The Igbo people walked into the ocean together, and died by suicide as they refused to be slaves for the rest of their lives.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 10, 2022. It has since been updated.
Faced with the reality of being slaves in a foreign land, Igbo people chose death as they walked into the ocean and drowned while still chained to each other. It was one of the first documented acts of rebellion from the people of Africa against white slave traders. It was the year 1803 and 75 West Africans, with a majority of them being Igbo, were sold for $100 each to John Couper and Thomas Spalding. The Igbo tribe, hailing from Nigeria, were believed to be industrious, independent and proud of their work. John Couper and Thomas Spalding "bought" the Igbo people with the intention of taking them to work on plantations in St. Simons Island, Georgia, in the U.S. They were packed onto a slave ship but as the ship neared Georgia, Igbo people rebelled and took over the ship, killing the captain and some of the crew. The ship ran aground in Dunbar Creek, off St. Simons Island, according to Mother Jones.
In memory of those who chose the sea...— AFRICAN & BLACK HISTORY (@AfricanArchives) February 6, 2022
In an act of mass resistance against slavery, a group of slaves revolted, took control of the slave ship grounded it on an island & rather than submit to slavery, proceeded to march into water & drown. #BlackHistoryMonth
A THREAD! pic.twitter.com/MpUJyO7Qps
According to most oral retellings of the legend, Igbo people walked into the ocean while chained, choosing dignity in death as opposed to living a life of slavery. “By the water spirits we came and by the water spirits we will be taken home,” they reportedly sang as they walked into the creek. “You cannot be an enemy of the land you are a part of.” There is no information on how many people drowned and how many were recaptured but as per documents in the possession of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, the bodies of 10 to 12 Igbos along with three white captors were reportedly recovered from Dunbar Creek.
The Igbo landing marks an important chapter in African-American folklore and the act of courage has since inspired many forms of art including films and books. The Igbo landing also gave birth to the legend of the Flying African. The legend goes that some of them returned to Africa by flying back home. “Some watching said that they flew home,” said Marquetta Goodwine, known as Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee.
A common version is that once ashore, walked into the creek in unison, singing & chanting in Igbo under the direction of someone who seemed to be like a high priest among them. This mutiny has been referred to in some quarters as the first major freedom march in America's history pic.twitter.com/IAFM8mPezw— AFRICAN & BLACK HISTORY (@AfricanArchives) February 6, 2022
In "If You Surrender to the Air: Folk Legends of Flight and Resistance in African American Literature" Gay Wilentz writes that some Igbo people were guided back to Africa by a shaman while another legend goes that the people arriving at the shore "take one look at their future, turn around, and fly back over the ocean.” Wilentz says that “the people who have the power to fly are most often identified in this version of the tale as Igbos from eastern Nigeria.” The Igbo landing continues to inspire resistance among the African-American community to this day. It is also a tale that Beyoncé captured in her work. Toni Morrison's 1977 masterpiece "Song of Solomon" was inspired by the Flying African and the ending is left ambiguous. The novel's main character Milkman Dead is said to leap from a Virginia cliff and fly away. It's open to interpretation if he had died by suicide or if he flew away.
Ghanaian artist Kwame Atoko-Bamfo created several sculptures in a lake to remember our ancestors who drowned as they were transported through the Atlantic Sea during slavery. pic.twitter.com/gT0D3u9YBT— AFRICAN & BLACK HISTORY (@AfricanArchives) February 6, 2022
Filmmaker Nnamdi Kanaga is also retelling the story of the Igbo landing through his film, “They Chose The Sea.” When asked why he chose this subject, he replied, "To celebrate a Black history that does not highlight oppression and pain but the power of resistance and strength displayed by ancestral Igbo people in America. To motivate black people all over the world and remind them of our strength as a people. When we think of how we have continued to fight against oppression, we should remember that the strength and power of our ancestors live inside us."
Jason DeCaire Taylor, a British sculptor, creates beautiful and haunting life-size sculptures underwater in the oceans. These evolve to become reefs, many in places where the original reefs have suffered environmental degradation. His exhibits can be seen either by diving or glass-bottom boats, all over the world.
“Vicissitudes” is a large circle of figures shackled together and holding hands, off the coast of Grenada in the Caribbean.
An underwater sculpture by Jason de Caires Taylor titled 'Vicissitudes' shows a group of children of diverse ethnic backgrounds holding hands off the coast of Grenada in the Caribbean. While it isn't a work about the Middle passage many have associated it with the Igbo landing. Jason DeCaire Taylor said he was moved by the interpretation of the people. "It was never my intention to have any connection to the Middle passage…. Although it was not my intention from the outset I am very encouraged by how it has resonated differently within various communities and feel it is working as an art piece by questioning our identity, history, and stimulating debate," he said, according to ABH museum.