At age 19, Oluale Kossola was preparing for marriage in his native West African village when he was captured by warriors from a rival tribe and sold into slavery.
It was 1860 — a half-century after the U.S. had outlawed “international trafficking of African peoples.” But a wealthy Alabama ship operator and slaveholder named Timothy Meaher wanted to prove that he could still smuggle kidnapped Africans into the country and organized an expedition to do just that. Kossola was among more than 100 Africans captured and detained for weeks in a barracoon, or holding pen, in what is now Benin. Some 110 of them were put on the Clotilda to endure a harrowing six-week passage across the Atlantic Ocean.
The ship was burned upon arrival in Alabama to hide evidence of its illegal cargo. The Africans were taken to Plateau, just north of Mobile, and Kossola became Cudjo Lewis. He lived in slavery for five years.
As the nation this year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of 20 Africans in Virginia in 1619, Lewis’ story is of particular importance. It offers a firsthand account of the slave trade from the perspective of an enslaved person, the uncomfortable fact of Africans enslaving other Africans, and the dehumanizing treatment blacks suffered on U.S. soil.
“They were on the ship for 70 days, and they were in the hold for 13 days before they even got a chance to stretch their limbs,” says Garry Lumbers, a descendant of Lewis. “Can you imagine the things that they went through?”
The late Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston gives us a detailed account of Lewis’ torturous journey from Africa to Alabama in “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,'” published last year.
“It’s a singular work. It’s a treasure that represents so much of our national and international history,” says Deborah G. Plant, editor of “Barracoon”. “There’s not much information when it comes to the lives and experiences of African peoples prior to their enslavement in America. … Rarely is there a first-person account of that part of our history. So Cudjo’s narrative is rare.”
Resigned to the fact that he could not return to his African homeland, Lewis helped create a community in Plateau — homes, a church — with other former slaves. They called it Africatown.
Lewis married, had five children and survived as best he could in Africatown.
“They came to Alabama with nothing but what was inside of them,” Plant says. “They came with the wisdom of Africa. That’s what got him through all the difficult times and challenges that he had to experience. His cultural traditions allowed him the vision to see a way out of that darkness that he was forced into.”
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SOURCE: USA Today, Lottie Joiner