"Sea Grass Roots" by Jim Zook
printed in Coastal Living Magazine, May 2005 

Coastal Illustrated Article

Slave legend draws people for two-day remembrance in coastal Georgia

The Associated Press
September 2, 2002

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- In May 1803, 10 Nigerians captured and sent to work on coastal Georgia plantations chose to drown themselves in Dunbar Creek rather than live as slaves.

It is a legend known well by many islanders, keeping some from fishing or crabbing in the creek, fearing that the men continue to haunt the place.

Over the weekend, about 75 people from as far as Nigeria visited the creek to designate the area as holy ground and to give the freed slaves peace.

"They were souls forced here to die without a proper burial. It's a step toward creating rest for us and our ancestors," said Adonijah O. Ogbonnaya, who lives in Illinois.

The drowned slaves were from the southeast Nigerian tribe called Igbo or Ibo, which claims 40 million members worldwide.

The event, organized by the St. Simons African-American Heritage Coalition, included lessons on Igbo history and customs Friday and a Saturday procession to the drowning site.

Coastal Georgia schools have recently begun incorporating mention of the event in history classes. There is no historical marker at the site, which is next to a sewage treatment plant built in the 1940s.

The source most often quoted by locals on the subject is a 1989 book by H.A. Sieber. It has accounts of the drowning as told by the survivors' descendants.

"It's an oral tale that's been told down -- not written. But it did happen," said Pat Morris, executive director of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society. "It's one of those things that we're always learning more about to tell the complete story. History isn't static."

According to Sieber's book, as the men marched to their death, they sang in their native tongue: "The water brought us; the water will take us away." Some claim that around midnight the stillness of the creek is disturbed by the clanging of chains and the men's cries.

The men's spirits have remained restless for 199 years because they never received a proper burial, said Chukwuemeka Onyesoh, who traveled from Nigeria to help give them one.

"I came here to evoke their spirits to take them back to Igboland," he said.

Others traveled to the island from Haiti, Belize, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Mississippi and Canada to remember the incident. Similar Igbo drownings occurred in Belize and Haiti.

The drowned men were among about 75 Igbo, including women and children, forced to leave Nigeria on ships bound for coastal Georgia, home to profitable cotton plantations. Descendants of the survivors settled in the island's Harrington community.

Dorothy Forbes, 81, and her husband have tried to preserve the historical site, leaving intact a rickety plank bridge that leads to the creek. They welcomed the tribesmen and historians this weekend and routinely welcome pilgrims to the site.

This weekend, elder tribesmen danced, sang and prayed in her yard under towering oaks and moss-laced cypress.

"That's where they jumped ship," Forbes said while staring from her back yard. "It's hallowed ground."


Researcher has new version of legend

Mon, Aug 18, 2003
The Brunswick News

A North Carolina researcher is challenging the 200-year-old story of Ibo Landing on St. Simons Island.

Hal Sieber, commentary editor of Carolina Peacemaker, said his research convinces him that Africans brought to the island to be sold as slaves drowned, but not the way local legend says they did.

The legend goes that all of the slaves from Igbo Land, a village democracy in West Africa, jumped overboard upon sight of St. Simons Island, preferring death to slavery, May 1803. Igbo is the African spelling of the Ibo tribe.

The incident has been recorded in numerous books about the island and told to tourists and schoolchildren.

But that version is inaccurate, Sieber said.

The corrected version goes like this, Sieber said: The Igbo were being brought to Thomas Spalding of Sapelo Island and John Couper of St. Simons Island, who paid $100 for each slave. When an overseer opened the hatches as the schooner York reached the bluff of Dunbar Creek off Frederica River, the 75 Igbo on board, all males, rose at once in a revolt, Sieber said. In the confusion, three white men jumped overboard and drowned.

When the Igbo reached land, they went on what Sieber calls the first freedom march in this country. They walked into the marsh, where 10 to 12 drowned, according to a letter describing the event written by William Mein, a slave dealer from Mein, Mackay and Co. of Savannah.

The rest were salvaged by bounty hunters who received $10 a head from Spalding and Couper.

Sieber said he also heard the story from elderly descendants of the survivors of the Igbo mutiny when he visited St. Simons Island 15 years ago.

Those agreeing with his version include the St. Simons African American Heritage Coalition, which hosted Sieber this weekend at the Sea Island Festival, and the Coastal Georgia Historical Society.

"(Sieber) has made it his life work to prove or disprove the story of Ibo Landing," said Joan Shinnick, curator of St. Simons Lighthouse Museum, run by Coastal Georgia Historical Society.

"The story is true. I think what differs a little bit from general legend is not all the slaves committed suicide."

She added that tourist brochures will have to be rewritten.

Ms. Shinnick said the historical society has a record of the bounty hunters getting paid for rounding up the remaining Igbo.

"They had kept the tradition alive with singing songs and retelling the story," Ms. Shinnick said. "[Sieber] was able to talk to these people and they told the same story the same way over and over. It came from enough people that he really believed what he was hearing is the truth. He went into old historic documents that corroborated story."

Some researchers believe the reason the Igbo rushed into the marsh was because of a rumor that white people were cannibals and they were scared for their lives, Sieber said.

Others call it an accidental drowning. There had been a storm that day and the incoming tide may have taken them by surprise.

To Sieber, it was suicide brought on by desperate circumstances.

"I think they were thinking they'd be dead in a few minutes, but death was better than slavery," he said.