• Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.

Igbo Landing

By: Jace Sapenter-Nath

Edited by Melissa D. Goolsarran Ramnauth, Esq.

The enslaved Igbo Africans who arrived in America and then walked back into the sea in hopes that their souls would return to Africa.

Along the Georgia shoreline, in a place where the Atlantic ocean meets marshland, stands an almost obscured plaque mounted on a wooden pole. Spanish moss hangs from tree branches, swaying in the cold breeze. An eeriness fills the place. This is the site of Igbo Landing.

Igbo Landing

In 1803, a ship carrying enslaved Igbo arrived on the shore of Georgia. The enslavers began to march the Igbo, single file, through the marshes. They were going to the auctioning block where they would be sold off to the highest bidder. 75 of these Igbos began to sing a song, a prayer to Oshimmiri- the Goddess of the ocean, asking to be taken back home across the waters. Then they began to walk back into the ocean, single file, against the wishes of their enslavers. They drowned, praying that their souls would be able to rejoin their lost loved ones back where they lived free.

Those who could not walk back into the ocean, would pass this story onto their descendants who would keep the memory of this historical event. Had this memory not been kept alive, such a sad tale that depicts the true brutality of American slavery would have faded into obscurity.

Igbo and Slavery Background

From the early 1600s to the late 1800s, the United States was one of the world’s leading proponents of the slave trade. The colonial greed of Americans and Europeans led to the enslavement of countless Africans from several key ethnic groups along the western and central coasts of the continent. One of the largest among these groups were the Igbo. Historians estimate that over 1.2 million Igbo men, women, and children were enslaved and transported abroad.

The Igbo inhabit the Southeastern part of Nigeria, along with several smaller ethnic groups. These include the Ibibio, Ijaw, and Efik. Archeological evidence shows that the Igbo are one of the oldest groups of Africans to inhabit present day Nigeria, and were one of the first groups in the whole of West Africa to smelt iron. As a result, they were well-known for their jewelry, art, and military prowess throughout the region. The Igbo also followed a traditional religion, known as Odinani, which focused on the worship of deified ancestors and various nature spirits. Along with Yoruba and Dahomean religions, it would also come to be practiced in various forms throughout the Americas.

During the period of slavery, Igboland was divided into three major kingdoms with smaller city-states in the hinterlands between. The largest of these kingdoms was Arochukwu, a confederacy between the eastern Igbo subgroups and the neighboring Ibibio tribe. The Aro would raid the other Igbo kingdoms and the hinterland, kidnapping the “freeborns” (farmers, nobility, and criminals alike). These kidnapped individuals would be sold to Europeans for profit, thereby feeding the slave trade.

Aro also used another unique method to procure and sell the enslaved. Like the other two Igbo kingdoms, Arochukwu followed Odinani and believed in the power of Afa, or divination, as a tool to speak with the Gods. Yet, unlike the others, Arochukwu had possession of a sacred cave and a mystical oracle known as Long Juju or Ibini Ukpabi. This oracle served as the “voice” of the warrior god Kamalu and would be consulted to settle disputes and punish people convicted of crimes. It was seen as a supreme power and guardian of the kingdom. If someone was brought before the oracle and found guilty, he or she would be made to take off their garments and walk along a stream into the depths of the cave where the person would be “devoured.” The person would never be seen by their family again.

The truth behind this is actually much more grim. When Aro began to trade kidnapped individuals to the Europeans, the priests of the Long Juju oracle decided to participate in order to also reap benefits. They began to influence the oracle to deem all who were presented to the cave, noble and commoner, guilty and worthy of punishment.When the convict would walk into the depths of the cave, the person would be secretly ushered to an opening on the other side wherein he or she would be put onto a boat and taken upstream to be sold at the Calabar market. The reason why no one would ever hear from them again is because they would be sent to America to work on plantations. The Long Juju oracle was therefore instrumental in perpetuating the enslavement of the Igbo people.

Igbos were mainly shipped to the state of Virginia where they would be forced to work on tobacco farms. Contrary to popular belief, enslavers were quite conscious of where they would purchase the enslaved from. Many slaveholders preferred to purchase Africans from particular tribes, believing that these individuals would have expertise in growing the crops that fed their plantations with income. This is why Igbos were preferred in Virginia. According to schedules, historical records, and genealogical evidence, the Igbos were the most numerous in Virginia- forming roughly 70% of the enslaved population- and were the ancestors of a sizable portion of modern day African Americans. Many genealogists also posit that all African Americans can be traced back to at least one recent Igbo ancestor.

Igbos were also known as some of the most rebellious slaves in the U.S. This is why they were not preferred by plantation owners in Southern States aside from Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina. Igbos would often commit suicide by jumping from the side of the ships. This became so commonplace that ships began to attach nets to the sides of the vessel inorder to catch those who would try to jump overboard.

The Igbo Landing incident and the resilience of the Igbo people can serve as a reminder that you come from persevering and strong ancestors.

Image by Donovan Nelson

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