Zora Neal Hurston Wrote a Book About Cudjo Lewis, the Last Survivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and It’s Finally Getting Published 87 Years Later

There are too many things peo­ple don’t know about Zora Neale Hurston, renowned pri­mar­i­ly for her nov­el Their Eyes Were Watch­ing God. That’s not to slight the nov­el or its sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on lat­er writ­ers like Toni Mor­ri­son and Maya Angelou, but to say that Hurston’s schol­ar­ly work deserves equal atten­tion. A stu­dent of famed anthro­pol­o­gist Franz Boas while at Barnard Col­lege, Hurston became “the first African Amer­i­can to chron­i­cle folk­lore and voodoo,” notes the Asso­ci­a­tion for Fem­i­nist Anthro­pol­o­gy. Before turn­ing to fic­tion, she trav­eled the Caribbean and the Amer­i­can South, col­lect­ing sto­ries, his­to­ries, and songs and pub­lish­ing them in the col­lec­tions Mules and Men and Tell My Horse.

Hurston’s work in ethnog­ra­phy informed her fic­tion and opened up the field to oth­er African Amer­i­can schol­ars. It also pro­duced one of the most impor­tant works of Amer­i­can non­fic­tion in the 20th cen­tu­ry, a book that, until now, sat in man­u­script form at Howard University’s library, where only aca­d­e­mics could access it. Bar­ra­coon: The Sto­ry of the Last “Black Car­go” tells the sto­ry of Cud­jo Lewis (1840–1935), the last known sur­vivor of the Atlantic slave trade, in his own words. Hurston met Lewis—born Olu­ale Kos­so­la in what is today the coun­try of Benin—in 1927. She con­duct­ed three months of inter­views and pub­lished a study, “Cudjo’s Own Sto­ry of the Last African Slaver,” that same year.

But when she tried to pub­lish the inter­views as a book in 1931, she was told she had to change Lewis’ lan­guage. “For at least two pub­lish­ing hous­es,” writes Mea­gan Fly­nn, “Lewis’s heav­i­ly accent­ed dialect was seen as too dif­fi­cult to read.” Hurston refused. Now, the book has final­ly been pub­lished by Harper­Collins, with Lewis’s speech intact as Hurston record­ed it. Harper­Collins edi­tor Deb­o­rah Plant tells NPR, “We’re talk­ing about a lan­guage that he had to fash­ion for him­self in order to nego­ti­ate this new ter­rain he found him­self in.”

As pub­lished excerpts of the book show, his speech is not hard to under­stand. He describes the kind of bewil­der­ment all enslaved Africans must have felt after arriv­ing on alien shores and forced to toil day in and day out under threat of whip­ping or worse: “We doan know why we be bring ’way from our coun­try to work lak dis,” he says, “Every­body lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder col­ored folk­ses but dey doan know whut we say.”

Lewis tells the sto­ry of his cap­ture by the King of Dahomey, whose war­riors raid­ed his vil­lage of Takkoi and sold the cap­tives to Amer­i­can Cap­tain William Fos­ter, oper­at­ing an ille­gal oper­a­tion (the slave trade had been out­lawed for almost 60 years). Forced aboard the ship Clotil­da with over 100 oth­er African men and women, Lewis was trans­port­ed to Mobile, Alaba­ma and sold to a busi­ness­man named Tim­o­thy Mea­her. “Cud­jo and his fel­low cap­tives were forced to work on Meaher’s mill and ship­yard,” Gabe Pao­let­ti writes at All That’s Inter­est­ing. “As a slave, he start­ed to go by the name ‘Cud­jo,’ a day-named giv­en to boys born on a Mon­day, as Mea­her could not pro­nounce the name ‘Kos­so­la.’”

Deb­o­rah Plant sees the rejec­tion of Hurston’s book in the 30s as akin to Lewis’s loss of his name, coun­try, and cul­ture. “Embed­ded in his lan­guage is every­thing of his his­to­ry,” she says. “To deny him his lan­guage is to deny his his­to­ry, to deny his expe­ri­ence, which is ulti­mate­ly to deny him peri­od, to deny what hap­pened to him.”

87 years after the book’s writ­ing, Lewis’s sto­ry offers a time­ly reminder of the his­to­ry of slav­ery. The book arrives just after the dis­cov­ery of what his­to­ri­ans and archae­ol­o­gists believe to be the wreck of the Clotil­da, a ves­sel owned and oper­at­ed, says AL.com reporter Ben Raines in the video above, by two already wealthy men who smug­gled slaves to prove that they could get away with it, then burned the evi­dence, the ship, to escape detec­tion.

When police arrived at Meaher’s prop­er­ty to charge him with ille­gal­ly smug­gling enslaved peo­ple, he “had hid­den away the cap­tives,” writes Pao­let­ti, “and had erased all trace of them hav­ing been there.” Thanks to Hurston, we have an invalu­able first­hand account of what it was like for one West African man who not only endured war and cap­ture at the hands of a rival tribe, but also sale at a slave mar­ket, the mid­dle pas­sage across the Atlantic, and forced labor in the deep South—and who lived through the Civ­il War, Eman­ci­pa­tion, Recon­struc­tion and well into the ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Zora Neale Hurston Sing Tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can Folk Song “Mule on the Mount” (1939)

Actors from The Wire Star in a Short Film Adap­ta­tion of Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gild­ed Six-Bits” (2001)

Mas­sive New Data­base Will Final­ly Allow Us to Iden­ti­fy Enslaved Peo­ples and Their Descen­dants in the Amer­i­c­as

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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