Portrait of the Clotilda

Tale Of Human Traitors Captain Bill & Those Meaher Brothers ::: Readings From Zora’s ‘Barracoon’

All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the “black ivory,” the “coin of Africa,” had no market value. Africa’s ambassadors to the New World have come and worked and died, and left their spoor, but no recorded thought.




“Barracoon : Story Of The Last Black Cargo”, Zora Neale Hurston, Introduction

Anthropologist and literary luminary, Zora Neale Hurston introduces us to Cudjo Lewis by way of historical context. Her words are museum hallway. We are gently ushered into time machines touring a media landscape of age past. Zora rewards us with texture of that time’s popular literary mold.

She shares with us a valuable insight. During that era, it had become worth a writer’s time in rent and mortgage payments to pay attention to slave narratives. Yet, as Zora so eloquently waxes her reader’s internal ear, these stories left out significant portrayals. Those first person portrayals of primary sources from inside US Slavery’s hulls.

Her tour corrals us through much research. Some of which lays foundation for controversy. In Ms. Zora’s defense, she plainly states in this introduction:

I had met Cudjo Lewis for the first time in July 1927. I was sent by Dr. Franz Boas to get a firsthand report of the raid that had brought him to America and bondage, for Dr. Carter G. Woodson of the Journal of Negro History. I had talked with him in December of that same year and again in 1928. Thus, from Cudjo and from the records of the Mobile Historical Society, I had the story of the last load of slaves brought into the United States.

cf ibid

Zora invites us through journey of horrors. Her recounting of flesh smuggler William Foster and his trio of fraternal cohorts, Jim Meaher, Tim Meaher, Burns Meaher does favor, not injustice, to those historians she chooses to trust her own reputation to. These nefarious traitors of humanity are given an undeserved heroic treatment simply by virtue of being subject of Ms. Zora’s sorcery.

This trek through time winds us through perilous waters and mutiny into those bloody waters composing Gulf of Guinea. It is here that we watch Zora conjure tale of Afrikan royalty welcoming these Whyte foreigners hoping to kidnap and trade in bodies of Afrikan kin like family. Ms. Zora writes:

Soon Captain Foster and his kegs of specie and trading goods were landed. “Six stalwart blacks” were delegated to meet him and conduct him into “the presence of a Prince of Dahomey,” but he did not meet the king.

Foster was borne in a hammock to the Prince, who received him seated on his stool of rank. He was gracious and hospitable, and had Foster shown “the sights of Whydah.” He was surrounded by evidence of great wealth, and Foster was impressed. He was particularly struck by a large square enclosure filled with thousands of snakes, which he was told had been collected for ceremonial purposes.

cf ibid

Zora concludes our majestic exploration of disgust in human trade in Dahomey by reflecting on her book’s ultimate protagonist. Wrapping up our expedition of history, she documents her thoughts thusly:

With these things already known to me, I once more sought the ancient house of the man called Cudjo. This singular man who says of himself, “Edem etie ukum edem etie upar”: The tree of two woods, literally, two trees that have grown together. One part ukum (mahogany) and one part upar (ebony). He means to say, “Partly a free man, partly free.” The only man on earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home; the horrors of a slave raid; the barracoon; the Lenten tones of slavery; and who has sixty-seven years of freedom in a foreign land behind him.

cf ibid