He was born as Kossola around 1840 in West Africa. (American listeners would later transcribe his given name as “Kazoola.”) Analyzing names and the other words attributed to the Africatown founders, historian Sylviane Diouf has concluded that he and many other members of the community belonged to the Yoruba ethnic group (although the term would not have been used at that time), and lived in the Banté region of what is now Benin. His father was named Oluwale (or Oluale) and his mother Fondlolu; he had five full siblings and twelve half-siblings, the children of his father’s other two wives. Interviewers Roche and Hurston, and those who used their work, referred to Lewis and his fellow-captives as “Tarkars.” Diouf believes that the term “Tarkar” might have come from a misunderstanding of the name of a local king, or the name of a town.
During April or May 1860, Lewis was taken prisoner by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey as part of its annual dry-season raids for slaves. Along with other captives, he was taken to the slaving port of Ouidah and sold to Captain William Foster of the Clotilde, a ship based in Mobile, Alabama, and owned by businessman Timothy Meaher. Although importation of enslaved persons into the United States had been illegal since 1808, Meaher may have believed that he could flout the law without consequences. In a similar situation, the owners of the Wanderer, which had illegally brought a cargo of enslaved people to Georgia in 1858, were indicted and tried for piracy in the federal court in Savannah in May 1860 but acquitted in a jury trial. By the time the Clotilde reached the Mississippi coast in July 1860, government officials had been alerted to its activities and Timothy Meaher, his brother Burns, and their associate John Dabney were charged with illegal possession of the captives. However, there was a gap of almost five months between the end of July 1860, when summonses and writs of seizure were issued against the Meahers and Dabney, and mid-December when they received them. During the intervening period the captives were dispersed and hidden, and without their physical presence as evidence the case was dismissed in January 1861.
Until the end of the Civil War (1861-65), Lewis and his fellows lived as de facto slaves of Meaher, his brothers, or their associates. Lewis was purchased by James Meaher, for whom he worked as a deckhand on a steamer. During this time he became known as “Cudjo Lewis.” He later explained that he suggested “Cudjo,” a day-name commonly given to boys born on a Monday, as an alternative to his given name when James Meaher had difficulty pronouncing “Kossola.” Historian Diouf posits that the surname “Lewis” was a corruption of his father’s name Oluale, sharing the “lu” sound; in his homeland, the closest analogue to what Americans understood as a surname would have been a patronymic.
Africans Wanted They Own Africa Right Here in The Unites States
After the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, the Clotilde captives tried to raise money to return to their homeland. The men worked in lumber mills and the women raised and sold produce, but these occupations did not allow them to acquire sufficient funds. After realizing that they would not be able to return to Africa, the group deputized Lewis to ask Timothy Meaher for a grant of land. When he refused, the members of the community continued to raise money and began to purchase land around Magazine Point. On September 30, 1872, Lewis bought about two acres of land in the Plateau area for $100.00.
African Town developed as a self-contained community. The group appointed leaders to enforce communal norms derived from their shared African background, and developed institutions including a church, a school, and a cemetery. Diouf explains that African Town was unique because it was both a “black town,” inhabited exclusively by people of African ancestry, and an enclave of people born in another country. She writes, “Black towns were safe havens from racism, but African Town was a refuge from Americans.” Writing in 1914, Emma Langdon Roche noted that the surviving founders of African Town preferred to speak in their own language among themselves. She described the English of adults as “very broken and not always intelligible even to those who have lived among them for many years.
Although native-born American former slaves became citizens upon the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in July 1868, this change in status did not apply to the members of the Clotilde group, who were foreign-born. Cudjo Kazoola Lewis became a naturalized American citizen on October 24, 1868.
The schooner Clotilda is the last known United States slave ship to bring enslaved people from Africa to the United States. Constructed in 1855 by the Mobile, Alabama captain and shipbuilder William Foster, the Clotilda was originally intended for the “Texas trade.” It was eighty-six feet in length, twenty-three feet in breadth, possessed two masts and one deck, weighed 120 81/91 tons, and though not originally intended for the slave trade, the ship was capable of carrying an estimated 190 people. Foster sold the Clotilda to the prominent Mobile businessman Timothy Meaher for $35,000 in 1860 after being approached by Meaher about commanding an illegal slaving voyage to Ouidah, a port town in Dahomey (today Benin).
In the spring of 1860, the Clotilda was loaded with 125 barrels of water, 25 casks of rice, 30 casks of beef, 40 pounds of pork, 3 barrels of sugar, 25 barrels of flour, 4 barrels of bread, 4 barrels of molasses, 80 casks of rum, 25 casks of “dry goods and sundries,” and $9,000 in gold (today $185,000) intended for the purchase of 125 Africans; these provisions were hidden by stacks of lumber that would later be used to build the planks and platforms for the captives’ “beds.” The ship set sail on the night of March 3, 1860 under the pretense of bringing a cargo of lumber to the Danish Virgin Islands.
The voyage to Ouidah lasted two and a half months. Foster and the eleven-men crew survived a violent storm and numerous attempted attacks by pirates and ships of other slaving nations. While briefly docked in Cape Verde for repairs, the crew was told the true purpose of the voyage after they discovered the provisions obviously intended for returning human cargo. On May 15, 1860, the Clotilda arrived at Ouidah. After more than a week of anchoring a mile and half from shore, the ship set sail for the United States now loaded with 110 African captives.
The Africans were confined in complete darkness below the deck for thirteen days. After this initial period, the captives spent the majority of the journey above deck. Though no sicknesses or deaths were reported during the forty-five day return voyage, the Africans, who were later interviewed about their experiences on the Clotilda, recounted the twice-daily meager sip of vinegar-treated water they were allowed and the general hardships they suffered.
On July 8, 1860, the Clotilda entered the Mississippi Sound, anchored off Point-of-Pines in Grand Bay, and waited for nightfall. Under the cover of darkness, the ship was clandestinely tugged up the Mobile River to Twelve-Mile Island. Here, the Africans were transported to a second ship, the Czar, and sent further up river to be surreptitiously transferred to their respective new owners. The Clotilda, now empty and reeking of the stenches indicative of a slave voyage, was set afire by William Foster, though later he claimed to have sold the ship for $6,000.