The tragic yet resilient story of Igbo slaves who committed mass suicide off U.S. coast in 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, Ebo Landing, or Ebos Landing. Igbo slaves

Igbo Landing is a historic

Historic site at Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia. It is the site of one of the largest mass suicides of enslaved people in history.

Historians say Igbo captives from modern-day Nigeria, purchased for an average of $100 each by slave merchants John Couper and Thomas Spalding, arrived in Savannah, Georgia, on the slave ship the Wanderer in 1803.

Igbo Landing site
Igbo Landing site

The chained slaves
The chained slaves
The chained slaves

They were then reloaded and packed under the deck of a coastal vessel, the York, which would take them to St. Simons where they were to be resold. During the voyage, approximately 75 Igbo slaves rose in rebellion.

They drowned their captors and caused the grounding of the ship in Dunbar Creek. The Igbo were known by planters and slave owners of the American South to be fiercely independent and more resistant to chattel slavery.

According to Professor Terri L. Snyder, “the enslaved cargo “suffered much by mismanagement,” “rose” from their confinement in the small vessel, and revolted against the crew, forcing them into the water where they drowned”.

Led by their chief, the Africans then marched ashore, singing. At their chief’s direction, they walked into the marshy waters of Dunbar Creek, committing mass suicide.

On Plantation

Roswell King, a white overseer on a nearby plantation called Pierce Butler plantation, is the first to have recorded the incident. He and another man identified only as Captain Patterson recovered thirteen bodies. The others remained missing, and some are believed to have survived the suicide episode.

For centuries, some historians have cast doubt on the event, suggesting that the entire incident was more folklore than fact. But a post-1980 research verified the accounts Roswell King and others provided at the time using “modern scientific techniques to reconstruct the episode and confirm the factual basis of the longstanding oral accounts”.

The site was designated as a holy ground by the St. Simons African American community in September 2012. The Igbo Landing is also now a 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.

The water walking Africans

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”.

Story of resistance

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 1

igbo landing 3
Igbo Landing 2
Igbo Landing 2
Igbo Landing 3
Igbo Landing 4
Igbo Landing 4
Igbo Landing 5
Igbo Landing 5

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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47 thoughts on “The tragic yet resilient story of Igbo slaves who committed mass suicide off U.S. coast in 1803

  1. I’m so sorry for your loss.and all the suffering they went through.Let us pray for Gods forgiveness upon them and they will Rest In Peace..God Be with us all..God Bless

      1. I read these with a heavy heart more especially as igbos are being treated from day one -even during the slave trade to now and no freedom Chai.

        1. I read these with a heavy heart more especially as igbos are being treated from day one -even during the slave trade to now and no freedom Chai.

  2. My ancestors were forced into slavery and its not something we can forget very easily… Rest on my people!!

  3. A gory story of horror and excruciating pains. What a life? May God consider their pains and grant them eternal rest. Amen.

  4. We need to take a hint from this and have the courage to no longer be Overseen by those who can’t even control themselves! I’d rather die on my feet fighting than on my knees praying! Death to those who even try to keep me or mine oppressed for their financial and material gains!!! FREEDOM OR FIGHT!!!!

  5. This is typical of the Igbo spirit. A people known for their resilience. May their souls find rest in their Creator. Today the struggle for emancipation and justice go on wherever you see them. Great sons and daughters of Biafra. Hail Igbo! Hail Biafra!!

  6. They didn’t jump off because they feared slavery, they jumped of because that was the only way to tell us that we must take what is ours from the neo colonial system. The fight is not over. The struggle is real

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