Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, by Zora Neale Hurston. Published May 8, 2018. Hardcover, 208 pages
A long buried work, Barracoon is a newly published book which was originally penned in 1931 by Zora Neale Hurston. It documents the story of Cudjo Lewis, the last known survivor of the last known slave ship to bring African slaves to America, mostly in his own words. A barrcoon is what they called the barracks that captured Africans lived in as they waited to be chosen by buyers and loaded onto ships headed for America.
Lewis’ existence was not Hurston’s discovery. He was known to many of the cultural anthropologists of that era who studied the lives of the African slaves and their descendants, but Hurston was the rare anthropological researcher who spent extensive amounts of time with him. She had in-depth conversations with him in Plateau, Alabama. Plateau was originally known as Africatown as it was founded by newly freed slaves who worked together and saved to buy a plot of land on which they could live as free people.
When Hurston initially approached Lewis (whose African name was Kassoula), he was reserved and rebuffed her attempts to connect with him. Nevertheless she persisted and on one of her visits, she did two things which, undoubtedly intersected with catching Lewis in a jovial mood, opened the door to their friendship and his sharing his story with her. She came bearing the gifts of peaches and watermelon, and she called him by his African name.
Beginning with the life of his family and tribe, Lewis recounted all that he could remember about his way of life in Africa, the tribal war which resulted in his capture and enslavement, touched on his life as a slave, and on his life and losses once he was set free in 1865, after 5 years and 6 months of enslavement.
One of the first things to note about Lewis, and the other 129 captives who arrived on American shores with him in 1859, was that his capture from his African homeland took place 50 years after the United States how outlawed the capture and transport of new slaves from the African continent. However, much like whiskey during prohibition and the war on drugs which persists to this day, there were then as now, smugglers who continued to run “contraband” from Africa to the U.S.
As the U.S. and Britain tightened Atlantic patrols, it became harder and harder for transatlantic slave ship captains to do business, but where there is a will to make money, there’s a way. And the will was strong on the part of some African tribal chiefs to continue to fill their coffers by selling Africans captured from rival tribes into slavery. According to Lewis, the situation had degenerated to the point that the richest, strongest tribal king had begun to invent reasons to make war against other tribes based on nonsense specifically for the purpose of capturing the tribe’s young, strongest men and women to be sold to Americans as slaves.
This was exactly what happened to his tribe two years before the start of the Civil War which officially ended chattel slavery in the U.S. As far as the historians of that time were able to surmise, Cudjo (Kassoula) Lewis’ ship, the Clotilda, was the last known ship to transport Africans from Africa to the U.S. mainland in the autumn of 1859.
This book is a touching, engaging, and informative read. As is often the case with books written in dialect, it took me a couple of chapters to latch on to the language and develop, internal rhythm and follow along fully with Cudjo as he told the story of his life and trials he endured both on Africa and in America. The lack of freedom and humanity he suffered at the hands of those who bought and enslaved him seem to just barely rival his pain at being sold by his own people and the disdain he and the other late African arrivals experienced from the slaves who had been in America for generations or who had been born here. His tales of love, loss, faith and forgiveness are equal parts touching and heartrending.
Barracoon is a quick read. It is 208 pages, but the last 90 of those pages are appendices and historical notes. I read the entire thing –including the historical notes because there is much in them that interests me- but Cudjo Lewis’ story was, even making concessions for the dialect, a fast-paced recounting of everything he was able to remember about his trying life.
I highly recommend Barracoon, regardless of your race or creed, as Mr. Lewis’ history is as much American history as Washington crossing the Delaware.
Edited to add Content advisory: Mr. Lewis’ story of the tribal war and his resulting captivity is particularly violent and brutal. Other than that, I can’t think of content that might be unusually jarring and certainly nothing offensive.