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Authors: Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston was not only committed to collecting artifacts of African American folk culture, she was also adamant about their authentic presentation. Even as she rejected the objective-observer stance of Western scientific inquiry for a participant-observer stance, Hurston still incorporated standard features of the ethnographic and folklore-collecting processes within her methodology. Adopting the participant-observer stance is what allowed her to collect folklore “like a new broom.”
As Hill points out, Hurston was simultaneously working and learning, which meant, ultimately, that she was not just mirroring her mentors, but coming into her own.

Embedded in the narrative of
are those aspects of ethnography and folklore collecting that reveal Hurston's methodology and authenticate Kossola's story as his own, rather than as a fiction of Hurston's imagination. The story, in the main, is told from Kossola's first-person point of view. Hurston transcribes Kossola's story, using his vernacular diction, spelling his words as she hears them pronounced. Sentences follow his syntactical rhythms and maintain his idiomatic expressions and repetitive phrases. Hurston's methods respect Kossola's own storytelling sensibility; it is one that is “rooted ‘in African soil.'” “It would be hard to make the case that she entirely invented Kossula's language and, consequently, his emerging persona,” comments Hill.
And it would be an equally hard case to make that she created the life events chronicled in Kossola's story.

Even as Hurston has her own idea about how a story is to be told, Kossola has his. Hurston is initially impatient with Kossola's talk about his father and grandfather, for instance. But Kossola's proverbial wisdom adjusts her attitude: “Where is de house where de mouse is de leader?”

Hurston complained in
Dust Tracks on a Road
of Kossola's reticence. Yet her patience in getting his story is quite apparent in the narrative. She is persistent in her returning to his home even when Kossola petulantly sends her away. He doesn't always talk when she comes, but rather chooses to tend his garden or repair his fence. And sometimes her time with him is spent driving Kossola into town. Sometimes he is lost in his memories.

Recording such moments within the body of the narrative not only structures the overall narrative flow of events but reveals the behavioral patterns of her informant. As Hurston is not just an observer, she fully participates in the process of “helping Kossula to tell his story.” “In writing his story,” says Hill, “Hurston does not romanticize or in any way imply that ideals such as self-fulfillment or fully realized self-expression could emerge from such suffering as Kossula has known. Hurston does not interpret his comments, except when she builds a transition from one interview to the next, in her footnotes, and at the end when she summarizes.”
The story Hurston gathers is presented in such a way that she, the interlocutor, all but disappears. The narrative space she creates for Kossola's unburdening is sacred. Rather than insert herself into the narrative as
the learned and probing cultural anthropologist, the investigating ethnographer, or the authorial writer, Zora Neale Hurston, in her still listening, assumes the office of a priest. In this space, Oluale Kossola passes his story of epic proportion on to her.

Deborah G. Plant

Editor's Note

ora Neale Hurston's introduction to
has been edited to align with the conventions of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage. Contemporary spelling and usage have also been applied to names and places. In composing the introduction to her work, Hurston made a good-faith effort to document the source material she used to set the context for the
narrative. As she states in her preface, “For historical data, I am indebted to the
Journal of Negro History
, and to the records of the Mobile Historical Society.” She reiterates this acknowledgment in her introduction and alludes to the use of other “records.” Hurston drew from Emma Langdon Roche's
Historic Sketches
, but she references this work indirectly, and her citation from this book, as well as the other sources she utilized, was inconsistent. Wherever there is a question regarding her use of paraphrase and direct quotation, I have revised the passage as a direct quote and have documented it accordingly.

Regarding the actual narrative, I have read the original typescript in relation to earlier typed and handwritten drafts to produce a definitive text. Minor edits to the text were made in relation to the mechanics of typography, for purposes of clarity, or in the correction of apparent typos. Otherwise, the text remains as Hurston left it. I have made notations in the endnotes to present explanations or to provide full bibliographic data for sources Hurston used in her own notes. Such explanatory entries are labeled “Editor's note” and are bracketed. All other notes are original to the manuscript. Hurston's citations and footnotes have likewise been edited to align with conventional documentation style.


The “Door of No Return” at La Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) at Gorée Island in Senegal, West Africa. Above the entryway: “Lord, give my people, who have suffered so much, the strength to be great” (Joseph Ndiaye).


his is the life story of Cudjo Lewis, as told by himself. It makes no attempt to be a scientific document, but on the whole he is rather accurate. If he is a little hazy as to detail after sixty-seven years, he is certainly to be pardoned. The quotations from the works of travelers in Dahomey are set down, not to make this appear a thoroughly documented biography, but to emphasize his remarkable memory.

Three spellings of his nation are found:
, and
. But Lewis's pronunciation is probably correct. Therefore, I have used
throughout the work.

I was sent by a woman of tremendous understanding of primitive peoples to get this story. The thought back of the act was to set down essential truth rather than fact of detail, which is so often misleading. Therefore, he has been permitted to tell his story in his own way without the intrusion of interpretation.

For historical data, I am indebted to the
Journal of Negro History
, and to the records of the Mobile Historical Society.

Zora Neale Hurston

April 17, 1931


he African slave trade is the most dramatic chapter in the story of human existence. Therefore a great literature has grown up about it. Innumerable books and papers have been written. These are supplemented by the vast lore that has been blown by the breath of inarticulate ones across the seas and lands of the world.

Those who justified slaving on various grounds have had their say. Among these are several slave runners who have boasted of their exploits in the contraband flesh. Those who stood aloof in loathing have cried out against it in lengthy volumes.

All the talk, printed and spoken, has had to do with ships and rations; with sail and weather; with ruses and piracy and balls between wind and water; with native kings and bargains sharp and sinful on both sides; with tribal wars and slave factories and red massacres and all the machinations necessary to stock a barracoon with African youth on the first leg of their journey from humanity to
cattle; with storing and feeding and starvation and suffocation and pestilence and death; with slave ship stenches and mutinies of crew and cargo; with the jettying of cargoes before the guns of British cruisers; with auction blocks and sales and profits and losses.

All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold. The Kings and Captains whose words moved ships. But not one word from the cargo. The thoughts of the “black ivory,” the “coin of Africa,” had no market value. Africa's ambassadors to the New World have come and worked and died, and left their spoor, but no recorded thought.

Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left. He is called Cudjo Lewis and is living at present at Plateau, Alabama, a suburb of Mobile. This is the story of this Cudjo.

I had met Cudjo Lewis for the first time in July 1927. I was sent by Dr. Franz Boas to get a firsthand report of the raid that had brought him to America and bondage, for Dr. Carter G. Woodson of the
Journal of Negro History
. I had talked with him in December of that same year and again in 1928. Thus, from Cudjo and from the records of the Mobile Historical Society, I had the story of the last load of slaves brought into the United States.

The four men responsible for this last deal in human flesh, before the surrender of Lee at Appomattox should end the 364 years of Western slave trading, were the three Meaher brothers and one Captain [William “Bill”] Foster. Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher were natives of Maine. They had a mill and shipyard on the Alabama River at the
mouth of Chickasabogue Creek (now called Three-Mile Creek) where they built swift vessels for blockade running, filibustering expeditions, and river trade. Captain Foster was associated with the Meahers in business. He was “born in Nova Scotia of English parents.”

There are various reasons given for this trip to the African coast in 1859, with the muttering thunder of secession heard from one end of the United States to the other. Some say that it was done as a prank to win a bet. That is doubtful. Perhaps they believed with many others that the abolitionists would never achieve their ends. Perhaps they merely thought of the probable profits of the voyage and so undertook it.

was the fastest boat in their possession, and she was the one selected to make the trip. Captain Foster seems to have been the actual owner of the vessel.
Perhaps that is the reason he sailed in command. The clearance papers state that she was sailing for the west coast for a cargo of red palm oil. Foster had a crew of Yankee sailors and sailed directly for Whydah [Ouidah], the slave port of Dahomey.

slipped away from Mobile as secretly as possible so as not to arouse the curiosity of the Government. It had a good voyage to within a short distance of the Cape Verde Islands. Then a hurricane struck and Captain Foster had to put in there for repairs.

While he was on dry-dock, his crew mutinied. They demanded more pay under the threat of informing a British man-of-war that was at hand.

Foster hurriedly promised the increase the sailors
demanded. But his wife often told how he laughingly broke this promise when it was safe to do so. After the repairs had been made, he made presents to the Portuguese officials of shawls and other trinkets and sailed away unmolested.

Soon he was safely anchored in the Gulf of Guinea, before Whydah. There being no harbor, ships must stand in open roadstead and the communications with shore are carried on by Kroo men in their surf boats.

Soon Captain Foster and his kegs of specie and trading goods were landed. “Six stalwart blacks” were delegated to meet him and conduct him into “the presence of a Prince of Dahomey,” but he did not meet the king.

Foster was borne in a hammock to the Prince, who received him seated on his stool of rank. He was gracious and hospitable, and had Foster shown “the sights of Whydah.”
He was surrounded by evidence of great wealth, and Foster was impressed. He was particularly struck by a large square enclosure filled with thousands of snakes, which he was told had been collected for ceremonial purposes.

The Prince expressed regret that Foster had arrived a little too late to witness the Dahomey “Custom” in honor of trade (foreign, i.e., mostly slave trade); nevertheless, he found Foster's company so pleasant that he wished to make him a present. He therefore desired Foster to look about him and select a person, “one that the ‘superior wisdom and exalted taste' of Foster designated the finest specimen.”
Foster looked about him and chose a young man named Gumpa; “Foster making this selection with
the intention of flattering the Prince, to whom Gumpa was nearly related.” This accounts for the one Dahoman in the cargo.

The ceremonies over, Foster had “little trouble in procuring a cargo.” The barracoons at Whydah were overflowing. “[I]t had long been a part of the traders' policy to instigate the tribes against each other,” so that plenty of prisoners would be taken and “in this manner keep the markets stocked. News of the trade was often published in the papers.” An excerpt from the
Mobile Register
of November 9, 1858, said: “‘From the West coast of Africa we have advice dated September 21st. The quarreling of the tribes on Sierra Leone River rendered the aspect of things very unsatisfactory.'”

Inciting was no longer necessary in Dahomey. The King of Dahomey had long ago concentrated all his resources on the providing of slaves for the foreign market. There was “a brisk trade in slaves at from fifty to sixty dollars apiece at Whydah. Immense numbers of Negroes were collected along the coast for export.”

King Ghezo maintained a standing army “of about 12,000, and of these 5000 are Amazons.” The Dahoman year was divided into two parts—the wars and the festivals. “In the months of November or December the king commences his annual wars,” and these wars were kept up until January or February.
These were never carried on for mere conquest. They were all forced upon the Dahomans from less powerful nations.

The King boasted that he never attacked a people unless they had not only insulted Dahomey, but his own
people must ask him for a war against the aggressors for “three successive years.” Then and then only would he let himself be persuaded to march forth and exterminate the insulting tribe. But there were so many insulting chiefs and kings that it kept the warriors of Dahomey, reluctant as they were, always upon the warpath. “[W]hole nation[s] are transported, exterminated, their name to be forgotten, except in the annual festival of their conquerors, when sycophants call the names of the vanquished countries to the remembrance of the victors.”

When the Dahoman king marched forth against a place, he concealed from his army “the name or the place against which he has brought them,” “until within a day's march” of the goal. “Daylight is generally the time of onset, and every cunning, secrecy, and ingenuity is exercised to take the enemy by surprise.” With or without resistance, “all the aged were decapitated on the spot” and the youth driven to the barracoons at Whydah.

“On the return from war in January, the king resides at Cannah, and . . . ‘makes a Fetish,'” that is, he “sacrifices largely and gives liberal presents” to the people and, “at the same time, purchases the prisoners and heads from his soldiers” of those slain in war. (The heads are always cut off and carried home. No warrior may boast of more enemies slain than he has heads to show for.) “[T]he slaves are then sold to the slave merchants, and their blood-money wasted in the ensuing Custom, Hwae-nooeewha, as the great annual feast is entitled in Dahoman parlance.”

The most important feast is “held in March, and
called See-que-ah-hee,” at which the king sacrifices many slaves and makes a great display of his wealth. There is a lesser festival in May or June “in honour of Trade” which is celebrated “with music, dancing, and singing.” In July is celebrated the royal “salute to the Fetish of the Great Waters.”

Therefore, when Captain Foster arrived in May, the wars being just over for the year, he had a large collection to choose from. The people he chose had been in the stockade behind the great white house for less than a month. He selected 130, equal number of men and women, paid for them, got into his hammock and was conveyed across the shallow river to the beach, and was shot through the surf by the skillful Kroo boys and joined his ship. In other boats manipulated by the Kroo boys were his pieces of property.

When 116 of the slaves had been brought aboard, Foster, up in the rigging, observing all the activities of the Port through his glasses, became alarmed. He saw all the Dahoman ships suddenly run up black flags.
“He hurried down and gave orders” to abandon the cargo not already on board, and to sail away with all speed. He says that the Dahomans were treacherously planning to recapture the cargo he had just bought and hold him for ransom. But the
was so expertly handled and her speed was so great that she sped away to safety with all ease.

The next day he was chased by an English cruiser but escaped by pressing on sail. Nothing eventful happened until the 13th day when he ordered the cargo brought on deck so that they might regain the use of their limbs.

Though the space in the
greatly exceeded the usual space in most slavers, the blacks were cramped. “[T]he usual space in which the ‘middle passage' was made was from two and a half to three feet in height.”
It was about five feet in the
. However, the lack of action had numbed them.

“[O]n the twentieth day,” Foster thought he saw a British cruiser on the horizon intercepting his course; he climbed to the mast with his glasses. Yes, there she was, sweeping on toward his course. He hurried down and gave orders for the slaves to be returned to the hold. Then he anchored and “lay until night,” when he resumed his course.

When Captain Foster reached American waters, the slaves were put back in the hold. The ship lay hidden for three days “behind the islands in Mississippi Sound and near the lower end of Mobile Bay.”

To make the hiding more secure, the
was dismasted. Then Foster got into a small boat, rowed by four sailors to go to the western shore of Mobile Bay, intending to send word to Meaher that the
had arrived. His approach was regarded with suspicion by some men ashore, and he was fired upon. Waving a white handkerchief their doubts were allayed and he offered fifty dollars for a conveyance which would take him to Mobile.

“Captain Foster reached Mobile on a Sunday morning in August (1859)”; his return from the slave coast
having been made in seventy days. “Arrangements had long been made that a tug should lie in readiness to go at a moment's notice down Mobile Bay to tow the
and her cargo to safety. When the news came, the tug's pilot was attending services at St. John's Church. Captain Jim Meaher and James Dennison—a Negro slave—hurried to the church” and called the pilot out. “The three hastened down to the wharf, and were soon aboard the tug.” It proceeded down the bay, but waited till dark to approach the

Finally, the tug was made fast to the
and “the trip up the bay was begun.”
The last slave ship was at the end of its voyage
: “The tug avoided the Mobile River channel, slipped behind the light-house on Battery Gladden, into Spanish River. . . . As the
passed opposite Mobile the clock in the old Spanish tower struck eleven, and the watchman's voice floated over the city and across the marshes, ‘Eleven o'clock and all's well.'

was taken directly to Twelve-Mile Island—a lonely, weird place by night.” There Captain Foster and the Meahers awaited the
R. B. Taney
, “named for Chief Justice Tainey” of the
Dred Scott
decision fame. Some say it was the
instead of the
“[L]ights were smothered, and in the darkness quickly and quietly” the captives were transferred from the
“to the steamboat [and] taken up the Alabama River to John Dabney's plantation below Mount Vernon.” They were landed the next day, and left in charge of the slave, James Dennison.

“At Twelve-Mile Island, the crew of Northern sailors
again mutinied. Captain Foster, with a six shooter in each hand, went among them, discharged them, and ordered them to ‘hit the grit and never be seen in Southern waters again.' They were placed aboard the tug” and carried to Mobile. One of the Meahers bought them tickets “and saw that they boarded a train for the North. The
was scuttled and fired, Captain Foster himself placed seven cords of light wood upon her. Her hull still lies in the marsh at the mouth of Bayou Corne and may be seen at low tide. Foster afterwards regretted her destruction as she was worth more than the ten Africans given him by the Meahers as his booty.”

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