This is the life story of Cudjo Lewis, as told by himself. It makes no attempt to be a scientific document, but on the whole he is rather accurate. If he is a little hazy as to detail after sixty-seven years, he is certainly to be pardoned. The quotations from the works of travelers in Dahomey are set down, not to make this appear a thoroughly documented biography, but to emphasize his remarkable memory.
Three spellings of his nation are found: Attako, Taccou, and Taccow. But Lewis’s pronunciation is probably correct. Therefore, I have used Takkoi throughout the work.
I was sent by a woman of tremendous understanding of primitive peoples to get this story. The thought back of the act was to set down essential truth rather than fact of detail, which is so often misleading. Therefore, he has been permitted to tell his story in his own way without the intrusion of interpretation.
For historical data, I am indebted to the Journal of Negro History, and to the records of the Mobile Historical Society.
Zora Neale Hurston
April 17, 1931
The African slave trade is the most dramatic chapter in the story of human existence. Therefore a great literature has grown up about it. Innumerable books and papers have been written. These are supplemented by the vast lore that has been blown by the breath of inarticulate ones across the seas and lands of the world.
Those who justified slaving on various grounds have had their say. Among these are several slave runners who have boasted of their exploits in the contraband flesh. Those who stood aloof in loathing have cried out against it in lengthy volumes.
All the talk, printed and spoken, has had to do with ships and rations; with sail and weather; with ruses and piracy and balls between wind and water; with native kings and bargains sharp and sinful on both sides; with tribal wars and slave factories and red massacres and all the machinations necessary to stock a barracoon with African youth on the first leg of their journey from humanity to cattle; with storing and feeding and starvation and suffocation and pestilence and death; with slave ship stenches and mutinies of crew and cargo; with the jettying of cargoes before the guns of British cruisers; with auction blocks and sales and profits and losses.
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.
Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left. He is called Cudjo Lewis and is living at present at Plateau, Alabama, a suburb of Mobile. This is the story of this Cudjo.
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.
The four men responsible for this last deal in human flesh, before the surrender of Lee at Appomattox should end the 364 years of Western slave trading, were the three Meaher brothers and one Captain [William “Bill”] Foster. Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher were natives of Maine. They had a mill and shipyard on the Alabama River at the mouth of Chickasabogue Creek (now called Three-Mile Creek) where they built swift vessels for blockade running, filibustering expeditions, and river trade. Captain Foster was associated with the Meahers in business. He was “born in Nova Scotia of English parents.”
There are various reasons given for this trip to the African coast in 1859, with the muttering thunder of secession heard from one end of the United States to the other. Some say that it was done as a prank to win a bet. That is doubtful. Perhaps they believed with many others that the abolitionists would never achieve their ends. Perhaps they merely thought of the probable profits of the voyage and so undertook it.
The Clotilda was the fastest boat in their possession, and she was the one selected to make the trip. Captain Foster seems to have been the actual owner of the vessel. Perhaps that is the reason he sailed in command. The clearance papers state that she was sailing for the west coast for a cargo of red palm oil. Foster had a crew of Yankee sailors and sailed directly for Whydah [Ouidah], the slave port of Dahomey.
The Clotilda slipped away from Mobile as secretly as possible so as not to arouse the curiosity of the Government. It had a good voyage to within a short distance of the Cape Verde Islands. Then a hurricane struck and Captain Foster had to put in there for repairs.
While he was on dry-dock, his crew mutinied. They demanded more pay under the threat of informing a British man-of-war that was at hand.
Foster hurriedly promised the increase the sailors demanded. But his wife often told how he laughingly broke this promise when it was safe to do so. After the repairs had been made, he made presents to the Portuguese officials of shawls and other trinkets and sailed away unmolested.
Soon he was safely anchored in the Gulf of Guinea, before Whydah. There being no harbor, ships must stand in open roadstead and the communications with shore are carried on by Kroo men in their surf boats.
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.
The Prince expressed regret that Foster had arrived a little too late to witness the Dahomey “Custom” in honor of trade (foreign, i.e., mostly slave trade); nevertheless, he found Foster’s company so pleasant that he wished to make him a present. He therefore desired Foster to look about him and select a person, “one that the ‘superior wisdom and exalted taste’ of Foster designated the finest specimen.” Foster looked about him and chose a young man named Gumpa; “Foster making this selection with the intention of flattering the Prince, to whom Gumpa was nearly related.” This accounts for the one Dahoman in the cargo.
The ceremonies over, Foster had “little trouble in procuring a cargo.” The barracoons at Whydah were overflowing. “[I]t had long been a part of the traders’ policy to instigate the tribes against each other,” so that plenty of prisoners would be taken and “in this manner keep the markets stocked. News of the trade was often published in the papers.” An excerpt from the Mobile Register of November 9, 1858, said: “‘From the West coast of Africa we have advice dated September 21st. The quarreling of the tribes on Sierra Leone River rendered the aspect of things very unsatisfactory.’”
Inciting was no longer necessary in Dahomey. The King of Dahomey had long ago concentrated all his resources on the providing of slaves for the foreign market. There was “a brisk trade in slaves at from fifty to sixty dollars apiece at Whydah. Immense numbers of Negroes were collected along the coast for export.”
King Ghezo maintained a standing army “of about 12,000, and of these 5000 are Amazons.” The Dahoman year was divided into two parts—the wars and the festivals. “In the months of November or December the king commences his annual wars,” and these wars were kept up until January or February. These were never carried on for mere conquest. They were all forced upon the Dahomans from less powerful nations.
The King boasted that he never attacked a people unless they had not only insulted Dahomey, but his own people must ask him for a war against the aggressors for “three successive years.” Then and then only would he let himself be persuaded to march forth and exterminate the insulting tribe. But there were so many insulting chiefs and kings that it kept the warriors of Dahomey, reluctant as they were, always upon the warpath. “[W]hole nation[s] are transported, exterminated, their name to be forgotten, except in the annual festival of their conquerors, when sycophants call the names of the vanquished countries to the remembrance of the victors.”
When the Dahoman king marched forth against a place, he concealed from his army “the name or the place against which he has brought them,” “until within a day’s march” of the goal. “Daylight is generally the time of onset, and every cunning, secrecy, and ingenuity is exercised to take the enemy by surprise.” With or without resistance, “all the aged were decapitated on the spot” and the youth driven to the barracoons at Whydah.
“On the return from war in January, the king resides at Cannah, and . . . ‘makes a Fetish,’” that is, he “sacrifices largely and gives liberal presents” to the people and, “at the same time, purchases the prisoners and heads from his soldiers” of those slain in war. (The heads are always cut off and carried home. No warrior may boast of more enemies slain than he has heads to show for.) “[T]he slaves are then sold to the slave merchants, and their blood-money wasted in the ensuing Custom, Hwae-nooeewha, as the great annual feast is entitled in Dahoman parlance.”
The most important feast is “held in March, and called See-que-ah-hee,” at which the king sacrifices many slaves and makes a great display of his wealth. There is a lesser festival in May or June “in honour of Trade” which is celebrated “with music, dancing, and singing.” In July is celebrated the royal “salute to the Fetish of the Great Waters.”
Therefore, when Captain Foster arrived in May, the wars being just over for the year, he had a large collection to choose from. The people he chose had been in the stockade behind the great white house for less than a month. He selected 130, equal number of men and women, paid for them, got into his hammock and was conveyed across the shallow river to the beach, and was shot through the surf by the skillful Kroo boys and joined his ship. In other boats manipulated by the Kroo boys were his pieces of property.
When 116 of the slaves had been brought aboard, Foster, up in the rigging, observing all the activities of the Port through his glasses, became alarmed. He saw all the Dahoman ships suddenly run up black flags. “He hurried down and gave orders” to abandon the cargo not already on board, and to sail away with all speed. He says that the Dahomans were treacherously planning to recapture the cargo he had just bought and hold him for ransom. But the Clotilda was so expertly handled and her speed was so great that she sped away to safety with all ease.
The next day he was chased by an English cruiser but escaped by pressing on sail. Nothing eventful happened until the 13th day when he ordered the cargo brought on deck so that they might regain the use of their limbs.
Though the space in the Clotilda greatly exceeded the usual space in most slavers, the blacks were cramped. “[T]he usual space in which the ‘middle passage’ was made was from two and a half to three feet in height.” It was about five feet in the Clotilda. However, the lack of action had numbed them.
“[O]n the twentieth day,” Foster thought he saw a British cruiser on the horizon intercepting his course; he climbed to the mast with his glasses. Yes, there she was, sweeping on toward his course. He hurried down and gave orders for the slaves to be returned to the hold. Then he anchored and “lay until night,” when he resumed his course.
When Captain Foster reached American waters, the slaves were put back in the hold. The ship lay hidden for three days “behind the islands in Mississippi Sound and near the lower end of Mobile Bay.”
To make the hiding more secure, the Clotilde was dismasted. Then Foster got into a small boat, rowed by four sailors to go to the western shore of Mobile Bay, intending to send word to Meaher that the Clotilde had arrived. His approach was regarded with suspicion by some men ashore, and he was fired upon. Waving a white handkerchief their doubts were allayed and he offered fifty dollars for a conveyance which would take him to Mobile.
“Captain Foster reached Mobile on a Sunday morning in August (1859)”; his return from the slave coast having been made in seventy days. “Arrangements had long been made that a tug should lie in readiness to go at a moment’s notice down Mobile Bay to tow the Clotilde and her cargo to safety. When the news came, the tug’s pilot was attending services at St. John’s Church. Captain Jim Meaher and James Dennison—a Negro slave—hurried to the church” and called the pilot out. “The three hastened down to the wharf, and were soon aboard the tug.” It proceeded down the bay, but waited till dark to approach the Clotilda.
Finally, the tug was made fast to the Clotilda and “the trip up the bay was begun.” The last slave ship was at the end of its voyage: “The tug avoided the Mobile River channel, slipped behind the light-house on Battery Gladden, into Spanish River. . . . As the Clotilde passed opposite Mobile the clock in the old Spanish tower struck eleven, and the watchman’s voice floated over the city and across the marshes, ‘Eleven o’clock and all’s well.’
“The Clotilde was taken directly to Twelve-Mile Island—a lonely, weird place by night.” There Captain Foster and the Meahers awaited the R. B. Taney, “named for Chief Justice Tainey” of the Dred Scott decision fame. Some say it was the June instead of the Taney. “[L]ights were smothered, and in the darkness quickly and quietly” the captives were transferred from the Clotilda “to the steamboat [and] taken up the Alabama River to John Dabney’s plantation below Mount Vernon.” They were landed the next day, and left in charge of the slave, James Dennison.
“At Twelve-Mile Island, the crew of Northern sailors again mutinied. Captain Foster, with a six shooter in each hand, went among them, discharged them, and ordered them to ‘hit the grit and never be seen in Southern waters again.’ They were placed aboard the tug” and carried to Mobile. One of the Meahers bought them tickets “and saw that they boarded a train for the North. The Clotilde was scuttled and fired, Captain Foster himself placed seven cords of light wood upon her. Her hull still lies in the marsh at the mouth of Bayou Corne and may be seen at low tide. Foster afterwards regretted her destruction as she was worth more than the ten Africans given him by the Meahers as his booty.”
The Africans were kept at Dabney’s Place for eleven days: being only allowed to talk “in whispers” and being constantly moved from place to place.
At the end of the eleventh day clothes were brought to them and they were put aboard the steamer Commodore and carried to The Bend in Clark County, where the Alabama and the Tombigbee rivers meet and where Burns Meaher had a plantation.
There they were lodged each night under a wagon shed, and driven each morning before daybreak back into the swamp, where they remained until dark.
“Meaher sent word secretly to those disposed to buy. They were piloted to the place of concealment by Jim Dennison. The Africans were placed in two long rows,” men in one row, women in the other. Some couples were bought and taken to Selma. The remainder were divided up among the Meahers and Foster, Captain Jim Meaher took thirty-two (sixteen couples); Captain Burns Meaher took ten Africans; Foster received ten; and Captain Tim Meaher took eight. Finally, after a period of adjustment, the slaves were put to work. Before a year had passed, the war of Secession broke out. With the danger from interference from the Federal Government removed, all the Africans not sold to Selma were brought to the Meaher plantations at Magazine Point.
Nevertheless, the Meahers were tried in the federal courts 1860–61 and fined heavily for bringing in the Africans.
The village that these Africans built after freedom came, they called “African Town.” The town is now called Plateau, Alabama. The new name was bestowed upon it by the Mobile and Birmingham Railroad (now a part of the Southern Railroad System) built through [the town]. But still its dominant tone is African.
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.
How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow? How does a pagan live with a Christian God? How has the Nigerian “heathen” borne up under the process of civilization?
I was sent to ask.
It was summer when I went to talk with Cudjo so his door was standing wide open. But I knew he was somewhere about the house before I entered the yard, because I had found the gate unlocked. When Cudjo goes down into his back-field or away from home he locks his gate with an ingenious wooden peg of African invention.
I hailed him by his African name as I walked up the steps to his porch, and he looked up into my face as I stood in the door in surprise. He was eating his breakfast from a round enameled pan with his hands, in the fashion of his fatherland.
The surprise of seeing me halted his hand between pan and face. Then tears of joy welled up.
“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you. You always callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”
I noted that another man sat eating with him and I wondered why. So I said, “I see you have company, Kossula.”
“Yeah, I got to have somebody stay wid me. I been sick in de bed de five month. I needa somebody hand me some water. So I take dis man and he sleep here and take keer Cudjo. But I gittee well now.”
In spite of the recent illness and the fact that his well had fallen in, I found Cudjo Lewis full of gleaming, good will. His garden was planted. There was deep shade under his China-berry tree and all was well.
He wanted to know a few things about New York and when I had answered him, he sat silently smoking. Finally, I told him I had come to talk with him. He removed his pipe from his mouth and smiled.
“I doan keer,” he said, “I lakee have comp’ny come see me.” Then the smile faded into a wretched weeping mask. “I so lonely. My wife she left me since de 1908. Cudjo all by hisself.”
After a minute or two he remembered me and said contritely, “Excuse me. You didn’t do nothin’ to me. Cudjo feel so lonely, he can’t help he cry sometime. Whut you want wid me?”
“First, I want to ask you how you feel today?”
Another muted silence. Then he said, “I thank God I on prayin’ groun’ and in a Bible country.”
“But didn’t you have a God back in Africa?” I asked him.
His head dropped between his hands and the tears sprung fresh. Seeing the anguish in his face, I regretted that I had come to worry this captive in a strange land. He read my face and said, “Excusee me I cry. I can’t help it when I hear de name call. Oh, Lor’. I no see Afficky soil no mo’!”
Another long silence. Then, “How come you astee me ain’ we had no God back dere in Afficky?”
“Because you said ‘thank God you were on praying ground and in a Bible country.’”
“Yeah, in Afficky we always know dere was a God; he name Alahua, but po’ Affickans we cain readee de Bible, so we doan know God got a Son. We ain’ ignant—we jes doan know. Nobody doan tell us ’bout Adam eatee de apple, we didn’t know de seven seals was sealee ’gainst us. Our parents doan tell us dat. Dey didn’t tell us ’bout de first days. No, dass a right. We jes doan know. So dat whut you come astee me?”
I temporized. “Well, yes. I wanted to ask that, but I want to ask you many things. I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”
Again his head was bowed for a time. When he lifted his wet face again he murmured, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’ I want you everywhere you go to tell everybody whut Cudjo say, and how come I in Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. I can’t talkee plain, you unnerstand me, but I calls it word by word for you so it won’t be too crooked for you.
“My name, is not Cudjo Lewis. It Kossula. When I gittee in Americky soil, Mr. Jim Meaher he try callee my name, but it too long, you unnerstand me, so I say, ‘Well, I yo’ property?’ He say, ‘Yeah.’ Den I say, ‘You callee me Cudjo. Dat do.’ But in Afficky soil my mama she name me Kossula.
“My people, you unnerstand me, dey ain’ got no ivory by de door. When it ivory from de elephant stand by de door, den dat a king, a ruler, you unnerstand me. My father neither his father don’t rule nobody. De ole folks dat live two hund’ed year befo’ I born don’t tell me de father (remote ancestor) rule nobody.
“My people in Afficky, you unnerstand me, dey not rich. Dass de truth, now. I not goin’ tellee you my folks dey rich and come from high blood. Den when you go in de Afficky soil an’ astee de people, dey say, ‘Why Kossula over dere in Americky soil tellee de folks he rich?’ I tellee you lak it tis. Now, dass right, ain’ it?
“My father’s father, you unnerstand me, he a officer of de king. He don’t live in de compound wid us. Wherever de king go, he go, you unnerstand me. De king give him plenty land, and got plenty cows and goats and sheep. Now, dass right. Maybe after while he be a little chief, I doan know. But he die when I a lil boy. Whut he gointer be later on, dat doan reachee me.
“My grandpa, he a great man. I tellee you how he go.”
I was afraid that Cudjo might go off on a tangent, so I cut in with, “But Kossula, I want to hear about you and how you lived in Africa.”
He gave me a look full of scornful pity and asked, “Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil I cain tellee you ’bout de son before I tellee you ’bout de father; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father (et te) till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, (et, te, te, grandfather) now, dass right ain’ it?
“My grandpa, you unnerstand me, he got de great big compound. He got plenty wives and chillun. His house, it is in de center de compound. In Affica soil de house of de husband it always in de center and de houses of de wives, dein in a circle round de house dey husband live in.
“He don’t think hisself to marry wid so many women. No. In de Affica soil it de wife dat go findee him another wife.
“S’pose I in de Affica soil. Cudjo he been married for seven year for example. His wife say, ‘Cudjo, I am growin’ old. I tired. I will bring you another wife.’
“Before she speakee dat, she got de girl who he doan know in her mind. She a girl she think very nice. Maybe her husband never see her. Well, she go out in de market place, maybe in de public square. She see disa girl and astee de girl, ‘You know Cudjo?’ De girl tellee her, ‘I have heard of him.’ De wife say, ‘Cudjo is good. He is kind. I like you to be his wife.’ De girl say, ‘Come with me to my papa and mama.’
“Dey go, you unnerstand me, to de girl’s parents together. Dey astee her questions and she answeree for her husband. She astee dem questions too and if both sides satisfy wid one ’nother de girl’s parents say, ‘We give our daughter into yo’ care. She ain’ ours no mo’. You be good to her.’
“De wife she come back to Cudjo and makee de ’rangements. Cudjo got to pay de father for de girl. If she be a rich girl dat been in de fat-house long time, you unnerstand me, he got to pay two of everything for her. Two cow, two sheep, two goat, chickens, yam, maybe gold. De rich man, keepee his daughter in de fat-house long time. Sometime two year. She gittee de dinner in dere eight times a day and dey don’t leavee her git in and out de bed by herself. De one whut keep de fat-house he lift dem in and out, so dey don’t lose de fat.
“De man not so rich, he cain keep his girl dere long so she not so fat. So po’ man don’t send his daughter.
“Derefore, you unnerstand me, de man pay different price for different girl. If she de daughter of a po’ family, or she been married before or somethin’, he don’t pay much for her.
“When de new wife come first to her husband compound she live in de house wid de old wife. She teach her what to do and how to take keer de husband. When she learn all dat, den she have a house by herself.
“When dey gittee ready to buildee de new house, de man takee de machete and chop de palm tree to mark de place where de house goin’ be build. Den he throw down a cow and have plenty palm wine. Den all de people come and eatee de meat and drink de wine and stomp de place smooth and buildee de house.
“My grandpa, he buildee wife house many time.
“Some men in de Affica soil don’t gittee no wife ’cause dey cain buy none. Dey ain’ got nothing to give so a wife kin come to dem. Some got too many. When you hungry it is painful but when de belly too full it painful too.
“All de wives make food (udia) for de husband. All de men dey likee de fufu. He eatee de big calabash full to de top wid fufu, den my grandpa he lay down to sleep.
“De young wives (before they are old enough to take up the actual duties of wifehood) help put de husband to sleep. One makee wind for him wid de fan. Another one rub de head. Maybe one clean de hands and somebody look after de toe-nails. Den he sleepee and snore.
“Somebody stand guard before de door so nobody make noise and wakee him. Sometime de son of a slave in de compound makee too much noise. De man what stand guard ketchee him and takee him to my grandpa. He sit up and lookee at de boy so. Den he astee him, ‘Whoever tellee you dat de mouse kin walk ’cross de roof of de mighty? Where is dat Portugee man? I swap you for tobacco! In de olden days, I walk on yo’ skin!’ (That is, I would kill you and make shoes from your hide.) ‘I drink water from yo’ skull.’ (I would have killed you and used your head for a drinking cup.)
“My grandpa say dat, but he don’t never astee de chief to sellee nobody to de Portugee. Some chief dey gittee mad when de slave talkee so sassy and don’t do work lakee dey tell ’em. Den dey sell him to de Portugee. De chief throw orange under de table. Den he call the slave boy he goin’ sell and say to de boy, ‘Pick me de orange under de table.’ De boy stoop under de table. De chief got a man standin dere. Maybe two. When de boy go under the table to gittee de orange, de chief say, ‘Ketchee de bushman!’ De men grabee de boy and sellee him.
“De chief he ain’ always glad. One day de wife die. She still in de old wife’s house and ain’ never been no wife to the chief yet. She too young. Why she die, Cudjo doan know.
“When dey come to tell de chief his young wife dead, he go look. He slap his hand on his wrist. Den he scream in his fist and cry. He say, ‘Yea! yea! yea! my wife dead. All my goods wasted. I pay big price for her. I fatten her and now she dead and I never sleep wid her once. Yea! yea! I lose so much! She dead and still a virgin! Yea! yea, tu yea! I have a great loss.’”
Cudjo looked out over his patch of pole-beans towards the house of his daughter-in-law. I waited for him to resume, but he just sat there not seeing me. I waited but not a sound. Presently he turned to the man sitting inside the house and said, “go fetchee me some cool water.”
The man took the pail and went down the path between the rows of pole-beans to the well in the daughter-in-law’s yard. He returned and Kossula gulped down a healthy cup-full from a home-made tin cup.
Then he sat and smoked his pipe in silence. Finally he seemed to discover that I was still there. Then he said brusquely, “Go leave me ’lone. Cudjo tired. Come back tomorrow. Doan come in de mornin’ ’cause den I be in de garden. Come when it hot, den Cudjo sit in de house.”
So I left Cudjo sitting in his door with his bare feet exposed to the cloud of mosquitoes that swarmed in the shade of the inside of his house.