DNA found preserved on sunken slave ship could help descendants track ancestors

Descendants of slaves could be able to trace their ancestors thanks to DNA left on the slave ship Clotilda which sank off the coast of Alabama in July 1860.

Researchers have found the wreckage, which was discovered three years ago, is remarkably well preserved.

“This is the most intact slave ship known to exist in the archaeological record anywhere,” said James Delgado, an archaeologist working with the Alabama Historical Commission

Two-thirds of the Clotilda, which brought 110 slaves from Benin to the US, was preserved including the hold where the captives were transported for 60 days in appalling conditions.

“It’s a time capsule that is cracked open and it survives,” Dr Delgado told the New York Times.

This in turn has raised the possibility that DNA could be extracted from casks, bags and barrels stored in the hull.

A sonar image created released by the Alabama Historical Commission shows the remains of the Clotilda, the last known US ship involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade

Credit: Alabama Historical Commission/AP

Clotilda’s voyage was the last known to have transported slaves from Africa. The voyage was also with the importation of slaves having been outlawed in 1808. 

The slaves made it ashore and then, it is believed, the captain, William Foster, set the ship alight to hide evidence of the trip.

However, although the vessel sank, it was not destroyed, and the scuttled schooner was found in alligator-infested waters near Mobile.

Dr Delgado’s research team plan to remove sediment from the wood on the wreckage to see what DNA can be extracted.

The descendants of former slaves living on the Pettway Plantation, the same land as their ancestors

Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

Theodore Arthur, 78, whose great grandfather Polee Allen was one of the slaves on board voiced some reservations.

“It is new to me, I only just heard about it,” Mr Arthur, vice president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, told the Telegraph. “With new technology, it is something to consider.

“I am a bit cautious about this, I am not sure how they can narrow it down,” he added.

Others, including Jocelyn Davis, have been more enthusiastic.

“I am anxious to see what they can bring up and what they can preserve,” she said. “Finding the ship brought us closure. With it being intact, it’s just mind-blowing.”

Last month the wreckage was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

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