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 after enduring the nightmare of the Middle Passage. The Igbo (from what is now the nation of Nigeria, in central West Africa) were renowned throughout the American South for being fiercely independent and unwilling to tolerate the humiliations of chattel slavery.
Near the end of the voyage, as they were close to being disembarked, they boldly rose up and heroically fought back — despite being shackled hand and foot to one another — by surprising and overwhelming their captors, commandeering the ship, and executing at least three of their white abductors.
After escaping the ship and while standing on the dock, they looked around and realized that many white men with high-powered weapons would soon be able to arrive to recapture the “human cargo.” As a result, the Igbo chief began chanting “ 𝗢𝗿𝗶𝗺𝗶𝗿𝗶 𝗢𝗺𝗮𝗺𝗯𝗮𝗹𝗮 𝗯𝘂 𝗮𝗻𝘆𝗶 𝗯𝗶𝗮. 𝗢𝗿𝗶𝗺𝗶𝗿𝗶 𝗢𝗺𝗮𝗺𝗯𝗮𝗹𝗮 𝗸𝗮 𝗮𝗻𝘆𝗶 𝗴𝗮 𝗲𝗷𝗶𝗻𝗮.” That is a prayer to Chuku (a supreme deity of Igbo spirituality) declaring that “𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝘄𝗮𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝘀𝗽𝗶𝗿𝗶𝘁 𝗯𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵𝘁 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘄𝗮𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝘀𝗽𝗶𝗿𝗶𝘁 𝘄𝗶𝗹𝗹 𝘁𝗮𝗸𝗲 𝘂𝘀 𝗵𝗼𝗺𝗲.”after this,75 of them committed mass suicide by drowning.
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.
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.
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.