Cudjo Lewis (ca. 1841-1935) was one of the final survivors of the Clotilda, the last reported slave ship to arrive in the United States on Sunday, July 8, 1860, illegally and under cover of darkness, 52 years after the country had ended the worldwide slave trade. Cudjo, along with other previously enslaved Clotilda friends, helped create the Mobile colony African Town (now known as Africatown). He achieved considerable notoriety at the end of his life when his story was told in various articles and a book.
Cudjo Lewis was born in the current West African country of Benin as Oluale Kossola to Oluale and his second wife Fondlolu. He was the second of four children and has 12 stepbrothers and sisters. He was a Yoruba, more precisely an Isha (a Yoruba sub-group), and his traditional home was in the Banté area of eastern Benin. Kossola was born into a poor household, yet his grandpa was a king’s official.
Kossola and his siblings enjoyed an active and joyful upbringing. He began training as a soldier when he was 14 years old, learning how to track, hunt, camp, fire arrows, hurl spears, and defend his village, which was encircled by four great walls. The adolescent was also initiated into oro, a secret Yoruba male organization that polices and controls society. At the age of 19, Kossola fell in love with a young girl he spotted at the market and, at the insistence of his father, undertook the initiation that allowed young men and women to marry. In April 1860, during Kossola’s training, Ghezo, King of Dahomey, and his army raided the town, killing the king and many of the residents and taking the remainder of the townspeople prisoner.
Kossola and his comrades were marched to Dahomey’s capital, Abomey, and then to Ouidah on the coast, where they were kept for three weeks in a slave enclosure known as a barracoon (a prison where captives were held before being sent across the Atlantic). Then he and 109 others from various districts of Benin and Nigeria boarded the slave ship Clotilda, commanded by Mobile shipbuilder William Foster, and proceeded on the trek across the Atlantic Ocean known as the Middle Passage during the slave trade. During his 45 days aboard the ship, Kossola suffered from severe hunger and the humiliation of being pushed on board naked.
In Mobile, he was enslaved by James Meaher, a rich ship captain and the brother of Timothy Meaher, the expedition’s organizer. Because James Meaher couldn’t pronounce Kossola’s name, the young man advised his new owner to nickname him Cudjo, a name given to boys born on Monday by the Fon and Ewe peoples of West Africa. During his five years of servitude, the young man worked on a steamer and resided with his shipmates underneath Meaher’s mansion, which was built high above the ground.
Cujdo recovered his freedom in 1865, with general emancipation, and adopted the name Lewis. He married Abile, a young woman he met aboard the Clotilda. The couple’s goal, like their buddies’, was to return home, but when they couldn’t earn enough money for the journey, they chose to stay in Alabama and establish their own community. Because Timothy Meaher was to blame for their misery, they resolved to seek restitution in the form of free land from him. Cudjo was picked to be the spokesperson. Meaher ignored their demand, so they bought land from him and others and built an African town on a hill north of Mobile.
He has five boys and one daughter with his wife. They gave American and Yoruba names to four of them and Yoruba names to only two of them to express their connection to their culture. Unfortunately, all of the children died at a young age: Celia/Ebeossi died of illness at the age of 15, Young Cudjo was killed by a deputy sheriff, David/Adeniah was killed by a train, Pollee Dahoo went missing and was most likely murdered, and James/Ahnonotoe and Aleck/Iyadjemi died after short illnesses. Abile died a month before Aleck in 1908. Cudjo’s family was taken from him once more.
Cudjo was obliged to sell many parcels of land due to financial constraints. By the early 1920s, all of his Clotilda friends had died, leaving him as the sole survivor. During the later years of his life, he gained some notoriety when authors and journalists interviewed him and publicized his story. Zora Neale Hurston, an Alabama-born novelist, videotaped him, making him the only known African exiled during the slave trade whose moving footage remains.
Cudjo Lewis died on July 26, 1935, at the age of 94, of an age-related illness. Despite his desire to return home, he was buried among his family at the Africans’ cemetery, which opened in 1876. His burial is now marked by a towering white monument. Some of his ancestors still reside in Mobile. Sally “Redoshi” Smith and Matilda McCreary were the group’s final surviving members, living until 1937 and 1940, respectively.
Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama