CRITICAL PLACES: SAINT SIMON'S ISLAND, GEORGIA

(2021)




There is a place on Saint Simon's Island called Igbo Landing where oral history has it that when a group of enslaved Igbo Africans were taken ashore from a slave ship, they walked into the water, drowning themselves, so that the Water Spirit Chukwu would transport them back to Africa.

What we know about slave rebellions is usually based on contemporaneous reports. Invariably, these are written by White people. That the Igbo Landing story was so long carried by local oral history is a salient feature of this rebellion. It was only in the 1980s researches found references written by White people to what may have happened. A letter from 1803 describes the following event:

Spaulding and Couper bought a whole cargo of Ibos and may have suffered much by mismanagement of Mr Couper's overseer Patterson, who poor fellow lost his life. The Negroes rose by being confined in a small vessel. Patterson was frightened and in swimming ashore he with two sailors were drowned. The Negroes took to the marsh and may have lost at least ten or twelve in recovering them besides being subject to an expense of ten dollars a head for salvage.

The impulse might be to read this letter as an explanation of what actually happened. Yet if the White overseer and two crew members drowned, the only surviving eye witnesses would have been those slaves who were ''salvaged,'' and certainly the enslavers would not have paid any attention to the slaves' account of what happened. So it's hard to know what to make of William Mein's account. Was this a mass suicide or was there an uprising in which they killed their enslavers and were then killed themselves? Or maybe the letter was somehow a cover up for a botched slave trade operation? All we can really retain from this letter is that it points us back to the oral history.

When I was visiting the island a huge capsized cargo ship was being salvaged off of the St Simon's Pier - an odd echo of the ''salvaged'' African captives of Igbo Landing.


















Additional photographs to follow