The South Portland Historical Society will host the next in its winter lecture series in the Casco Bay Room of the South Portland Community Center on Thursday, Jan. 25, at 6:30 p.m. Vivian Cunningham will present, “The Clotilda: A Bet That Cost Lives,” about the schooner Clotilda and Maine’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

A mural depicting the schooner Clotilda, which carried the last cargo of enslaved Africans known to have been delivered to the United States, in Mobile, Alabama. The wreck of the Clotilda was discovered in May, 2019, in Mobile Bay. Courtesy image

“It’s very chilling,” said Darron Patterson, the president of the Clotilda Descendants Association. Darron is the great-great-grandson of Kupollee, an enslaved African who arrived in Alabama on the Clotilda as a teenager. “It takes a certain amount of evil to carry out something like that, to treat human beings like cargo. We want that ship to be on display so the world never forgets. Never forgets the last slaving vessel on United States’ soil.”

The wreck of Clotilda was discovered in May, 2019, in Mobile Bay and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2021. Her final voyage is considered the last slaving voyage in United States history. The descendants of the enslaved Africans who were kidnapped from their homeland still live near Mobile in a community known as Africatown.

The whole story of the Clotilda, and the individuals it carried, is all the more chilling when one peels back the layers of the story. The perpetrators not only committed an illegal act, they also had skewed moral compasses that allowed them to plan, carry out, and inevitably hold secret, the transport of the enslaved individuals; all on a bet.

We begin with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This exchange was made illegal in the United States with “The Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves,” enacted in 1807 by President Thomas Jefferson. However, it is important to note that the domestic slave trade continued. The law only made it illegal to import or export enslaved individuals internationally. It said nothing of the ownership or the domestic (within the United States) transportation of enslaved people.

This allowed for the continued growing of the cotton industry in the American south and cotton production into fabric in northern factories. Even with this act, historians estimate that up to 50,000 enslaved individuals were illegally imported to the United States after 1808, primarily through the ports in the southern United States.


An 1862 illustration of Capt. Nathanial Gordon’s execution by Harper’s Weekly. Courtesy image

In 1819, the James Monroe Piracy Act was passed. This new federal statute sought to protect the commerce of the United States while punishing the crime of piracy. One year later, it was amended, declaring that participating in the slave trade was an act of piracy (of course, this only referred to the international import/exportation of individuals). Between the years 1837 and 1860 there were 74 cases tried for the illegal transportation of enslaved individuals, “but few captains had been convicted, and those had received trifling sentences, which they had usually been able to avoid,” asserts Hugh Thomas in his book, “The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440–1870.”

Since the time that this law was enacted, there was only one captain sentenced to death for the piratical act of transporting enslaved individuals; Capt. Nathanial Gordon, born in South Portland. At the time of his arrest, his wife and child were living in a home on the Portland peninsula.

Gordon was captured in 1860 by the USS Mohican off the coast of the Congo with a cargo of 868 enslaved Africans. He was promptly extradited to New York to face trial, but the trial was repeatedly delayed because of the onset of the United States Civil War. After two years of waiting, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged. Supporters of Gordon appealed to President Abraham Lincoln for a pardon.

While Lincoln was well-known among his contemporaries for his compassion, and for issuing many pardons during his presidency, he refused to consider a pardon for Gordon. Lincoln even went so far as to refuse to meet with Gordon’s supporters. Lincoln stated, “I believe I am kindly enough in nature, and can be moved to pity and to pardon the perpetrator of almost the worst crime that the mind of man can conceive or the arm of man can execute; but any man, who, for paltry gain and stimulated only by avarice, who can rob Africa of her children to sell into interminable bondage, I never will pardon.”

Gordon was executed on Feb. 7, 1862.

The Search for Trouvadore 2008. Courtesy image/Toni L. Carrell

There were two other notable cases for this type of piracy that were brought forth in federal court. Both cases were thrown out because of the circumstances and lack of physical evidence.


The first case was in 1852. James Smith, the captain of the American ship Julia Moulton, was tried for violating the Anti-Piracy Act of 1820 for hauling 645 slaves from Ambriz, in modern day Angola, to the island of Trinidad. Despite Smith’s protestations that his real name was Julius Schmidt, a German merchant captain, not a naturalized American citizen, and thus not subject to American law, Smith became the first person to be convicted under the 1820 provisions.

At the trial, based upon various legal technicalities, Smith was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge. He was sentenced to two years in prison and fined $1,000. After Smith served his sentence, he petitioned President James Buchanan for a pardon. Buchanan granted Smith a pardon in 1857, nullifying his fine.

The other case was brought forth against Timothy Meaher and Capt. William Foster in 1860 for the illegal shipment of 110 enslaved individuals. That case was also quickly thrown out for lack of physical evidence: that evidence being the slaving vessel Clotilda.

Timothy Meaher was originally from Whitfield, Maine. He was the son of Irish immigrants James and Susannah Millay Meaher. Timothy and his brothers relocated to Mobile, Alabama, around 1836 along with their vessel Clotilda to start their own shipping firm. Within a decade Timothy and his two brothers [James and Byrnes] owned cotton plantations and lumber mills. They also did a profitable business running steamboats that carried goods and passengers (both free and enslaved) from Montgomery to Mobile.

Historians now widely believe that Timothy Meaher initiated the last forced transport of enslaved people from Africa to the United States in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War. His brother, Byrnes, wealthy plantation owner John Dabey and a group of New England businessmen were among the investors in the voyage. The illegal capture and transporting of enslaved people was conducted as part of a bet to see if Meaher could avoid the prosecution from the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves. He reportedly bet, “a thousand dollars that inside two years I myself can bring a ship full of [enslaved Africans] right into Mobile Bay under the officers’ noses.” When the successful voyage was completed, Meaher sold some of the enslaved people to his fellow investors, but kept the rest to work for his brother James and himself at his local shipyard and estate located just outside of Mobile. Meaher soon after ordered the ship burned to try and hide the evidence of his lawbreaking.

The Jan. 25 lecture will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Community Center. The lecture is free for current society members, $20 for non-members. Annual family memberships will be available for $25 at the lecture. Patrons are encouraged to arrive early. The Community Center is located at 21 Nelson Road in South Portland. The speaker series is presented with the financial support of Bristol Seafoods. South Portland Historical Society can be reached 207-767-7299 or by email at

Vivian Cunningham grew up in Alabama where she developed her interest in history and museum work. The Clotilda’s wreck was found close to her hometown. Cunningham recently received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Maine College of Art and Design and is currently working with the Maine Historical Society as a collections assistant. She also works for the Tate House Museum and the Victorian Mansion.

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