In roughly 1841, Oluale Kossola was born in West Africa, near modern-day Benin. In 1960 his village was decimated by the neighboring Dahomey and he, along with more than one hundred other human beings, were sold to white slave traders. The slave ship Clotilda bore them across the Atlantic to the Mississippi river and into Alabama where he was sold to a plantation in Mobile. There he was renamed Cudjo Lewis and there he worked until 1865 when Union soldiers told him he was free. This is all a true story.
As Hamilton and history fans know, the Transatlantic slave trade was banned in America in 1808 – but cruel greed is as American as apple pie. That is was illegal never stopped white men from buying captives from West African kings. Kossola/Cudjo was aboard the last recorded slave ship and, by 1927 when he was interviewed, was the last remaining survivor. 86 and older when his story is recorded, his recounts it to the best of his ability and Zora Neale Hurston recorded it.
Hurston made the decision to act almost more as a stenographer than a writer, the majority of the text is told not only in Cudjo’s words (he refers to himself as Cudjo most of the time) but in his dialect. For almost 90 years this manuscript has failed to find a publisher, in part because of her choice to write in dialect and in part because of the truth it told about the beginning of Cudjo’s story – the direct involvement of other Africans in the sale of their brethren to slave traders. He recounts that for the Dahomey, the tribe that enslaved him, selling captives was their economy – they spent so much time deliberately warring with their neighbors to provoke raids and take slaves, that they spent no time building their own agriculture and stores.
It is a powerful book because in part the dialect choice forces the reader to remember, with every word, that this is a true story. Everything he describes happened to him, and it happened to him because of a cruel, dehumanizing system we perpetuated. The book is heartbreaking and mercifully short, and I highly recommend it.