Who owns Alabama’s last slave ship?

Jan 31, 2018 by

A few miles north from the city of Mobile, in just a few feet of shallow water, large iron pins and rotting wood protrude into the crisp Mobile Delta air. While it’s not immediately clear what the structure might be from a boat or the shoreline, it’s believed that it could be the lost 160 year-old wreck of the Clotilda, the last slave ship to enter the United States.

History books will tell you that the ship was set alight in order destroy evidence of human trafficking of would-be slaves from Africa. Those people, who came from what is now modern day Togo and Benin on the West Coast of Africa, settled in a small town that is now known as Africatown. Some descendants still live there today.

While confirmation that the ship is in fact the Clotilda still has to be made, the wreck is clearly a significant find. It has garnered international interest and appeared in publications all over the world. But with fame there is also fear. The renewed interest in the Clotilda could see the site disturbed or even destroyed by people trying to get a look at its rich history. And that raises the question of who is responsible for looking after and securing what could be one of the most culturally significant finds in recent U.S. history.

“Federal and state agencies are currently consulting to both determine responsibility and ownership and to provide protection for this cultural resource,” said Lisa D. Jones, Executive Director of the Alabama Historical Commission to AL.com. The commission is the official state historic preservation agency whose mission is to protect, preserve, and interpret Alabama’s historic places. “Permits to explore and/or excavate shipwrecks and/or archaeological sites in Alabama waters require a permit from the Alabama Historical Commission and many also require a permit from the Corps of Engineers.”

“As we move forward, we are excited about the discovery of this cultural resource and determining the validity of this finding,” she added.

The Corps of Engineers was unable to give comment on the discovery of the ship.

But any kind of excavation would be delayed until the exact ownership of the vessel is decided upon.

Tim Shusta, an attorney in admiralty and maritime law in Tampa, told AL.com that the state of Alabama would likely have ownership over the wreck and any artifacts that are contained within.

“There’s a federal act that gives shipwrecks imbedded in state waters to the state that owns the waters,” he said. “So anyone that wanted to perform salvage or recover any artifacts or anything like that would have to get a permit from the state of Alabama. And then, depending on the exact location and because this wreck is mostly buried in the mud, which would involve dredging and digging, permits would be required from the state and federal government through the Army Corp of Engineers because there would be environmental concerns.”

The Alabama Code 41-9-249.1., contracts for recovery or salvage of archaeological treasure, etc, states that “the Alabama Historical Commission may enter into contracts with any group or person for the recovery or salvage of archaeological treasure, sunken or abandoned ships and wrecks of the sea, or parts thereof or their contents, which are determined to be located on state-owned lands, or on private land if the written consent of the owner thereof is first obtained.”

Source: Who owns the wreck of the Clotilda, Alabama’s last slave ship? | AL.com

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