Cudjo ‘Kazoola’ Lewis was born in 1841 to a Yoruba family who lived in the Banté region of Dahomey, now Benin Republic. Cudjo Lewis, born Oluwale Kossola, lived happily with his parents, siblings and other family members. At a young age of 14, Cudjo began training with other boys as a soldier and was initiated into Oro, a secret Yoruba male society who guarded the community.
At the age of 19, Cudjo Lewis went through another initiation in order marry a girl he had fallen in love with but was hindered by fate. In April 1860, while his initiation was going on, his town was attacked by the King of Dahomey, Gezo, and his men. Many people were killed including the king of the town and the survivors were carted away as war booties and sold into slavery. This was a big turning point in the life of Cudjo Lewis (Oluwale Kossola). He and other 109 captives from different regions of Benin Republic and Nigeria were shipped to America on a slave ship named Clotilda. During this period, slave trade was illegal and so they were transported clandestinely. Cudjo Lewis spent 45 days on the ship and suffered serious thirst and humiliation of being paraded naked. They were landed near the American residence of Mobile and hidden away from authorities.
The slaves were sold off to different people. Cudjo was sold to one James Meaher, a rich ship captain in America. Cudjo worked on his ship as a deckhand and this was where and when he picked up the name Cudjo because James Meaher found it difficult to pronounce Oluwale or Kassola which were his birth names.
However in 1865, after the American civil war ended, Cudjo Lewis and other slaves regained their freedom. Now a freeman, Cudjo picked up the name Lewis and married Abile, a fellow ex-slave and had five sons and a daughter. He and other ex-slaves founded a settlement for themselves in Alabama called AfricaTown. Unluckily and sadly for Cudjo, he outlived all his children and his wife who died in 1908. He was indeed a strong man.
Cudjo Lewis lived the rest of his life in AfricaTown, Alabama, as a storyteller and historian. He got quite famous when writers and the press published his story. Most of his Clotilda ex-slaves had passed away leaving him as the only survivor of Clotilda, the last slave ship from Africa to America.
Cudjo Lewis (Oluwale Kassola also pronounced Kazoola) died on July 26, 1935 at about 94 years. It had always been his dream to return to his homeland in Africa but he was buried among his family in America.
Thanks for reading,
- Sylviane A. Diouf, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ALABAMA; December 6, 2007
- Diouf, Sylviane Anna. Dreams of Africa in Alabama:The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.