Barracoon tells the story of Olualo Kossula, also known as Cudjo (or Cudjoe) Lewis. The narrative is based on Hurston's 1927 interviews with the man she calls Kossula. At the time, he was the last known survivor of the last ship to bring slaves to the U.S. in 1860, the Clotilda (two additional survivors were later identified). The "shipment" was illegal at the time. While slavery itself had yet to be abolished, the importation of slaves had been banned in 1808, more than 50 years prior.
You may notice that the timing of publication of Barracoon is off, since Hurston died in 1960 but it was published quite recently, in 2018. While the text is based on interviews she carried out in 1927, Hurston was unable to find a publisher during her lifetime that was willing to print the book as-is - that is to say, with Kossula's original vernacular. Publishers' reluctance was also partly because the book describes the involvement of African people in selling other Africans into slavery.
Below is a sample of Kossulo's vernacular. It takes a few pages to get used to, but it's really a pretty easy read once you do.
Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day an callee my name and somebody dere say, "Yeah I know Kossula." I want you everywhere you go to tell everybody whut Cudjo say, and how I come in Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo'. I cain talkee plain, you unnerstand me, but I calls it word by word for you so it won't be too crooked for you. My name is not Cudjo Lewis. It Kossula.
Hurston does very little editorializing, acting mostly as transcriber of Kossula's words. He tells of his childhood in Africa, and the raid on his village by another nearby tribe, the Dahomey, who capture Africans to sell into the slave trade. His recounting of the raid is gruesome and horrifying, as is to be expected. We then learn of his journey to the U.S. in the hold of the Clotilda, his five years as a slave, and the emancipation that came with the end of the Civil War.
Kossula also talks about the founding of Africatown. Once freed, more than 30 slaves from the Clotilda came together to create this town, which still exists today, now called Plateau, AL. Most of the residents that remain in Plateau are direct descendants of the Clotilda ship survivors. Kossula goes on to recount his life in Alabama as a free man - his family, work, and local recognition as a storyteller of history and lore.
Barracoon is in some ways extremely sad, as a first-hand recounting of the horrors of slavery, but it's also a story of human resilience and fortitude in the face of those horrors. It's an extremely important narrative, and I'm so glad it was finally, at long last, published for the world to see.
I was especially interested in this book because I recently watched a show about the wreck of the Clotilda, which was found in 2019 in a previously unexamined section of the Mobile River. Here is an article about the discovery from the Smithsonian Magazine: The Clotilda, the Last Known Slave Ship to Arrive in the U.S., is Found.
UP NEXT: Wrecked, by Heather Henson