Zora Neale Hurston begins her introduction, which gives some background information on Cudjo’s story, by declaring that “the African Slave trade is the most dramatic chapter in the story of human existence.” While many people have written about slavery, supporting and condemning it, few former slaves have had their say. In particular, almost no one who lived through the Middle Passage has been able to tell their story. Now, there’s only one survivor of that journey alive, a man named Cudjo Lewis who lives in Plateau, Alabama.
As she opens her work, Hurston contrasts it to the previous literary discussion of slavery, and establishes herself as the voice of the enslaved, rather than the enslavers. The idea of storytelling as an essential method of preserving memory, especially the memories of traumatized people, will be a fundamental preoccupation throughout the book.
Hurston first meets Cudjo in 1927, when her mentor, the anthropologist Franz Boas, dispatches her to record his experience of the Middle Passage for publication in a magazine about African American history. She supplements her interviews with research in archives, such as those held by the Mobile Historical Society.
Showing that her work is grounded in research (and even name-dropping a famous anthropologist!) Hurston emphasizes that African American history merits rigorous academic treatment; it’s not something that can be stereotyped or dismissed as “primitive.”
In 1859, three brothers—Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher—and a captain named Bill Foster colluded to launch an illegal but profitable slave-trading expedition. Captain Foster, owner of the swift ship the Clotilda, secretly leaves Mobile for the port of Dahomey in West Africa. While he stops for repairs at the Cape Verde Islands, his crew mutinies; Foster promises to increase their wages, but never actually does so.
It’s important to note that this expedition takes place so much later than the 1807 abolition of international slave trade. From their first appearance, the Meaher brothers exude an attitude of racism and racial entitlement that they feel puts them above the law. The fact that they go unpunished shows how unconcerned the American justice system is with upholding its own limited guarantees of security to African Americans.
Eventually, he arrives at Dahomey, a kingdom known for trading slaves. Foster meets with the Prince of Dahomey and is impressed with the large palace and evident wealth. Trying to impress Foster, the Prince tells him to select any member of his court as a gift; he chooses a relative of the Prince, a man named Gumpa, who is the only Dahoman man transported to America on the Clotilda.
For Cudjo, one of the bitterest aspects of enslavement is the fact that it’s perpetrated in part by other Africans. Cudjo will frequently emphasize the brutality and heartlessness of his Dahoman captors during his own narrative.
After this ceremonial visit, Foster goes to the barracoons, which are overflowing with captives awaiting sale. Historically, European powers have tried to incite different tribes against each other in order to generate a supply of captives, but the King of Dahomey has made slave-trading his explicit business and raids his neighbors every year in order to capture people to sell. Still, the King claims that he only makes war when a neighboring kingdom has insulted him. In this way, “whole nations” are “exterminated” by the slave trade.
The King of Dahomey is trying to justify his practice of capturing and selling slaves by controlling the narrative that surrounds it, placing his deeds in the context of legitimate war rather than illegitimate raids. His behavior demonstrates the importance of reclaiming more truthful narratives—exactly what Hurston is doing by recording and publishing the story of Cudjo’s life.
When Captain Foster arrives, the yearly wars have just concluded, so the barracoons are full. He chooses 130 slaves, both men and women. They are loaded onto his ship by Kroo men, members of another tribe. When most of the slaves are aboard, Foster sees all the Dahoman ships in the harbor display black flags, and realizes that they are planning on recapturing the slaves and holding them for ransom. However, because the Clotilda is such a fast ship, he’s able to get away.
The distinctions between the Kroo, the Dahomans, and members of Cudjo’s own tribe suggest that slave trading depends on sharp tribal divisions and animosities. At the same time, by making sure to record these distinctions Hurston is pushing back against the contemporary habit of lumping all Africans together instead of taking time to understand the complex differences between tribes and nations.
After thirteen days, Foster allows the slaves to come onto the deck for exercise. They are cramped and ill from being unable to move around. When Foster finally reaches America, he places all the slaves back in the hold in order to avoid detection. The ship hides in the Mobile Bay until word can be sent to the Meaher brothers, who arrive with a tugboat to tow the Clotilda to a safe location. When he receives the message, Jim Meaher goes to the local church, where the tugboat pilot is attending services and calls him away.
Evidently, neither Jim Meaher nor the tugboat pilot see no contradictions between strong religious faith and the practice of enslaving fellow humans. While Cudjo is a devoted Christian and feels empowered by religion, here Hurston steps back from his position to remind the reader that Christianity was also used to promote and justify slavery.
That night, the tugboat tows the Clotilda up a tributary of the Mobile River to a secluded island. There, the slaves are transferred onto a steam boat (ironically, named after Chief Justice Taney, who spearheaded the Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision) and taken to another plantation. Captain Foster sets fire to the Clotilda but later regrets this decision, as it was an expensive and useful ship.
In the “Dred Scott” decision, the Supreme Court—generally considered a beacon of justice and equality—ruled that slaves and their descendants could not be American citizens. This coincidence foreshadows Cudjo’s later experiences in American, when the country’s legendary equality will prove illusory for him.
The slaves are kept hidden on the plantation for eleven days, after which they are given clothes and transported to Burns Meaher’s planation. In order to avoid detection, they have to spend every day hiding in the swamp while the Meahers secretly communicate with other slave-owners who are interested in purchasing them. After a few sales, most of the slaves are divided between the Meaher brothers and Captain Foster.
While Hurston lays out the facts, Cudjo will relay the horror of his first days in slavery much more evocatively. While both portrayals of this event are important, the authenticity and emotional weight Cudjo adds underscore Hurston’s opening assertion that firsthand accounts of slavery fill a unique gap in historical knowledge.
Only a year later, the Civil War breaks out. In 1861, the Meaher brothers are fined for illegally bringing slaves into the country. After the Civil War, the Africans of the Clotilda build a village and name it Africatown; it’s now known as Plateau, “but still it’s dominant tone is African.”
The name of the town shows that while Cudjo and his fellows become committed to building a life in America, they will still do everything possible to retain their African roots.
Having done her research, Hurston sets out to find Cudjo, a man who calls himself “the tree of two woods.” He is the only person left on the planet who has experienced a life in Africa, captivity and enslavement, as well as life as a free man in America. Hurston wants to know how he conceives of his experiences, and how “a pagan [lives] with a Christian God.”
Hurston’s last remark, describing Cudjo as a “pagan,” sounds somewhat odd, but it emphasizes the clash between African and European culture—embodied in the two different religious traditions—that shapes Cudjo’s character and life.