was to return to Africa: “dey [the Meahers and Foster] ought take us back home.”
When they discovered the cost of such an improbable venture, they nonetheless worked hard and saved their money. But finally deciding that going back to Africa was unrealistic, they deputized Cudjo to approach the Meahers for land to settle on. Tim, the meaner of the Meahers, jumped to his feet and responded, “Fool, do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothing? You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan’?
Union soldiers told him he was free. Cudjo and the other Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.”
Notwithstanding Tim’s rebuff, James, the kinder and gentler Meaher, might have helped finalize the deal. The Africans bought Meaher land three miles north of Mobile at Magazine Point, establishing a settlement they called Africatown — but now known as Plateau — in 1866 (the date Hurston provides, but according to Sylviane A. Diuf, in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Cudjo bought two acres on September 30, 1872 for $100 — or about $2,000 today).
Cudjo became a naturalized American citizen, married, had six children, and became sexton of his church. In 1902, while driving his buggy over train tracks, he was hit by a train and injured. A sympathetic white lady who saw the accident ensured he was well taken care of and told him he had a case against the railroad. Cudjo knew nothing about American law. The lady hooked him up with a lawyer who took on contingency his case against the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Cudjo won and was awarded $650.
But he never collected. Cudjo reported that after the verdict, a yellow fever epidemic hit Mobile. The lawyer and his family headed north to safety, but on the way the lawyer died. Yet another source (Encyclopedia of Alabama) says that the verdict was overturned on appeal.
Cudjo Kossola Lewis died on July 17, 1935.
* * *
In these times of “fake news,” the publication of Barracoon — finally — should be a breath of fresh air. I say this notwithstanding the fact that while writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them: a year’s difference in the arrival of the Clotilda in Mobile; the number of years Cudjo spent in bondage; the resolution of Cudjo’s lawsuit; Hurston’s purported plagiarism from earlier sources; and other, more minor controversies. They seem to be endemic to the genre.
Whatever the causes of the discrepancies in Kossola’s story, at least they don’t seem to be rooted in ideological manipulation — a shortcoming that has bedeviled American slave narratives since at least the times of William Lloyd Garrison. Antebellum abolitionists resorted to widespread hyperbole concerning the horrors of slavery in order to convince an ill-informed and often indifferent public.
While writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them.
Yes, I know, you’re thinking, How can one overstate the evils of slavery? It’s like exaggerating the fires of hell. I don’t know about you, but accuracy works best to convince me about anything. When people resort to lies, or just don’t check their facts well enough, I lose trust, no matter how well-intentioned the narrative may be.
The altering of facts continues to this day. The movie 12 Years a Slave, based on the book by the same title (and reviewed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen, “A Slave Narrative, and More,” November 10, 2013), contains at least four falsifications, all of which are ideologically based. As Jo Ann points one out:
Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.
The movie depicts William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the slave owner, in quite another light than Northup, the slave (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), described him in his book: “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.”
Only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.
Falsifications like the one Skousen points out are particularly egregious. Not only do they go against basic economic theory but they paint human nature in the worst light possible.
This out of The Atlantic:
In the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face — slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing.
But the worst one, which I haven’t seen referenced, was a passage in the book where Northup is sent on an errand that requires crossing a gator-infested bayou. Along the way, he encounters an alligator, and sweats bullets. In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.
The heydays of lynching blacks were after the Civil War, not the 1840s, when slaves were worth about $23,000, average, in today’s money. And though crackers were the foot soldiers of the Ku Klux Klan during and after Reconstruction, only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.
Barracoon discloses some inconvenient truths, and in doing so, to my mind, enhances the credibility of the horrors of slavery by revealing not just its inhumanity but the glimpses of humanity that at times appeared. Caricatures and satire only succeed with the ignorant and the convinced.
In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.
And instances of behavior that tempers the conventional narrative of slave societies run through many slave biographies. Besides Douglass’ and Northup’s (dictated, despite Northup’s literacy, to David Wilson), check out The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Prince Among Slaves; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; The History of Mary Prince; and The Barber of Natchez (a free black in 1830s Mississippi).
Perhaps it’s our knowledge of the Holocaust that makes some of us project its atrocities back onto our slavery era. I don’t know. But for now, let’s keep the two separate and not make too many generalizations about universal human behavior. Truth is the best antidote to propaganda, however well-intentioned.