An NPR Best Book of the Year
The incredible true story of the last ship to carry enslaved people to America, the remarkable town its survivors founded after emancipation, and the complicated legacy their descendants carry with them to this day—by the journalist who discovered the ship’s remains.
Fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed, the Clotilda became the last ship in history to bring enslaved Africans to the United States. The ship was scuttled and burned on arrival to hide evidence of the crime, allowing the wealthy perpetrators to escape prosecution. Despite numerous efforts to find the sunken wreck, Clotilda remained hidden for the next 160 years. But in 2019, journalist Ben Raines made international news when he successfully concluded his obsessive quest through the swamps of Alabama to uncover one of our nation’s most important historical artifacts.
Traveling from Alabama to the ancient African kingdom of Dahomey in modern-day Benin, Raines recounts the ship’s perilous journey, the story of its rediscovery, and its complex legacy. Against all odds, Africatown, the Alabama community founded by the captives of the Clotilda, prospered in the Jim Crow South. Zora Neale Hurston visited in 1927 to interview Cudjo Lewis, telling the story of his enslavement in the New York Times bestseller Barracoon. And yet the haunting memory of bondage has been passed on through generations. Clotilda is a ghost haunting three communities—the descendants of those transported into slavery, the descendants of their fellow Africans who sold them, and the descendants of their American enslavers. This connection binds these groups together to this day. At the turn of the century, descendants of the captain who financed the Clotilda’s journey lived nearby—where, as significant players in the local real estate market, they disenfranchised and impoverished residents of Africatown.
From these parallel stories emerges a profound depiction of America as it struggles to grapple with the traumatic past of slavery and the ways in which racial oppression continue to this day. And yet, at its heart, The Last Slave Ship remains optimistic—an epic tale of one community’s triumphs over great adversity and a celebration of the power of human curiosity to uncover the truth about our past and heal its wounds.
Ben Raines is an award-winning environmental journalist, filmmaker, and charter captain. He lives with his wife in Fairhope, Alabama.
"The fast-paced narrative begins with the voyage and follows the Clotilda’s survivors beyond the Civil War....Raines vividly conjures the watery landscape into which the Africans stepped... Knowledge of these waterways also led Raines to locate the Clotilda in a place previous searchers had ignored." — The New York Times (Editors' Choice)
"In our uncertain times, The Last Slave Ship.. is a welcome and affecting history lesson... Enlightening." — The Guardian
"A multidimensional exploration of the Clotilda, its bad actors and the descendants of the survivors... an important, weighty, timely read." — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Ben Raines made headlines in 2019 when he discovered the remains of the Clotilda, the last ship to bring enslaved people to America. His gripping, affecting book chronicles his search for the vessel in the swamps of Alabama and tells the stories of its captives and their descendants."— The Christian Science Monitor (Best Books of February)
"The Last Slave Ship is an action-packed, whip-smart true account that’s filled with science, history, and compassion. Readers will devour it." — The Washington Informer
"Ben Raines’ passionate detective work led him to discover the most famous slave shipwreck… Raines has written a crucial chapter in this unique story of loss and exploitation, but also of unsurmountable strength and hopefulness. An inspiring and captivating book.” — Sylviane A. Diouf, PhD, author of Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America
"The Last Slave Ship is all at once the true story of a terrible crime and its survivors, a riveting account of discovering the evidence its perpetrators hoped would never be found, and a moving attempt to grapple with its legacy. We may never ultimately be able to reckon adequately with slavery, but Ben Raines reminds us that the task’s immensity is no excuse for neglecting it. This is a powerful and important book."— Joshua Rothman, the Dept. of History professor at University of Alabama
"Raines’ adroit descriptions of the people and events triggered by the voyage of Clotilda are not only riveting, but speak to the true spirits of all involved." — Darron Patterson, President of The Clotilda Descendants Association
"An evocative and informative tale of exploitation, deceit, and resilience.”— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A highly readable, elucidating narrative that investigates all the layers of a traumatic history.— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)