The bewildered two-year-old clutched tightly on to her mother and three frightened sisters as the wooden ship rocked violently on the rolling ocean waves.

Crammed together with a hundred others in the pitch-black lower deck of the schooner Clotilda, little Matilda – or Tildy – was too young to know what was happening or why men had raided her village, killed her father and ripped her away from her brothers.

Herded into pens and thrown chained into the slave ship, the terrified family clung together for 45 long days as it sailed the notorious Middle Passage – the Atlantic slave route on which more than two million Africans died en route to America.

Matilda’s mum Grace did all she could to care for her daughters during the unimaginably tortuous journey.

Midway across, she saw her nephew and a fellow villager’s young son die of illness – and their bodies thrown unceremoniously overboard.

When the wooden ship finally docked in Alabama nearly two months later, her two eldest daughters were immediately sold at a slave market and young Matilda would never see her sisters ever again.

It sounds like an appalling story from a shameful chapter of world history centuries past – but, incredibly, Matilda, one of the last slaves abducted from Africa, was alive within living memory.

And she was even around to hold her grandson, who was three when she died – and is still alive today.

One of the last transatlantic slave ships, the Clotilda was still making illegal trips to capture Africans a long time after the American Congress banned the slave trade – although not slavery – in 1808.

The vessel’s slavers are thought to have brought the last cargo of African slaves to the US, arriving in Mobile, Alabama, in July 1860.

Now believed to be the last survivor of the barbaric trade, the world would never have heard the story of Matilda McCrear if it was not for a Newcastle University lecturer who has painstakingly unearthed the details of her life.

Hannah Durkin, a literature and film professor, had previously identified Redoshi Smith, who died in 1937, as the last surviving slave.

But, after finding an obituary for Redoshi in an Alabama newspaper, she came across a story about another slave – Matilda – who survived until 1940.

Hannah explains: “After I found Redoshi, I had an inkling there was an obituary in the local newspaper, but I had to wait for it to be digitised.

“When this old edition was finally made available, I came across a story about another survivor of the Clotilda who had walked to the county courthouse to make a claim for compensation for her enslavement.

“It was a big surprise. I didn’t expect to be the first person who had come across her. But I couldn’t find her story anywhere, it had never been told.”

The article, in the Selma Times-Journal, revealed a strong, independent woman who, despite the traumatic start to her life, was an unknown trailblazer of the civil rights movement in America that would take off three decades later.

Hannah says: “It was a very racist newspaper article from the 1930s about a former slave having the audacity to ask for compensation. Yet it shows her as a very dignified and proud woman, whose independence and outrage comes through. Former slaves were seen as second-class citizens. But she marched for 15 miles, at the age of 72, to the Dallas county courthouse to demand her rights.

“It was the same building which, 30 years later, would see the birth of the civil rights movements after African Americans were beaten back as they climbed the courthouse steps to demand the right to vote.

“Matilda’s actions were lost in history, she received no recognition and she died in poverty. But now we have discovered the last surviving slave had been demanding equal rights a long time before the civil rights movement which changed America.”

The more Hannah managed to find about Matilda’s story, the more remarkable was the person she found.

The day she was herded off the Clotilda and last saw her two older sisters, she was sold, together with her mum and 10-year-old sister Sallie, to a wealthy plantation owner called Memorable Creagh.

Matilda, Grace and Sallie tried to escape the plantation soon after they arrived, but they were recaptured.

And while the abolition of slavery in 1865 brought emancipation to Matilda’s family, they continued to work Creagh’s land, trapped in poverty as share-croppers.

While Grace was resigned to a life of servitude and apparently never learned English, what is known about Matilda shows she was a strong-willed woman, proud of her African heritage, who refused to be downtrodden or treated as a lesser human being.

Instead of keeping her slave owner’s name, Creagh, she changed it to McCrear in order “to put her own spin on it and assert her independence,” Hannah says. Matilda also refused to get married.

Instead, she had a decades-long relationship with a white, German-born Jewish man, a union that was virtually unheard of – and severely frowned upon – at the time.

Hannah says: “It was presumably a very secretive and covert relationship, but she had 14 children with him over a 25-year period, and 10 of her children lived to adulthood.”

The former slave also appears throughout her life to have worn her hair in a traditional Yoruba style and proudly carried facial markings from a traditional rite in Africa.

“She was clearly very proud of her West African identity,” says Hannah. “Her mum must have helped her keep her traditions alive.

“She had been robbed of most of her family and so much of her identity, but she was determined to hold on to her roots and ancestry.”

The journey she set out on aged 72 was typical of her spirit and tenacity.

Leaving her home in Mobile, she walked 15 miles along dirt roads to the Dallas county courthouse to make a claim for compensation for her enslavement.

For a former slave to be so bold in the Deep South in the 1930s was an affront to many and laughable to others, and the judge quickly dismissed her claim.

But the preposterous idea of claiming reparation for having been snatched from her country, sold and enslaved in the US caught the attention of the local media.

The article Hannah uncovered, oozing racism, read: “An old African woman in the Court House corridor, patiently waiting her turn to see the Probate Judge. Her name was Tildy McCrear.”

It went on: “She bore the mark of an African tribe on her left cheek. Tildy pointed to the symbol with pride. It was the crowning proof of her contention that she was a pure-blooded African who had come to America aboard the last slave ship to smuggle in a cargo of Negroes

“Tildy believed that being snatched from her home in Africa, while yet an infant, called for a little reimbursement.” After the judge dismissed her claim and sent her away to live the rest of her life in poverty, she thanked him “with grand courtesy”, adding: “I don’t spec I needs anything more’n I got,” according to the article.

When she died nine years later, aged 83, there was no obituary and no recognition that America’s last surviving slave had passed away.

Moreover, her many children never mentioned to their own children and grandchildren the fact she had been a slave, nor that she had challenged the system a long time before the famous civil rights activists came along and changed history.

It was down to Hannah to break the news to Matilda’s grandson Johnny Crear, 83, about his grandmother’s incredible and heartbreaking story.

Talking about finding out how Matilda had been enslaved, he said: “I had a lot of mixed

Johnny witnessed violence against civil rights marchers himself when, in 1965, police brutally beat up demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they attempted to march to the state capital, Montgomery.

He was working at the local hospital where many of the protesters were treated.

He had no idea that, 34 years earlier, his grandmother had crossed the same bridge on route to court to demand her own rights as a former slave, snatched from her country at the age of two.

He had been told his grandma was “quite rambunctious”. Her funeral is one of his earliest memories.

“I was about three years old and I got away from my parents and almost fell in the grave,” he says.

“My wife was researching our family history and we could only get so far.

“The name Creagh would come up, but, as ours is spelled Crear, we didn’t make that connection. We didn’t know it had been changed.”

And after finally discovering the truth about his independent-minded grandmother, he said: “This fills in a lot of the holes we have about her. It doesn’t surprise me that she was so rebellious.

“It’s refreshing to know she had the kind of spirit that’s uplifting.”