Review: ‘Descendant’ pays powerful witness to the legacy of the slave ship the Clotilda
For years, in secret, the Clotilda was a slave ship used to transport the most vulnerable women in society to new lands for sale as slaves. A century ago the ship was bought by the United States and the ship’s new owner, Thomas Jefferson, was determined to return the ship to her original purpose. However, the US government put forth a law that required the Clotilda – no matter what happened to the ship – to continue on her journey to Africa. But before she could sail, the US government confiscated the ship and returned it to Portugal where it was destroyed in an accident. The Clotilda was not destroyed, though. In the centuries following she remained sunk in the sea. She was found by a Portuguese fisherman, a man named Diogo Cão, in 1985 – and he brought her to the surface and began work on restoring her. Cão spent the next several years building her back up, and today the Clotilda is a floating museum with a mission to tell the story of the slave ships.
The ship, first described in 1741, was built to be a private vessel; it was designed to hold between 2,000 and 3,000 people, with an estimated cargo capacity of 10,000 tons. The Clotilda was, for a short time, one of the richest ships in history. After the United States took possession of her in the mid-1760s, she served as a transport for African captives throughout the Atlantic and as a prison and holding facility off Haiti. She carried as many as 1,000 slaves.
The last slave ship to use the Cape as a base was sent out in 1658 on an exploratory mission in search of the New World. On board were eight male and nine female slaves, as well as one white captive. The vessel was captured off the Brazilian coast in October of that year and subsequently sold in Lisbon for 400 golden ducats, the equivalent in today’s money of approximately $160,000. The vessel was renamed “Clotilda” in honor of a French ship called the Clotilde, which