Slavery and slave trade go down in history as arguably the ugliest and horrific atrocities committed on the black race, on the black Africans. Stories were documented, but there was one intriguing one which never saw the light of day. The story of Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the last slave ship, has finally been unveilled, and it is a major piece of history.
The descendant of Cudjo Lewis, Garry Lumbers, expressed delight that finally the story of his great-great-grandfather has been published - 87 years after it was written. When he spoke to the Independent, he said that he would not buy the book for himself only, but that he would also but the book for his 22 grandchildren and study the book with them. In doing this, he will ensure that never again would the world neglect the story of his great ancestor: born in Africa as Kossula, died in America in 1935 as Cudjo Lewis.
The author of the book, Zeara Neale Hurston, famous for the Harlem Renaissance in America, first met Cudjo Lewis in 1928. She was fiercely keen to tell his story to the world, but she died before this could become a solid reality. Publishers turned down her manuscript in 1931, taking excuse in the fact that Lewis's heavily accented dialect would be too difficult to read. Hurston was an anthropologist who documented her interviews with Lewis and went on to write a book in his own words titled "Barracoon: The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo'".
Mr Lumbers says that he grew up in the house that was constructed by Lewis, on the two acres of land that he bought with the $100 that somehow he scraped together from hard but paid labour after being freed as a result of the American Civil War.
Lewis and more than 100 other villagers were kidnapped and forced into a barracoon (name for the African holding pens for captives awaiting sale and shipment into slavery, from which the book takes its title) on a ship named Clotilda that was chartered by Alabama slaveholder Timothy Meaher who bet that he wouldn't be caught or tried for breaking the 1808 law of transporting Africans to America for slavery in 1859.
When Cudjo Lewis and other former slaves were freed, they proceeded to build a community called Africatown, which is now known as Plateau in Mobile, Alabama. When Cudjo was inhis 90s, he was the last person out of the 116 humans who had constituted the "cargo" of the ship used to illegally transport them in 1859. By the time he died 4 years after the manuscript had been rejected he was about 94 years old.
Meaher and the Clotilda's captain, William Foster, brought the group to Mobile, Alabama and either sold them or personally enslaved them when they arrived in 1860. Lewis was sold to the owner of a shipping business and he worked toting freight for more than five years on the Alabama River. He was freed in 1865 after the Civil War ended.
The manuscript for 'Baracoon' languished in the archives of Howard University until the Zora Neal Hurston Trust found a buyer for the book. And the new publisher is Harper Collins.
When Hurston told Cudjo Lewis that she wanted to tell the world about his story, she wrote, "His head was bowed for a time. Then he lifted his wet face: "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'"
She knew who Cudjo 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 67 years of freedom in a foreign land behind him."
The Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and political movement that took pride, rather than shame in black America’s African origins, was gaining a lot of traction at the time and Hurston was actively involved with it.
Hurston shows a side of Cudjo Lewis in the book that was marked by a deep sense of loss: his humanity, homeland,his given name and his family.
During the last moments between Hurston and Cudjo, they had developed a firm, open relation. This made her write a letter to her friend, fellow Harlem Renaissance author and poet Langston Hughes, that the experience left her deeply moved, according to her biography, 'Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston' by author Valerie Boyd.
"Tears welled in his eyes as he described the trip across the ocean in the Clotilda," Hurston wrote, as cited in Boyd's biography.
"But what moved Hurston most about the old man — whom she always called by his African name, Kossola — was how much he continued to miss his people back in Nigeria. 'I lonely for my folks,' he told her. …
"After seventy-five years he still had that tragic sense of loss. …
"That yearning for blood and cultural ties. That sense of mutilation. It gave me something to feel about."
Hurston never got any recognition for her moving work. She died in poverty, and despite becoming briefly famous due to her other work, the largest royalty she ever received was $943.75. By the time she died all her works that had been published were out of print.
Here is a powerful story which has been resurrected for the world to have a deeper look into.