Column: A remarkable discovery of our nation’s past

Last week, a far-reaching discovery was made in a muddy river bottom in Alabama. It is a discovery that speaks to our history, and to the past we as a nation still struggle to understand and, in some ways, come to terms with. This American journey, this grand experiment in “we the people,” is dependent on knowing where we’ve been. It is dependent on facts.

Ben Raines, a documentarian and former journalist, found what historians and archaeologists say is the hull of the Clotilda in the Mobile River. This ship has the ignominious distinction of being the very last slave ship to bring kidnapped Africans to America. One hundred and ten of them, to be exact — fewer than were loaded when the ship departed in 1860 from what is now the West African country of Benin. The sick, the dying and the dead — the unprofitable — were thrown overboard.

In 1808, barely a generation after the adoption of our Constitution, the Atlantic slave trade was officially banned. There were to be no more slave ships picking up kidnapped Africans, chaining them in the holds and bringing them to the newly created United States for sale on the auction block.

Historians say the ban was violated after 1808 by a number of ships, as African slaves were worth a great deal of money in the American South’s highly lucrative cotton and rice economy. Many wealthy southern slave owners and traders were demanding the Atlantic trade be reopened. The exact number of pirate slave ships operating during the period following the ban is not known.

But two such ships are certainly known: the Clotilda and the Wanderer.

A magnificent ocean-sailing yacht built in the Rowland shipyard in Setauket, the Wanderer was associated with the white-glove New York Yacht Club before it was refitted with large water tanks in Port Jefferson. Accounts at the time say those oversized tanks were a tipoff as to the Wanderer’s intended, and illegal, purpose. The ship was the talk of Long Island and New York City. It then sailed to Georgia under the yacht club pennant, a grand disguise for what really lay ahead.

In 1858, the Wanderer picked up approximately 500 Africans in what today is Angola, many of them children in chains. Some 408 survived to land back in Georgia in the dead of night and were quickly sold as property. The others were thrown overboard into the ocean, what historians call slavery’s Middle Passage.

African slavery in America began in Virginia in 1619. To some, this 400th anniversary of the first slave ship to America is worth more than a few tweets and Facebook posts. While the cross-Atlantic trade theoretically ended in 1808, the domestic slave trade thrived until 1865, when the South’s effort to preserve it by creating a separate nation finally came to an end.

Between 1619 and 1808, the Middle Passage was a vast, watery graveyard. The Clotilda and the Wanderer made it worse. There were some four million slaves in the South when the Wanderer and the Clotilda off-loaded their human cargo in 1858 and 1860. One year before the first shots were fired in the Civil War there were approximately 400,000 slaves in Alabama alone.

The Wanderer was lost off Cuba in 1871. But we now have, buried in the mud of the Mobile River, the hull of the Clotilda. The ship’s passengers had hoped to be returned to Africa at the end of the Civil War. That never happened. Some of their descendants live today in Africatown, a historic African-American community five miles north of Mobile.

Many of the residents have said they hope the hull can be recovered, rebuilt and put on display, the way history is displayed so prominently in Jamestown, Va., which celebrates its distinction as the first English settlement in America. It draws thousands of tourists every year.

We also celebrate the English arrival in Plymouth, Mass. And we celebrate their arrival right here on the North Fork. We know the names of those who came ashore. We know where they landed and where they built their church. Many of their descendants are still here.

What should become of the last slave ship?

Discussions during this political season, at least among some Democrats, include the idea of financial reparations for slavery, which in its day was a vast economic system. I can’t get my arms around that idea. I wouldn’t know how to do it. How do we compensate the descendants of those that built the cotton and rice plantations, did countless other hard-labor jobs and even built the Capitol and the White House?

What I do know is that history matters, remembering matters and honoring the past — the facts of the past — matters. The State of Georgia built a monument to the Africans aboard the Wanderer on Jekyll Island, where they disembarked before being sold off. The proprietors of the extraordinary Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island have done more than any other organization or historical society on Long Island to study and acknowledge the role slaves played on that lovely ground. No one else, locally or regionally, has even scratched the surface of this story.

The residents of Africatown and Alabama state officials will decide in the coming months whether to try and salvage the Clotilda’s hull and what to do with it if that effort succeeds.

But consider the twists and turns of history in our country and how the lines cross and recross: In November 2008, Newsday columnist Joye Brown wrote about a Nassau County man, Michael Higgins, on the day he cast his vote at an elementary school. He took three photographs with him into the voting booth.

Two were of a beloved grandmother, Elease Lee Key, a former Hempstead resident, and Ms. Key’s grandmother, Rosa Lee of South Carolina.

Who was in the third photograph?

As a boy, the man in that photograph was named Cilucangy. He was a child when he was kidnapped and brought aboard the Wanderer for the six-week sail to Georgia. He survived the Middle Passage. In America, he was called Ward Lee. He married and had four children.

In 1908 he had a notice printed in Georgia, which he circulated. It read, in part: “Please help me … I was brought to this country when I was a child … One year ago it was revealed to me to go back to Africa … Now I am trying to get ready, if God be with me, to go back to Africa … I beg anyone who will help … I am an old African.”

He never returned, and died a decade later.

On that Election Day, Mr. Higgins cast his vote proudly, holding on to the photographs. To Mr. Higgins, history — and family — are about honoring the facts of the past.

Ward Lee was Michael Higgins’ great-great-grandfather.

Photo caption: This early 20th-century photograph shows three survivors of the 1858 slave ship the Wanderer. From left: Ward Lee, Tucker Henderson and Romeo. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Steve Wick can be reached at [email protected]