It’s May 1803, and a boat full of captive Igbo people is making its way along the Georgia coast. Having survived the perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean, they are en route to St. Simons Island to begin a life of slavery. Suddenly they rise up, breaking free of their chains at last. But more white men wait for them on the land, leading the Igbo to make an impossible choice.
By the beginning of the 19th century, slavery had been practiced in the United States for almost two centuries. Over the years, the demand for slaves had increased as the population had grown. Many men had made their fortunes shipping captives from Africa to sell to households and plantations across the country.
The international slave trade had begun to wane, with many states restricting the import of slaves from abroad. However, there was still money to be made in the long and dangerous journey known as the Middle Passage. Having captured men, women and children in western Africa, traders would load them aboard ships and send them across the Atlantic to America.
Sometimes taking as long as six months, the Middle Passage was a traumatic experience in its own right. Torn from their homes, the captured slaves were forced to endure horrific conditions at sea, shackled together and ravaged by sickness and disease. Often, they would not survive the journey, and it’s estimated that some 15 percent never made it to American shores.
In May 1803 the slave ship Wanderer came to Savannah, Georgia. Among the unfortunates on board was a group of Igbo people from the south of what is known today as Nigeria. And although they had survived the perils of the Middle Passage, they now faced a humiliating auction as competing owners bid to be their new masters.
Eventually, about 75 Igbo were acquired by agents bidding on behalf of the merchants John Couper and Thomas Spalding, who later went on to become a member of Congress. Having paid $100 a slave, the representatives made arrangements to ship them to Couper and Spalding’s plantations on St. Simons, a small island off the coast of Georgia.
Bound for their new lives, the Igbo slaves were loaded onto another ship known as the York, where they were crammed together below decks. But this time, the captives managed to get the upper hand. Already known across the American South as a fierce and independent people, they rose up against their captors and gained control of the vessel.
With the York under their command, the Igbo did not waste any time. Apparently, they forced their captors overboard, where they drowned in the waters off St. Simons Island. Then they grounded the ship in the marshes of Dunbar Creek. But what happened next has been a matter of some debate over the years.
According to the most popular version of the story, the Igbo left the York and followed their chief ashore, singing as they marched. Then, without hesitation, they followed his instructions and walked straight into the creek’s waters. There they drowned – an intentional act of suicide en masse committed to escape a life in chains.
At the time, one of the only written accounts of the incident was penned by Roswell King, a white plantation boss. According to him, the Igbo “took to the swamp” – an action that he lamented mostly for Couper and Spalding’s monetary loss. Afterwards, he and another man, known as Captain Patterson, recovered 13 bodies from the creek – implying that some of the Igbo may have survived the suicide pact.
Regardless of the amount of deaths, the mass suicide – along with the site where it took place, now known as Igbo Landing – came to play an important role in the oral traditions of Georgia’s African-American community. And more than a century later, the Depression-era Federal Writers Project recorded some of these fascinating tales.
In the 1930s, the project recorded the elderly Floyd White recounting what he had been told. “Heard about the Ibo’s Landing?” he recalled. “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.”
Apparently, another story recorded by the project was that of the Flying Africans – a legend that claims that the Igbo didn’t die in the creek after finally earning their freedom. Instead, it recounts them rising up into the sky, where they were transformed into buzzards. Eventually, they simply flew back to their homeland.
For anyone with a passing interest in mythology, the symbolism here is clear. By transforming the trauma of slavery into the magical ability of flight, the legend struck a chord with Georgia’s African-American community, inspiring slaves and the children of slaves as they continued to fight persecution even after the practice was abolished in 1865.
To some people, the Igbo’s fateful journey from the York became known as America’s first freedom march. Meanwhile, the site of their suicide grew shrouded in myth, with some claiming that those who took their own lives rather than face a future enslaved haunted Dunbar Creek.
For many years, the tale of the Igbo rebellion was considered to be little more than a myth. However, some time after 1980 a group of researchers attempted to establish the history behind the legend. Apparently, they were able to verify many of the facts, suggesting that the story is at least in part true.
Over the years, the story has inspired many artists and writers to translate the motif into their own work. For example, the acclaimed writer Toni Morrison made the legend of the flying Africans a central part of her 1977 novel Song of Solomon. Furthermore, the tale of the Igbo suicides also appears in Alex Haley’s famous slavery saga Roots.
Additionally, the events are also recounted in Julie Dash’s 1991 movie Daughters of the Dust, a fictional depiction of how the modern-day inhabitants of Igbo Landing are haunted by its gruesome past. And even today, the legend’s influence can still be felt – most notably in the 2016 video to Beyonce’s “Love Drought,” which depicts a line of women walking out into the water.
In 2002 the St. Simons African-American Heritage Coalition created a memorial to the Igbo who died at Dunbar Creek. And amazingly, people traveled from as far afield as Belize and Haiti to attend. As a highlight of the two-day event, the site of the suicide was designated as holy ground.
Today, visitors to the place still known as Igbo Landing see little to mark the historic event that once took place on these shores. In fact, a sewage treatment facility has been erected close to the legendary spot. However, with the event now taught in the region’s schools, there is hope that the Igbo’s story of bittersweet bravery in the face of oppression will endure.