The story of Igbo who chose death over slavery and drown themselves together with their captors in 1803

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..


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. 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 signaled 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 was 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.

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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.

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 Nigeria, Brazil, and Haiti. The attendees designated the site as a 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.

Some popular slave rebellions involving Igbo people include:

The 1815 Igbo conspiracy in Jamaica’s Saint Elizabeth Parish which involved around 250 Igbo slaves, described as one of the revolts that contributed to a climate for abolition. A letter by the Governor of Manchester to Bathurst on April 13, 1816 quoted the leaders of the rebellion on trial as saying “that ‘he had all the Eboes in his hand’, meaning to insinuate that all the Negroes from that Country were under his control”. The plot was thwarted and several slaves were executed.

The 1816 Black River rebellion plot which according to Lewis (1834:227—28) only people of ‘Eboe’ origin were involved. This plot was uncovered on March 22, 1816 by a novelist and absentee planter named Matthew Gregory ‘Monk’ Lewis, when he had recorded what Hayward (1985) calls a proto-Calypso revolutionary hymn, sung by a group of Igbo slaves led by the ‘King of the Eboes’. They sung:

Oh me Good friend, Mr. Wilberforce, make we free! God Almighty thank ye! God Almighty thank ye!God Almighty, make we free! Buckra in this country no make we free: What Negro for to do? What Negro for to do? Take force by force! Take force by force!

‘Mr. Wilberforce’ was in reference to William Wilberforce a British politician who was a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. ‘Buckra’ was a term introduced by Igbo and Efik slaves in Jamaica to refer to white slave masters.

Culture similarity with disperced Igbos

Among Igbo cultural items in Jamaica were the Eboe, or Ibo drums popular throughout all of Jamaican music. Food was also influenced, for example the Igbo word ‘mba’ meaning ‘yam root’ was used to describe a type of yam in Jamaica called ‘himba’. Igbo and Akan slaves affected drinking culture among the black population in Jamaica, using alcohol in ritual and libation.

In Igboland as well as on the Gold Coast, palm wine was used on these occasions and had to be substituted by rum in Jamaica because of the absence of palm wine. Jonkonnu, a parade that is held in many West Indian nations, has been attributed to the Njoku Ji ‘yam-spirit cult’, Okonko and Ekpe of the Igbo, and several masquerades of the Kalabari and Igbo have similar appearance to those of Jonkonnu maskers.

Much of Jamaican mannerisms and gestures themselves have a wider African origin and an Igbo origin. Some examples of such behaviours are evident in the influences of the Igbo language in patois with actions such as ‘sucking-teeth’ coming from the Igbo ‘ima osu’ or ‘imu oso’ and ‘cutting-eye’ from Igbo ‘iro anya’. There was also a suggestion of the Igbo introducing communication through eye movements.

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