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Igbo Landing: The untold but Resilient story of Igbo Slaves of 1803

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The stories of slave resistance, many of us know, have to do with bloodshed, violence, and destruction. But there are other acts of resistance whose stories are worth being told.

Take that of ‘The Igbo Landing’ also called the Ibo Landing, Eboe Landing, or Ebos Landing.

Igbo Landing is a historic site at Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia. In 1803 one of the largest mass suicides of enslaved people took place when Igbo captives from what is now Nigeria were taken to the Georgia coast.

Igbo Landing Site

Igbo Landing Site

In May 1803, the Igbo and other West African captives arrived in Savannah, Georgia, on the slave ship the Wanderer. They were purchased for an average of $100 each by slave merchants John Couper and Thomas Spalding to be resold to plantations on nearby St. Simons Island. The chained slaves were packed under deck of a coastal vessel, the York, which would take them to St. Simons. During the voyage, approximately 75 Igbo slaves rose in rebellion, took control of the ship, drowned their captors, and in the process caused the grounding of the ship in Dunbar Creek.
The sequence of events that occurred next remains unclear. It is known only that the Igbo marched ashore, singing, led by their high chief. Then at his direction, they walked into the marshy waters of Dunbar Creek, committing mass suicide. Roswell King, a white overseer on the nearby Pierce Butler plantation, wrote the first account of the incident. He and another man identified only as Captain Patterson recovered many of the drowned bodies.
Apparently, only a subset of the 75 Igbo rebels drowned. Thirteen bodies were recovered, but others remained missing, and some may have survived the suicide episode, making the actual numbers of deaths uncertain.

Regardless of the numbers, the deaths signalled a powerful story of resistance as these captives overwhelmed their captors in a strange land, and many took their own lives rather than remain enslaved in the New World. The Igbo Landing gradually took on enormous symbolic importance in local African American folklore. The mutiny and subsequent suicide by the Igbo people were called by many locals the first freedom march in the history of the United States. Local people claimed that the Landing and surrounding marshes in Dunbar Creek where the Igbo people committed suicide in 1803 were haunted by the souls of the dead Igbo slaves. The story of Igbo, who chose death over slavery which had long been part of Gullah folklore, was finally recorded from various oral sources in the 1930s by members of the Federal Writers Project.

Igbo Landing 6

While many historians for centuries have cast doubt on the Igbo Landing mass suicide, suggesting that the entire incident was more legend than fact, the accounts Roswell King and others provided at the time were verified by post-1980 research which used modern scientific techniques to reconstruct the episode and confirm the factual basis of the longstanding oral accounts.

Igbo Landing 2

In September 2002, the St. Simons African American community organized a two-day commemoration with events related to Igbo history and a procession to the site of the mass suicide. Seventy-five attendees came from different states across the United States, as well as Nigeria, Brazil, and Haiti. The attendees designated the site as holy ground and called for the souls to be permanently at rest. The Igbo Landing is now part of the curriculum for coastal Georgia schools.

The Igbo Landing has come to occupy great symbolic importance in local African American folklore. The mutiny and subsequent suicide by the Igbo people have been called the first freedom march in the history of the United States and local people claim that the Landing and surrounding marshes in Dunbar Creek were haunted by the souls of the dead Igbo slaves.

Igbo Landing 3

There are myths of “the water walking Africans”: “Heard about the Ibo’s Landing? That’s the place where they bring the Ibos over in a slave ship and when they get here, they ain’t like it and so they all start singing and they march right down in the river to march back to Africa, but they ain’t able to get there. They gets drown,” one Floyd White, an elderly African-American interviewed by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s, said.

There is also the “myth of the Flying Africans” where people report that the Igbos flew to Africa. Wallace Quarterman, an African-American born in 1844 who was interviewed in 1930 about the Igbo Landing said, “Ain’t you heard about them? Well, at that time Mr Blue he was the overseer and . . . Mr. Blue he go down one morning with a long whip for to whip them good. . . . Anyway, he whipped them good and they got together and stuck that hoe in the field and then . . . rose up in the sky and turned themselves into buzzards and flew right back to Africa. . . . Everybody knows about them”.

Igbo Landing 4

So powerful is this story of resistance that it is often referred to in African American literature. Writer Alex Haley recounts it in his high acclaimed book, Roots, and it was the basis for Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison’s, novel, Song of Solomon. Visual artists have also paid tribute to the Igbos who endured this event. Below is Jamaican artist, Donovan Nelson’s illustrations paying tribute to the event. They are on display at the Valentine Museum of Art.

Igbo Landing References in Modern Times

Contemporary artists like Beyonce have also depicted and paid homage to the Igbo Landing in their work. In the recent wildly acclaimed Marvel comic film, Black Panther, Killmonger, played by actor Michael B Jordan, refers to this event, saying, “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage”.

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