An incredible story has final been shared, thanks to the voice of former slave Cudjo Lewis and the vision of writer Zora Neale Hurston. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” depicts the saga of the last surviving slave in America. Using his vernacular dialogue to document the traumas of slavery and separation from home, as well as his will to survive, Hurston shone a crucial spotlight on Lewis. The book, originally planned to publish in 1930, wasn’t published until May 2018. Now, Lewis’ voice shines as vibrantly and as vitally as ever, and reminds his reader to reflect on the ongoing consequences of slavery.
Barracoon details the life of Cudjo Lewis. Born in Benin, he was originally named Oluale Kossula. “Cudjo” was the American pronunciation of Kossula, and quickly became his new name. Lewis was only 19 when he was sold into slavery. On the day of his capture, he was joined by just over 100 other innocent people. Together, they were all packed into the Clotilda: the final slave ship to arrive on the shores of the United States.
From his age upon capture to the state of slavery in the United States at the time of his arrival, Lewis lived through a lot of uncertainty and abuse: around eighty years, to be exact. His arrival into slavery also coincided with the Civil War. Lewis witnessed political, national and moral transformation. His mind was a treasure trove of traumatic memory and resilience. Because he remembered, he could share his story. His was a necessary voice.
Hurston interviewed Lewis when he was 90 years old. Still, he held onto the past. He shared his story with vivid detail. In the introduction to Barracoon, Hurston wrote that Lewis was “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.” Recognizing the vitality of his memory, Hurston saw the need to document his experiences. She wanted to show his experiences as national, and moral, artifacts.
Cudjo owes his fate in part to a bet by greedy slavers. Although slavery existed in the southern states of America, trafficking slaves through international waters had been outlawed fifty years earlier. So the only way to increase slave holdings was, in essence, to breed them. But reproduction wasn’t meeting the demand for cheap labor as the agriculture business exploded in the South, and just before the Civil War erupted, some farmers had begun agitating to reopen international slave trade. When the Mobile Register reported in November 1958, that "The King of Dahomey was driving a brisk trade in slaves at from fifty to sixty dollars apiece." Three businessman brothers who had relocated from Maine took notice.
The three brothers were named Meaher and they were among those who wanted the cheap lifetime of labor slaves provided. In 1859, one of the brothers made a $1000 bet—a huge amount of money at the time—with a New Yorker who said, there was no way slaves could be brought in from Africa. Then they set about winning their bet—and changed Cudjo’s life forever.
The Meahers, who owned sawmills, steamboats, plantations, and people hooked up with Captain William Foster, a Canadian who owned a ship called the Clotilda. A fast-sailing schooner, the Clotilda could out-run authorities in the event its illegal cargo was discovered. To hide that cargo, Foster built a new deck over the ship’s original one in order to conceal the extra loads of rice, meat, sugar, flour, bread and other supplies. It’s estimated that millions of prospective Africans died over centuries making what is known as the middle passage to America. Captain Forster was determined to bring Cudjo and the rest of his “cargo” back to Alabama alive.
Aware what he was doing was highly illegal, Forster didn’t tell his crew what, exactly, The Clotilda would be transporting. In fact, when the ship— double-masted, 86 feet long and 23 feet in breadth—sailed out of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, its papers claimed there was a delivery of lumber on board that was destined for the Carribean island of St. Thomas. When the boat was caught in a vicious hurricane not far from Bermuda, repairs had to be made. During that process, the eleven-man crew discovered the false deck and the tell-tale barrels of food and water. They put the evidence together and realized they were caught in a mission to move human cargo. Captain Forster had lied to them! They threatened to tell authorities——a move that might have ensured Cudjo never left his homeland.
There was $9,000 in gold hidden on the ship, as well as barrels of rum. The sailors were in a good position to bargain. But money has a way of smoothing over even the most heinous issues, and eventually, Forster calmed the mutiny and won over his crew by promising to double wages. The mission continued.
The Clotilda sailed to the kingdom of Benin on the West Coast of Africa, right next to Nigeria. In the city of Ouidah, which had a fortified slave port at the water’s edge, Forster spent more than a week negotiating with slavers. In the recently published book, Cudjo clearly and painfully recalls watching the cruel Captain examining the “product” he was going to buy in the slave barracks known as “barracoons.” “De white man lookee and lookee. He lookee hard at de skin and de feet and de legs and in de mouth. Den he choose,” Cudjo recalled. “Den we cry. We sad ’cause we doan want to leave the rest of our people in de barracoon. We all lonesome for our home. We doan know whut goin’ become of us.”
Finally, a deal was struck and Captain William Foster purchased 125 slaves—men, women and children from Benin and Nigeria who were residing in the town’s barracoons,—with his gold and rum. Among those 125 slaves was young Cudjo, who was still reeling from his own unimaginable horrors.
Cudjo Lewis claimed to be a member of the “Tarkbar” tribe, but many researchers believe this was an offshoot of the Youruba. According to Lewis, his people lived close to the land, planting beans and yams and harvesting bananas, pineapples and other fruit. They also raised livestock, including goats, hogs, chickens and cows. Oil harvested from palm trees was the tribes biggest trade item. But in the 1850’s the King of Dahomey realized there was a bigger cash crop in the area: rival tribes that could be taken as slaves.
Lewis became a slave when he was a 19-year-old resident of Bante, a village in central Benin, not far from what is now Togo. The Army of Dahomey raided his village. It was a brutal attack; warriors beheaded the king and many others. The survivors who weren’t injured or too old were taken away to become slaves. “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,” remembered Cudjo. He also remembered another shocking sight. The captives were taken to Abomey, where they saw a palace decorated with skulls! Cudjo and his fellow prisoners were eventually marched 60 miles to Ouidah.
Cudjo Lewis carried other shocking memories in addition to these gruesome images. After the attack, the slavers gathered the decapitated heads of his family and other victims into a pile and set them on fire. Then, having wrecked and destroyed the village, the conquerors exhibited their dominance and control by selling the ruins for cash. Watching this exchange—proof that violence and destruction were carried out only with profit in mind—was one of the least things Lewis saw before boarding the Clotilda. This was one of his last, and lasting, memories of home.
Years later, as Zora Neale Hurston listened to Cudjo—or Kossula, as she calls him in her book—struggle to share these details, she noticed that he seemed to be in another time and place as he talked. “Kossula was no longer on the porch with me,” she writes. “He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. ... He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke. His agony was so acute that he became inarticulate. He never noticed my preparation to leave him.”
Before getting on the Clotilda, Cudjo and the rest of the slaves were shaved and stripped completely naked. Captain Foster’s crew locked them below deck and for 12 days, the captives spent their time enveloped in darkness, with the roaring sounds of the ocean providing a frightening soundtrack. “I so skeered on de sea,” Cudjo is quoted the book. “De water it makee so much noise! It growl lak de thousand beastes in de bush.”
On day thirteen, the slaves were allowed on the deck. As former residents of a land-locked village, being surrounded by water with no land in sight was another frightening sight. But their time outside was limited; the moment a ship was spotted on the horizon, the captives—illegal cargo—were ordered below deck and Captain Foster took great pains to avoid American, British, and Spanish patrol ships.
Once Lewis made it onto the boat, he was physically confined and malnourished. He was on the Clotilda for several months. The boat smelled awful, as the hundred sweating and sickly bodies were forced closely together. Not everyone survived the journey across the sea. While on the Clotilda, Cudjo had to reconcile with the fact that he was soon to be a slave, and that his life would never be the same. As if this wasn’t enough, he was forced to face the loss of his loved ones. He didn’t know whether or not he’d ever be able to go home. Time, place and freedom were suddenly out of his control.
Lewis was able to befriend his fellow shipmates, as their close proximity and shared histories created a profound sense of familiarity. All of the captives had been through devastation on land in Africa, and they could share their respective stories. Also, they could hope for safety and freedom in the future. They had months to connect, learn each other’s histories and find ways to support each other.
With Captain Foster at the helm in early July of 1860, the Clotilda dropped anchor outside of Mississippi. Fostered ordered the slaves hidden below deck and then arranged for a tugboat to pull his schooner to Alabama and up the Mobile Rivers. At Twelve Mile Island, the boat was emptied and Foster decided to set fire to the ship. If Cudjo or any of his new-found friends wanted to prove they were abducted, a key part of the evidence had just gone up in smoke.
Thankfully, there were enough witnesses and subsequent gossiping at the time, both of which made the saga of the Clotilda more or less common knowledge. Hannah Durkin, a scholar of American Studies, said, “press accounts and the kidnappers’ willingness to share their ‘escapade’ meant that the story of the Clotilda was fairly well documented in the late 19th/early 20th century.”
Investigators even launched a federal court case in 1861 against the Alabama slavers. In US v. Byrnes Meaher, Timothy Meaher, and John Dabey, the three principal schemers were charged with importing over one hundred natives of Africa for the purpose of slavery in the United States. The case was dismissed by the Federal Court, reportedly for a lack of evidence—which is strange considering there were scores of recently arrived Africans working on Meaher properties. Of course, the year of the court filing suggests there may have been other issues clouding the case. After all, the dismissal coincided the beginning of the Civil War.
Unfortunately, once the Clotilda arrived in Alabama, Lewis and his friends were separated and distributed among many different plantations. They were sold into new lives. While their friendships brought relief on the ship, their separation on land brought grief. Lewis would likely never see them again, and he didn’t know whether or not they would survive.
Lewis arrived in Alabama December 16, 1859. His arrival signaled an oxymoronic state of the nation: despite slavery’s legality, the international slave trade had been illegal for over half a century. The Civil War was soon to begin, and tensions regarding race relations and revolution were bubbling to the nation’s surface. No one felt safe.
The extreme homelessness and hopelessness Lewis felt on the ship only magnified on land. This land was not his Africa, but an America that found it fair and lawful to abuse people like him. Lewis turned inward to his memory to find relief. Perhaps his focus on memory made him such a good storyteller to Hurston in his elderly years. Not only did he remember his times as a slave in Alabama but also his free years in Benin. Because of his experiences, and his memory, a book like Barracoon could exist.
Hurston interviewed Lewis to gather material for Barracoon. She wanted to represent his story as truly and thoroughly as possible, and conversation proved to be the best way to achieve this. In one conversation with Hurston, Lewis explained the trials of separation and subsequent enslavement. He told her, “We very sorry to be parted from one ’nother. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama.”
Once on the plantation, Lewis felt the absence of any social connection. He felt like an outsider, and his dialect was incomprehensible to the other slaves. Since people couldn’t understand what he was trying to say, his experiences of isolation became extreme. He told Hurston, “We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis. Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say.”
Cudjo Lewis did not remain on the plantation. While some of the slaves were sold off, the Meahers, who funded Captain Forster’s slave-smuggling voyage, kept many to work on their various businesses. Cudjo was eventually sent to chop lumber on a steamship and feed the wood into the fire. Under the watch of “Cap’n Jim”—his name for James Meaher—Cudjo toiled, powering the boat’s voyages from Mobile to Montgomery and back for five years.
The Civil War started in 1861, just one year after Lewis’ arrival in Alabama. However, as a slave, he wasn’t privy to this information. As time went on, and the war was already halfway through, news reached him that the Northern states had instigated a war against the Southern states with the intent to free enslaved men and women like him.
While the news of the war itself took years to reach Lewis, General Robert E. Lee’s surrender was shared almost immediately. With this Confederate man’s submission, freedom for enslaved people might be possible. A few days after Lee’s surrender, a handful of Union soldiers traveled by boat to inform various slaves that they were now free. One of their stops? The Meaher plantation where Cudjo Lewis worked. On April 12, 1865—three days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant—union soldiers saw Cudjo and the other slaves on Meaher’s steamboat. As he recalled, they yelled out a life-changing message: “You free, you doan b’long to nobody no mo’.”
After General Lee’s surrender, Lewis and his compatriots had reason to believe that they would receive reparations, or compensation for their forced removal from their homes and indefinite placement into slavery. Unfortunately, no freed slaves would receive reparations. With sudden freedom and nowhere to go nearby without traumatic memories, Lewis was overwhelmed.
Aware they had no money to pay for passage back to Africa, Kudjo and other slaves who arrived on the Clothida, decided to approach their former owner, Timothy Meaher and ask for land so they could settle and work. Kudjo was chosen to make the case. Unfortunately, his plea fell on deaf ears. The former slave owner who was directly responsible for ripping more than 100 Africans from their homeland had zero interest in helping the people he had exploited for five years. Kudjo and a group of slaves decided to work in the area. They realized that there was power in numbers and hatched a plan for the future.
Lewis and his compatriots worked hard, toiling in sawmills and powder mills, on farms and railroads, and as domestic help. It took some time, but they worked together and pooled their meager earnings so they could buy land of their own. With strength in numbers, and time on their side, the thirty-plus men eventually acquired land. They named their property, and new home, Africatown.
Located about three miles north of Moble, Africatown was a 50-acre parcel of land that bounded on three sides by a bayou, Three Mile Creek and the Mobile River. A second, smaller outpost, a kind of Africatown extension was founded two miles away. There were 32 men who settled there, along with women and children. Soon, a community flourished. Churches were built, a graveyard was created. In the early part of the 20th century, the city of Mobile expanded and gradually engulfed Africatown, which was dubbed Plateau because of its higher elevation.
For Lewis, Africatown was a place of emancipation and family. It was there he married another former slave who had come from Africa, a woman named Seely. They had six children. But tragedy struck the couple repeatedly. One child was shot by the police. One child died in a train accident. A third succumbed to illnesses. When Hurston and Lewis finally met in the 1920s, the frail elderly man had been a childless widower for nearly twenty years.
These, among many other events, are what Hurston explores in Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” Rather than narrating their conversations, Hurston wanted Lewis to be a huge part of the storytelling process. She weaves moment after moment together through Lewis’ distinct voice. This was a controversial choice, and meant that Barracoon wasn’t published in her lifetime. However, representing a formerly enslaved man from his point of view was crucial to her ethical stance.
Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific and visionary novelist, cultural anthropologist, ethnographer and folklorist. Born in 1891, she and her family relocated to one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated into the United States: Eatonville, Florida. Her writing regularly engaged with racial conflict in the American South. Hurston studied at Howard University, Barnard College and Columbia University. She dedicated many years of her life to telling Lewis’ story, and found joy in his friendship. By empowering Lewis to speak freely, Hurston’s Barracoon was a masterpiece and a rarity—it was one of the most thorough portraits of a slave, from capture to sale, from crossing to hard labor to emancipation, in history. Or, in Hurston’s words, he was “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.”
When Hurston was 36, she traveled to Plateau, Alabama to speak with Kudjo Lewis. Lewis’ unique perspective, held into old age, inspired and enriched her writing and anthropology. His memory, too, was phenomenal; he could recount his years from Africa to America with powerful self-assurance. Hurston was committed to hearing his story. Lewis’ hometown of Plateau, like Hurston’s Eatonville, was an all-black community. Hurston and Lewis’ experiences in America were very different, thanks to evolving race relations, but their shared knowledge of slavery was a powerful force to bond over.
Hurston’s interviews with Lewis would continue for years. In 1930, she gathered the interviews into a book, called Barracoon. The word “barracoon” comes from Spanish and refers to the confined space where slaves were held before crossing the Atlantic. Grimly enough, Lewis was the “black cargo.” In 2018, nearly one hundred years after interviewing Lewis, her work with the former slave was published as Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.”
Given that Hurston is now recognized as one of America’s greatest black authors—and that not long after she wrote Barracoon she became a famous novelist—you might wonder why it took 80 years to publish such an important work. At the time Hurston wrote the manuscript of Cudjo Lewis’ incredible, heartbreaking story, she was not an acclaimed fiction writer; she was an anthropologist trying to finish her degree. Not only that, but the book was funded by Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white patron of Harlem Renaissance artists. So the book has something of an academic tone—it was meant to be a study and history, not a popular entertainment.
Hunston finished writing the book in 1931. Interest from publishers was in short supply—a not uncommon phenomenon; there are always more books than people who want to publish them. Viking Press, however, did want to publish the work. But they had one demand. The dialect English spoken by Cudjo Lewis had to be changed. Hurston refused. The subject of her book had been robbed of his parents, his family, his homeland. There was no way she was going to rob him of his voice. So she refused to make that editorial change. For decades the book languished, frozen in time.
Hurston’s staying power as a commercially successful, popular writer waned during the last years of her life. While today her books are now frequently assigned in high school and college English classes, by the late fifties, she had fallen out of vogue. With the printing of Barracoon, some critics have wondered why she never tried to rewrite the book after it was rejected. A recent article in the New Yorker wonders if Lewis’s tale may have horrified her so much that she left it untouched. The article notes that in Hurston’s autobiography she describes Lewis’s story this way: “My own people had butchered and killed, exterminated whole nations and torn families apart, for a profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut.” Barring the discovery of an unread journal or letter offering an explanation, we’ll probably never know why she let the manuscript lie there for decades.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” was published on May 8, 2018 by HaperCollins Publishers to great acclaim and fanfare. Critic Nicole Dennis-Benn praised Hurston’s commitment to Lewis, calling their story, “A powerful, breathtakingly beautiful, and at times, heart wrenching, account of one man’s story, eloquently told in his own language.” Barracoon serves as a fusion of Hurston’s anthropological and literary talents, and leaves its reader with an artifact of a time still relevant to American memory, as well as contemporary race relations.
Hurston called Lewis “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.” But she might have been over-selling her story. In a letter to her friend Langston Hughes, she admitted finding another former slave who survived the journey on the Clotilda—scholars believe her name Allie Beren—but shocklingly told Hughes she won’t write about her—and pledges Hughes to secrecy!
Hurston gracefully inserts her voice throughout Barracoon to animate Lewis’ being and create a broader context for Lewis’ articulations. She chose to call him by his birth-name, Kossula, in an effort to honor his African roots, and gained his trust in the process—initially Lewis was less than forthcoming when she first arrived in Africatown hoping to interview him.
From gaining Lewis’ trust by calling him Kossula to treating him like a friend rather than an interview subject, Hurston considered the art of storytelling just as important as companionship. She never pried him to speak if he didn’t seem willing to, which sometimes meant extending her visits to Plateau, Alabama to give him more time to open up. An unconventional writer, Hurston even took him to the bay to get crabs, and brought him his favorite fruits, to symbolize her allegiance with him.
Barracoon is described by its editor as “a kind of slave narrative in reverse, journeying backwards to barracoons, betrayal, and barbarity. And then even further back, to a period of tranquility, a time of freedom, and a sense of belonging.” Hurston’s thoughtful storytelling allowed Lewis to end in a deeper sense of freedom than that which he experienced as a 90-year-old former slave living in America. By moving backwards through time, the book could end with recollections of Lewis’ family and home community. His positive memories of life in Africa could have more power than his memories of slavery. Lewis could, after all, belong.
Barracoon has been actively and continuously celebrated by some of the most important voices of contemporary literature. Toni Morrison and Tracy K. Smith, two prominent women of color writers, acknowledged the significance of Hurston’s book. Morrison called Hurston “one of the greatest writers of our time,” and Smith called Barracoon “a story of urgent relevance to every American, everywhere.” The New York Times noted the significance this publication has in amplifying Hurston’s literary legacy. The Guardian proclaimed the book’s “belated publication of her phonetic transcription offers spine-chilling access to one of modernity’s great crimes, an atrocity that, when described by a victim, suddenly becomes far less distant.” And the Washington Post celebrated the book as “a stunning addition to several overlapping canons of American literature.”
Another significant woman of color writer, Alice Walker, contributed a foreword to the publication of Barracoon. In the foreword, she wrote, “Zora Neale Hurston’s genius has once again produced a Maestrapiece.” Walker contributed more than just words, though. She’s largely responsible for the resurgence of Barracoon and its recent publication. In the 1970s, Walker publically encouraged the reading of Hurston’s works—ranging from Their Eyes Were Watching God to Dust Tracks on a Road. This public affirmation of Hurston’s talent provided the writer with a wider readership. Walker never lost sight of Hurston’s vision and eventually supported the posthumous publication—leading Lewis’ story to an attentive audience.
In celebration of Hurston’s accomplishments, and in wonder of Lewis’ strength and perseverance, the media has taken note of Barracoon. Praised internationally in literary and cultural journals, news outlets, and Alabama-based newspapers, Lewis’ story can finally spread far and wide. Published in 2018, his story reminds his reader how far former slaves have gone, and what more needs to be done to create true equality. Lewis’ story will leave a big impression on all who read it—after all, it’s amazing how much he endured, and the positive life he created for himself in America.
While Hurston never lived to see the success of Barracoon, its presence now leaves an indelible mark on the art of American storytelling. Barracoon signifies the necessity for actively sought social justice. Most importantly, the story depicts the role listening can play in freedom. Lewis was liberated by his conversations with Hurston. His story will provide solace to those with similar family histories. Both Hurston and Lewis left a legacy of friendship. Hurston’s Barracoon is a collaboration with Lewis—she treated him like an equal, not as a subject. In so doing, Hurston shows a way forward into the American future. It’s all thanks to Lewis, who bravely voiced his unforgettable story.