Zora Neale Hurston’s Fascinating Interview With The Last Known Slave Ship Survivor Finally Gets Published

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A posthumously-released work of acclaimed Harlem Renaissance-era writer Zora Neale Hurston offers a chilling firsthand look at the horrors of the slave trade.

The newly published Barracoon: The Story of Last Black Cargo, shares the life of Oluale Kossula, a captive on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to dock on U.S. shores, some fifty years after the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed.

In 1927, Hurston traveled to Plateau, Ala. where she spent months interviewing a then 86-year-old Kossula about being stolen from his homeland as a teenager, and forced into slavery. Hurston wrote Barracoon exactly as it was told to her in the English dialect of a man enslaved and forced into a country where he did not speak the language.

The year was 1860, Kossula, only 19 years old at the time, became one of more than 100 Africans kidnapped from a village in Benin and transported to Alabama.

Timothy Meaher, a wealthy shipyard owner and captain who built the Clotilda, commissioned William Foster to lead an illegal voyage to West Africa to purchase captured Africans for $50-$60 a piece.

Kossula’s village of Takkoi, was raided by male and female soldiers of the Dahomey, a neighboring tribe that sold the captives of their enemies to European slave traders.

Kossula tells of European guns and large knives used by the soldiers to slaughter villagers, slicing some of their heads off, and taking others captive.

Despite an attempt to avoid capture, Kossula was caught by a soldier. He recalls pleading to return to his mother, and a particularly horrific moment when a woman Dahoney soldier chopped off the head of the king in his village at the order of the Dahoney king.

After their capture, the Africans were tied together and forced on a three-day walk to the coast where they were to be sold. Kossula had never seen a white person, or the ocean, before.

The captives were stripped naked and told that they would be getting new clothes, only to be peddled as a “naked savage,” upon their arrival in America.  They were forced to lay shackled in the dark at the bottom of the ship where they were given very little food and tiny portions of vinegar-infused water, twice a day.

After more than a month of wading through the Middle Passage, the Clotilda docked in the Alabama Golf, north of Mobile. The captives were hidden from authorities, split up, and auctioned off to different slave masters.

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Kossula was given the slave name, Cudjo Lewis, and sold to Maeher. He shared with Hurston harrowing accounts of his five-year enslavement, from arriving in America and not being able to communicate with other “colored folkses” because of the language barrier, to field work and brutal whippings (he also shared at least one account of slaves taking a whip from an overseer and beating him with it for whipping female slaves).

Like much of the story, Koussla shares vivid details of learning that slavery was over:

It April 12, 1865. De Yankee soldiers dey come down to de boat and eatee de mulberries off de trees. Den dey see us and say, “Y’all can’t stay dere no mo’. You free, you doan b’long to nobody no mo.’ ”

Oh, Lor’! I so glad. We astee de soldiers where we goin’? Dey say dey doan know. Dey told us to go where we feel lak goin’, we ain’ no mo’ slave.

Although abolished in the U.S. the slave trade continued well after 1860. And for many freed slaves, the end of the Civil War birthed another form of confinement in the enforcement of Jim Crow laws.

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The Clotilda captives worked to raise money to return to Africa, but when they found out that they were stuck in America (they assumed that the ship would take them back home after slavery ended), the group appointed Kossula to ask Meaher for land in exchange for their years of free labor. Meaher told Kossula that he didn’t owe them anything.

The former slaves decided to pool the money that they saved to buy land from him and built their own community known as Africatown.

The town became an enclave for the former slaves to preserve their African culture. Though they did adopt American customs like christianity, many spoke in their native tongues, and broken English.

Kossula became a naturalized citizen in 1868 (the 14th Amendment that made former slaves citizens only applied to those born in America). He married, Abile, another Clotilda  survivor whose name was changed to Celia. The couple welcomed six children together, all of whom were given an African name paying homage to their homeland, and an American name.

Kossula worked as a farmer and laborer until getting injured on the job. He intern filed a lawsuit over his injury and was awarded $650.00, a relatively large settlement for the time. He later became a church leader in the community and outlived all of his children, as well as his wife, who died in 1905.

When Hurston finished her book in the 1930s, no one wanted to publish it. Her intention to provide a platform for the muzzled voice of former slaves, was a controversial move indeed. Besides publishers taking issue with the book being written in Kossula’s dialect, the work was also criticized for highlighting African involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

Hurston died in 1960. The Barracoon manuscript was placed in the Alain Locke Collection at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University (Hurston’s alma mirror). In May, Harper Collins published the work for the first time in its entirety.

Click here to read an excerpt from Barracoon.