Hector Posset, the ambassador of the Republic of Benin, cracked the seal on a bottle of gin as we neared the wreck.
Travelling aboard my boat, we had come up the Spanish River, through its confluence with the Mobile River to 12 Mile Island, following the exact path that the Clotilda, the last American slave ship, used to smuggle the final 110 slaves brought in bondage from Africa to the United States.
Posset arrived in Mobile two days after news broke that a burnt ship the size and age of the Clotilda had been found in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the swamp where the captain claimed he set it afire in 1860. In a previous article, I relied on historical evidence and analysis by archaeologists to suggest that the 19th century wreck I found might be the Clotilda, which was burned after it arrived here with a last load of slaves from Benin.
I had been asked to take the ambassador upriver to the site by Dr. Sharon Ingram, chair of the state-sponsored Alabama Benin Trade and Cooperative Forum, so that he might offer libations and perform traditional rituals practiced in his homeland.
Floating a few feet from the hull of what may be the Clotilda, the ambassador, wearing a necktie and pinstripe suit, shook water and then gin from two bottles over the wreck. In low, forceful tones, he spoke directly to the wreck in a Beninese dialect, his voice often colored with anger. Then, taking a slug from the gin bottle, the ambassador began spraying mouthfuls of liquor over the wreck. Tears streamed from behind his sunglasses.
The moment was a profound one for Posset. Not only does he hail from Benin, once known as the Kingdom of Dahomey, where the Clotilda captives were first captured by fellow Africans and then sold to the Americans, but Posset is actually a descendant of the nation’s royal family. By the 1800s, the King of Dahomey was making about a quarter of a million dollars a year selling Africans to Europeans, Americans and Brazilians, according to historical records. To put that number in perspective, a quarter of a million dollars in 1860 would be worth roughly $50 million today. The prosperous kingdom was notorious as a hub of the slave trade, and home to the door of no return, through which millions of slaves, including perhaps the Clotilda captives, passed as they were transferred to slave ships for the middle passage.
Asked to explain the words he spoke over the wreck, Posset covered his eyes for a moment as he regained composure and stifled a sob.
“I am just begging them to forgive us, because we sold them. Our forefathers sold their brothers and sisters. I am not the person to talk to them. No! May their souls rest in peace, perfect peace. They should forgive us. They should,” Posset said, wiping tears from his cheeks. “Qualified people will come and talk to them in due time. I feel so sad.”