Mixed Media Vanishing Point
Mother Jones|January/February 2022
More than two centuries ago, a group of West Africans chose death over enslavement in the waters of coastal Georgia. Why do so few traces of their story remain there today?
By Ramenda Cyrus, Illustrations by Kim Demarco

DUNBAR CREEK IS A narrow, unassuming strip of water that winds through the north side of Georgia’s St. Simons Island. People drive over it daily via a narrow causeway, some on their way to the lavish Sea Island Resort. In the daytime, the water is so murky that the depth is impossible to gauge. At night, the water is indistinguishable from the land. In that darkness, some residents claim, they have heard chains rattling— the last remnant of a people who flew.

In 1803, 75 West Africans, many of them Igbo people from what is now Nigeria, were sold for $100 each to John Couper and Thomas Spalding. They were packed like cargo onto the slave ship the Morovia (or the York; accounts vary). Their fate was excruciatingly obvious, and the only answer was a rebellion. The Igbo overpowered the ship’s captain and killed some of his crew, and the ship ran aground in Dunbar Creek.

The Igbo made a conscious decision. They knew that a life of agony and horror awaited them, so they decided to walk into the water. In most oral retellings of what happened, they sang, “By the water spirits we came and by the water spirits we will be taken home,” as they walked into the creek, still chained to each other. “You cannot be an enemy of the land you are a part of.” It’s unknown how many people drowned and how many were recaptured; the bodies of 10 to 12 Igbos and three white captors were reportedly recovered from Dunbar Creek, according to contemporaneous documents held by the Coastal Georgia Historical Society.

This event, called Igbo (also Ebo/Ibo) Landing, has birthed two versions of a legend: the Flying African and those who walked into the water. Did they vanish into the sky or into the water? In any case, the Igbo exposed how the choice between enslavement and death was an obvious one; it’s why they faced death. The legend continues to inspire artists, writers, and filmmakers.

Igbo Landing particularly resonates for the Black community. But the physical site has garnered little attention. Much of Dunbar Creek flows through private residential areas, and Glynn County’s wastewater plant lies just down the creek. No permanent marker commemorating the uprising exists on the banks of the creek, nor anywhere else on St. Simons Island. What will it take for the departed to finally be enshrined?

ONE OF THE first preserved retellings of the oral tradition of Igbo Landing emerged in Drums and Shadows, a publication from the Georgia Writers’ Project, an effort funded by the Works Progress Administration in 1940 to record the state’s cultural history. St. Simons resident Floyd White, who spoke the language Gullah/Geechee, created by the descendants of West Africans in the area, recounted the legend in an interview transcribed for the book:

“Heahd bout duh Ibo’s Landing?” That was the place where they brought the Igbos over in the slave ship, he explained in the interview. And when they got there, they didn’t like it, so they all started singing and marched right down in the river back to Africa, but they weren’t able to get there. They drowned.

Though historical evidence, including letters written by slave traders, suggests the Igbo did indeed walk into the creek, their escape soon became woven into folklore about flight. “Some watching said that they flew home,” says Marquetta Goodwine, known as Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/ Geechee today.

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