Attempt to recover DNA from last US slave ship begins


Divers expected to work with only a few centimeters of visibility in the muddy waters. Due to unusually favorable conditions, however, visibility levels increased to about a foot. “In fact, we have seen Clotilde“, Delgado said, raising his eyes. “These are the best conditions we have ever had on this wreck.

Still, the work largely required a “Braille-like dive,” says Kamau Sidiki of Diving with a purpose, a group that trains mostly black divers find and preserve historical and cultural objects.

Archaeologists must also grapple with evidence of modern interference with Clotildethe inheritance. Sometime in the 20th century, before it was identified by searchers, the wreckage was partially blown up by someone who knew where it was. (He was reported in the past that a great-grandson of Timothy Meaher once talked about blasting the wreckage with his father).

Due to the sensitivity and importance of the site, the Alabama Historical Commission now monitors the site of Clotilde around the clock to prevent further tampering or looting of the wreck.

To get a clearer picture of the sinking, researchers are using high-resolution sonar and laser technology called LiDAR to capture 3D images of the vessel and surrounding area. The footage reveals that despite efforts by Foster and others to destroy the ship, Clotilde remains remarkably intact—including the cramped space where the captives were confined, which was only 23 feet long and less than seven feet tall.

“The front grip survived,” Delgado says. “It’s very clear what it is. It’s proof of what happened.”

Clotildethe next steps

Until Clotilde was identified in 2019, much of this evidence came from oral histories passed down from the families of African captives. Freed by the Civil War and the 13th Amendment five years after arriving as slaves in Alabama, some of the displaced Africans founded a small community north of Mobile known as Africatown. Many of their descendants still live in Africatown today, and they hope ongoing research into Clotilde will further ground the stories of their ancestors in science – a crucial step, they say, towards truth and reconciliation.

“The biggest thing we want to do,” says Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, “is to preserve the legacy of 110, to ensure that the legacy of these people on this ship never dies. “

Even if human DNA is recovered, forensic scientists want to be clear about the limits of their potential findings. They expect to work only with mitochondrial DNA, which can help identify general haplogroups and regions of origin, not nuclear DNA, which provides information at the individual level.

“We don’t need as much cellular material to get mitochondrial DNA as we would need to get nuclear DNA,” West explained. Yet such research has the potential to be groundbreaking, both in what it can reveal and in the setting in which the DNA would be recovered. “I can’t think of another ship where we would have the opportunity to do this kind of research,” adds West.

After completing their analysis, the science team will present their findings and recommendations to the Alabama Historical Commission, which will then determine the future of Clotilde in close collaboration with the descending community.

Some would like to see the remains of the ship lifted and placed in a museum in Africatown. Others are arguing that the ship, already added to the National Register of Historic Places, remain in its current location – known in archeology as “in situ preservation” – with a monument placed nearby.

“There are going to be strong feelings and opinions,” Delgado concedes. “The power of the ship in this location cannot be underestimated. The power of this in a museum cannot be underestimated. The question is what works best.”

Either way, it is hoped that a memorial and heritage site could help revitalize Africatown, a neighborhood surrounded by polluting industrial sites and fractured by highway construction. And like Clotilde continues to reveal its secrets, each new step is significant for a community still struggling with its traumatic origins.


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