The male and female warriors who stole the liberty and destroyed the town of those trafficked to the United States on the slave ship Clotilda launched their assault before dawn. The townsfolk were taken by surprise and had no time to defend themselves against the Fon warriors from the Kingdom of Dahomey, a regional power located in present-day Benin.
Some of the town’s farmers, keen to complete their labors before they grew hot on that day in mid-April 1860, had already left its parameters to plant their corn, groundnut and melon crops when the army struck. The warriors killed them all to ensure no one could warn their neighbors of an impending attack.
Even at the end of his life, a medium-sized, balding man with a small goatee beard and a missing fingertip named Kossula, who became known in the United States as Cudjo Lewis, hugged his body in a self-protective gesture and rocked from side to side when recollecting the horrors of his kidnap. Warriors armed with machetes, axes, clubs and flintlock muskets smashed the gates. Shaven-headed women in brown-belted cotton tunics, knee-length shorts and white cotton skullcaps attacked the town first. Male soldiers formed a second line of attack that caught those who sought to flee.
Tall, round-faced Abaché was woken by the sound of shouts and gunfire. The 15-year-old girl jumped out of bed and tried to run away but was quickly captured. “[W]hen we all asleep, they come and take us,” a small, slender-framed 12-year-old named Redoshi recalled at the end of her life. “I ran, but they caught me. I fought, but they beat me. I didn’t know what they was saying, but it wasn’t good.”
Alerted to the sounds of gunfire and screams, Kossula tried to flee into the woods. But there was no escape. The enemy had surrounded the town. After trying to bolt through its gates, Kossula slipped quietly into a neighbor’s house and buried himself beneath a pile of rags. But women warriors soon wrenched him from his hiding place and took him hostage. Kossula wept at the memory. “Oh, oh! I runnee this way to that gate, but they there. I runnee to another one, but they there, too. All eight gates they there. Them women, they very strong. I nineteen years old, but they too strong for me. They take me and tie me. I don’t know where my people at. I never see them no more.”
Those who were not captured were cut down by giant blades and shot with guns, and then decapitated. Kossula was forced to watch the brutal slaughter of his townsfolk. “I see de people gittee kill so fast! De old ones dey try run ’way from de house but dey dead by de door, and de women soldiers got dey head. Oh, Lor!” he recalled, weeping and hugging his arms to his chest at the memory. Kossula begged in vain to be released to his mother and to be allowed to search for his family.”I beg dem, please lemme go back to my mama, but dey don’t pay whut I say no tenshun.”
Many men and women died, and everyone else was taken prisoner. Two-year-old Matilda was kidnapped with her mother Gracie and four older siblings, but her father Osie and Kossula’s parents Oluwale and Ny-fond-lo-loo were almost certainly among the dead. The town’s ruler was brought before the King of Dahomey and beheaded with a giant, black-handled razor when he refused to leave the land of his ancestors as a prisoner. The ruler chose immediate death over enslavement.
The Clotilda captives’ hometown, Tarkar, was wiped off the face of the earth by Fon warriors that mid-April morning. It does not appear on any map. But Kossula placed it in the heart of Yorubaland, the cultural home of the Yoruba people that comprises present-day southwest Nigeria and extends into Benin and Togo. Two years before his death in 1935, Kossula told a Yoruba-speaking missionary that his home was about seventy-five miles from Abeokuta, the capital of Ogun State in southwest Nigeria and a metropolis whose population of 110,000 rivaled that of Chicago, then the United States’ ninth biggest city. He also said that he traveled “many times” to Ogbomosho, a city of 70,000 people in neighboring Oyo State, and told Harper’s Monthly Magazine that he and his wife Abile were from “Whinney.” Historian Natalie S. Robertson has identified “Whinney” as Owinni (Owini Hill), an elevation three miles northeast of the city of Oyo (“New Oyo”) on the Oyo-Ogbomosho Road, a major trade route east of the Ogun River linking Oyo with Ogbomosho. Owini Hill is about sixty-five miles in a straight line from Abeokuta.
The survivors of the Clotilda would always remember their lost homeland as a paradise. Bananas introduced long ago by eastern traders, pineapples recently imported from the west and enormous melons were so abundant in the forest around their town that the air was thick with the aroma. “Know how we find de fruits? By de smell,” Kossula explained of the fruit-hunting game he played as a child. Polee Allen, a man whose round face was punctuated by deep-set, expressive eyes and whose hair and goatee beard stayed dark even into old age, told the same story of material abundance to his children. “He would always tell us how the climate was so much warmer in Africa and the soil was so much better. He always said he wanted to go back so bad,” Polee’s daughter Clara Eva Bell Allen Jones recalled. “You know, I never seen my daddy ever eat a banana or an orange. I think maybe it made him homesick.”
Kossula and Polee emphasized the “superior quality” of their homes. The residents of Tarkar lived in eight-foot-tall round houses made from clay bricks 18 inches thick, with waterproof roofs constructed from palm poles bound together with cord and overlaid with earth and multiple layers of grass. Palm oil-fueled iron and earthenware lamps gave light to the windowless dwellings, whose walls were typically painted black or red. The bricks were impervious to fire, and a burnt-up roof could easily be rebuilt. The houses were built in circular formation so their inhabitants could more easily defend themselves against attack, a practice known as agbo-ile (“flock of houses”), although the town’s chief source of protection was its eight manned gates.
Abaché, who was kidnapped alongside her sister Uriba, described in a soft, slow voice and expressive physical gestures the peaceful home life she enjoyed as a child. Her townsfolk were highly successful farmers whose labors were aided by an incredibly fertile landscape. Abaché described how the men tilled the ground to plant yams and rice, and how the women traded harmoniously with other ethnic groups.
“I lived in clean village; I was much happy. My people weave cloth from grass, bathe in sunshine and river, no fights, no beatings, no killings. We live together like one family,” Redoshi stressed of the childhood that brutally ended when she was 12 years old. As fellow child captive Kanko, a small, light-skinned woman with a facial mark on her right cheek, explained to her children and grandchildren, the standard of living was high in her hometown.
Like other African societies, Tarkar was not beholden to capitalistic notions of land ownership that regarded land as a commodity. The town’s ruler, whose name was recorded variously as “Adbaku,” “Ibaku” and “Akabana,” and who Redoshi remembered as a “good man,” was the custodian of the land in his territory, which was communally owned and split between kinship groups and handed down the generations; each family had access to its own portion of land, which could not be sold.
The planting season began in February. The town’s menfolk cleared weeds from the rust-colored earth with cutlasses, knives and axes. They used short-handled hoes and billhooks to prepare the ground for sowing; the earth was bountiful and there was no need for fertilizer or ploughs. They planted yams in February, and then corn, groundnuts and melons in April and May. After the August harvest, they planted new crops of corn, beans and groundnuts in September.
Yams were a major crop in Oyo State, and Tarkar’s yams grew so big—two feet long and six inches wide according to one regional eyewitness account—that no one could eat a single yam in one sitting. “[W]e go way, we come back, push, dig de dirt—great beeg yam like keg, nail keg. We cut off vine with little piece of yam and cover it up again. Another beeg yam. Whole family couldn’t eat at one time. For seven years don’t need no new seed, it keep making yams,” Kossula explained.
Yams were eaten in manifold ways. Their starchy white flesh could be turned into elubo (yam flour), added to stews, roasted, or boiled and crushed with a pestle and mortar to make iyan (pounded yam). The townsfolk extracted palm oil and beer from the fruit of palm trees and wove cloth from its leaves. The women owned and raised cows, pigs, chickens, goats and sheep for a profit, which they kept in the inner court of their households to protect them from predators. “Nobody ever go hungry. Nobody ever go cold,” Kossula declared of his homeland at the end of his life. Children like Polee learned a craft from their parent and became proficient in that skill by the age of 16. He and other male Clotilda survivors exiled to Mobile were so good at woodwork that they handmade toys for their children and built and sold their own furniture.
Many women, such as the young, energetic Bougier, managed motherhood with trading responsibilities. The small, round-faced, dark-skinned woman had just become a mother for the third time in the spring of 1860, and she bound her baby in a sling on her back and balanced her wares on her head when heading to and from the vast market in Ogbomosho. As one nineteenth-century observer noted, selling crops at market was the “peculiar privilege” of Yoruba-speaking women, whose trading activities meant they had independent incomes. Palm oil was their dominant item of trade. Market trading was so important to Bougier’s sense of self that she determinedly carried on the practice after her liberation from slavery. The long-lived woman traded twice a week in the heart of Alabama until she was physically unable to do so.
The items Bougier encountered for sale at Ogbomosho were far more luxurious than the foraged berries, plums and medicinal plants that were her only available wares in exile, however. A US missionary who went to Ogbomosho in the late 1850s likened the experience to visiting any “Anglo-Saxon city.” Products from around the world could be sourced at the marketplace, which was neatly divided into relevant sections according to the produce and merchandise for sale, and which attracted thousands of people at a time.
According to Kanko, the small, light-skinned girl with a facial mark on her right cheek, business was conducted with shillings, a silver coin linked to the British Empire that was used throughout present-day Nigeria. Cowries, porcelain-like seashells that served as religious objects among the Yoruba, were also exchanged as currency, and traders could be trusted to shop unsupervised and leave money for an item at the place of purchase for the seller to collect later. Stealing was so rare that possessions could be safely left in the open air. “Suppose I had left my purse in town in the public square,” Kossula told an interviewer in the early twentieth century. “To-day I have not the time to go for it—nor to-morrow—am I worried? No, for I know when I go I will find it where I left it. Could you do that in America?” Crimes were tried in open court, and the punishment for murder was execution by sword, regardless of the criminal’s wealth and social status. As Polee explained of an offender’s powerlessness to buy their way out of punishment, “Money don’t plea you there.”
There were enslaved people in Tarkar, including criminals, people forced temporarily into bondage to pay off debts and people seized in warfare with other ethnic groups. Many were of northern, particularly Hausa, origin. But their experiences of bondage were vastly different from the chattel slavery practiced in the Americas, which was centered on intense labour, reduced people to commodities that could be shipped around the world, and defined people in racialized terms so their enslaved status could be passed onto their children. Enslaved people in West Africa included soldiers and administrators, and social mobility was possible. Kossula’s grandfather was an officer of and regular companion to his town’s king who owned a large compound managed by several wives and enslaved laborers. Yet his idle threat to sell the son of a captive laborer to a Portuguese slave trader for tobacco when he disturbed him while sleeping highlights how much more greatly feared was sale overseas than enslavement at home.
When Kossula was nearly 15, he was thrilled to receive military training like his older brothers. The teenager spent whole nights in the woods being taught how to track and hunt deer, buffalo, elephants, lions and leopards, how to stalk silently through the forest and conceal himself, how to leave a trail for others to follow and how to make camp. Kossula learned how to shoot arrows and throw spears, and how to beat the drum that accompanied the town’s war song. Kossula spent five years learning military skills that he understood were solely for defensive purposes. The community’s economy was centered around agriculture, and the king had no plans to make war, but his people needed to be ready to defend their town against attack.
While the boys learned to hunt and fight, little Kanko was taken by her mother Conco to gather medicinal plants and to learn the curative properties of the world around her. Although there were professional medical practitioners known as onisegun in Yoruba-speaking societies, herbal knowledge was a collective enterprise. After a day spent gathering curative herbs, Kanko resisted her mother’s call to go home and hid behind what she thought were beautiful large leaves for treating headaches. When she fetched Conco to point them out, the leaves came alive: the pair were face-to-face with a giant snake. Kanko’s horrified mother grabbed her child sharply by the hand when she saw the danger. Kanko felt her feet leave the earth as Conco pulled her to safety. Hunters sought out the snake, but it had disappeared.
Conco could not protect her daughter from all the dangers of her environment, however. Nearly seventy years after Kanko’s death, her granddaughter Mable Dennison attempted to document the circumstances of her kidnap. Even though Kanko was ripped from her homeland while still a child, she understood that slave traffickers deliberately stoked inter- and intra-ethnic divisions to create prisoners of war who could be shipped and sold overseas. As Mable explained, “she had learned that once these slave ships arrived on the African coast, there was little trouble in procuring a cargo of slaves for it had long been a part of the traders’ policy to instigate tribes against each other and in this manner keep the markets stocked…there had been numerous wars with foreign countries as well as in the surrounding nations and also between tribes within her country. It seemed as though some kind of war would go on for years.”
Mable suggested that Kanko was from the “town” of Dahomey, and that she was kidnapped by slave traders while performing an errand for her mother at a local store. It’s likely that Kanko was from the same Yoruba-speaking town as Kossula. Like Polee, who never discussed the circumstances of his capture, Kanko probably concocted a tale of isolated kidnap because the destruction of her hometown and murder of her family were too harrowing to recall. Kanko also told her descendants that she and Kossula were cousins, indicating that they grew up together in Tarkar, and, as Mable remembered, “there was a close relationship in their ways and customs.”
The mid-nineteenth century was a particularly dangerous time for Yoruba speakers such as Kanko and Kossula. “Yoruba” was historically an umbrella term applied by missionaries who began arriving in the region after 1840 to different ethnic groups that shared the language and culture of the Oyo Empire of present-day western Nigeria and eastern Benin. The empire’s origins stretched back to the twelfth century and centered on the city-state of Oyo (“Old Oyo”), which was about one hundred miles north of New Oyo and Tarkar. Its highly organized and commanding cavalry enabled it to capture surrounding territories and expand from a minor state to the most powerful empire in present-day southwest Nigeria by the end of the sixteenth century.This trade in human life fueled demographic breakdown and social instability, which in turn created military states compelled to engage in warfare.
While they were connected by common myths of origin and even shared a spiritual capital in the ancient city of Ilé-Ifè, 50 miles southeast of Old Oyo in neighboring Osun State, each Yoruba group represented a largely autonomous city-state with its own industries and trade networks and its own oba (king), who ruled a capital town and its surrounding territories. For hundreds of years, the communities lived in relative peace with each other until invasions from Oyo’s Muslim Fulani neighbors to the north, the rise of Dahomey and conflicts between the empire’s alaafin (emperor) and his advisers combined with popular resistance to an increasingly authoritarian aristocracy undermined its stability from the 1780s onwards. Yoruba-speaking territories lost vital trade routes and were plunged into competition and civil warfare for the next eight decades, and Yoruba-speaking captives became victims of the transatlantic slave trade.
The gradual disintegration of the Oyo Empire, followed by its total collapse in the 1830s, changed the balance of power in the region. Dahomey’s capital Abomey was no longer vulnerable to assault by Oyo, and Yoruba-speaking communities east, northeast and southeast of Abomey that previously were shielded by their association with Oyo were now open to attack by newly empowered Dahomey. Dahomey’s king, Ghezo, recognized the southeastern region around Abeokuta—a city recently founded by the Egba people, Yoruba-speaking refugees fleeing the collapse of Oyo—would be easiest to attack. Annual battles between Dahomey and the Egba soon turned into a major ongoing conflict.
The transatlantic slave trade fanned the flames of war. European hunger for African labor between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries to power its newly established economies in the American hemisphere created a tragically self-perpetuating cycle of self-destruction on the African continent. This trade in human life fueled demographic breakdown and social instability, which in turn created military states compelled to engage in warfare instead of agriculture and trade prisoners for weapons to protect against their own people’s transatlantic enslavement by foreigners.
An estimated 10.7 million Africans were displaced to the Americas between the turn of the sixteenth and the late nineteenth centuries, an additional 15 per cent—about 1.8 million people—died on the Atlantic voyage, and perhaps as many as six million more people died in slave raids, on the journey to the West African coast, and in the barracoons (slave pens) that held them prisoner before they could be shipped across the ocean. An African person enslaved in the Americas had a life expectancy of around seven years.
In 1803, Denmark became the first nation to end its slave trade. The British Empire abolished the practice in its territories four years later, and the United States banned its trade on 1 January 1808 and declared it piracy in 1820. But illegal trade continued over the following decades. After being compelled to abolish its trade in 1814 by Britain, which had dominated the trade in the decades before 1807 but now led the campaign to end it, the Netherlands signed a treaty to comprehensively outlaw the practice in 1818. France, which had outlawed slavery altogether in 1794 before reinstating it under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, reimposed a trading ban the same year as the Netherlands. Spain promised to end its trade in 1820, newly independent Brazil finally legislated against the traffic in 1831, and Portugal formally abolished the trade five years later.
However, the bans were poorly enforced and even ignored and more than one million people continued to be trafficked to Brazil and the Spanish island of Cuba even after 1836. More than 25 per cent of all the transatlantic slave trade’s victims, around 3.2 million people, were forced onto slave ships after the 1808 ban. Nearly 38 per cent (1.8 million) of all Africans displaced to Brazil arrived after that date, and almost 71 per cent (552,000) of all Africans displaced to Cuba arrived after 1820.
Dahomey’s imperial growth and engagement in this trade was probably precipitated by a desire to protect its own citizens against the threat of transatlantic enslavement. As King Ghezo’s grandfather King Kpengla reportedly told a Yorkshire-born enslaver and slave trader in the 1780s, “You, Englishmen…are surrounded by the ocean…whilst we Dahomans, being placed on a large continent, and hemmed in amidst a variety of other people…are obliged by the sharpness of our swords, to defend ourselves from their incursions, and punish the depredations they make on us…Your countrymen, therefore, who alledge [sic] that we go to war for the purpose of supplying your ships with slaves, are grossly mistaken.” Nor was the Dahomey Empire the only military threat to the children and young people that ended up on the Clotilda. Although the Africans repeatedly referred to their captors as Dahomey warriors, so intense was the warfare between former members of the Oyo Empire, whose own growth had been fueled by slave trading, that the Clotilda shipmates could just as easily have been kidnapped and sold by other Yoruba speakers.
Except for a Fon nobleman named Gumpa, all 110 captives who were imprisoned on the Clotilda were almost certainly captured in the same slave raid. Kossula admitted as much to the writer Zora Neale Hurston in the late 1920s. He referred repeatedly to his shipmates as “my countrymen” and “de folks of my country” and recalled being sold alongside his townsfolk in a single slave pen before his displacement across the Atlantic: “each nation in a barracoon by itself.” Hurston understood why captives were segregated: different ethnic groups might fight, and ethnicities were assumed by slave traders to have specific temperaments and therefore different values.
Not all the captives were Yoruba speakers though. Kossula, Polee and another Clotilda survivor named Osia Keeby explained that “some people” were Fulani, Hausa (who Yoruba speakers knew as Gambari), Ijesha and Nupe (who Yoruba speakers knew as Takpa), ethnic groups from territories surrounding the former Oyo Empire who had the tremendous misfortune to be visiting the town at the time of the raid.
From the forthcoming book The Survivors of the Clotilda: The Lost Stories of the Last Captives of the American Slave Trade by Hannah Durkin. Copyright © 2024 by Hannah Durkin. To be published on Jan. 30, 2024, by Amistad Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.