Women and men were kept separately. Men were chained together. In some ships there was a place in the bilges for defecating and urinating over the edge of the ship, in others, there were brimming buckets.
It was very difficult to get to the right place at the right time manacled to other slaves, especially if a slave had diarrhea. After forty or fifty days at sea, the slave ship would stink of urine, faeces, and vomit. As it came into port people could smell it almost before they could see it.
Women were allowed more freedom than men, being considered less of a threat, and often went out on deck and helped with the cooking. But they paid a price for this in some ships by being the object of constant sexual harassment and even rape, either at the hands of the crew or the captain.
Food was plentiful although not always of good quality. Daily rations might include yam, biscuits, rice, beans, plantain, and occasionally meat, but the way it was served – one bucket among ten men – induced quarrels and infection. Water was part of daily rations but could be in short supply and unpleasant to drink. The records of one Liverpool slave ship show it carried rather generously a massive 34,000 gallons of water for crew and slaves.
Unless slaves proved rebellious the captain and crew were at pains not to ill-treat them. This was not out of kindness but for commercial reasons. If a slave died, money was lost. However, some captains were notoriously brutal to slaves and crew alike. A ship’s surgeon was employed to oversee eating and exercise. Male slaves might be allowed out twice a week on deck and dancing and drumming was encouraged sometimes with words, sometimes with a whip.
“Exercise being deemed necessary for the preservation of their health they are sometimes obliged to dance when the weather will permit their coming on deck. If they go about it reluctantly or do not move with agility, they are flogged; a person standing by them all the time with a cat- o’- nine- tails in his hands for the purpose.”
Taken from Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa.
There are accounts of rebellious slaves being tortured by having hands, arms and legs cut off, on order of the captain as a lesson to the rest of the slaves, and of women being attacked and disfigured.
CAUSES OF DEATH
The chief causes of death on the ship were dysentery, followed by smallpox. A third cause was sheer misery; sometimes slaves willed themselves to die out of sheer depression and hopelessness. They would refuse to eat, and the crew would resort to force-feeding, or they would jump over the edge and drown in the sea.
Losses were recorded but most of these documents have disappeared. It’s estimated that an average of twenty percent of slaves got lost in transit, and as many as half the slaves have been known to die in one journey. The worst moment for crew and slaves alike was leaving the African coast.
“From the moment that the slaves are embarked, one must put the sails up. The reason is that these slaves have so great a love for their country that they despair when they see that they are leaving it forever; that makes them die of grief, and I have heard merchants…say that they died more often before leaving the port than during the voyage.
Some throw themselves into the sea, others hit their heads against the ship, others hold their breath to try and smother themselves, others still try to die of hunger from not eating.”
Jacques Savary, a businessman, writing at the end of the 18th century.
Igbo Landing Mass Suicide (1803)
Drawing Depicting the Igbo Entering the Waters of Dunbar Creek
Image Courtesy of Dee “Larue” Williams
Igbo Landing is a historic site at Dunbar Creek on St. Simons Island, Glynn County, Georgia. In 1803 one of the largest mass suicides of enslaved people took place when Igbo captives from what is now Nigeria were taken to the Georgia coast. In May 1803, the Igbo and other West African captives arrived in Savannah, Georgia, on the slave ship the Wanderer. They were purchased for an average of $100 each by slave merchants John Couper and Thomas Spalding to be resold to plantations on nearby St. Simons Island. The chained slaves were packed under the deck of a coastal vessel, the York, which would take them to St. Simons. During the voyage, approximately 75 Igbo slaves rose in rebellion, took control of the ship, drowned their captors, and in the process caused the grounding of the ship in Dunbar Creek.
The sequence of events that occurred next remains unclear. It is known only that the Igbo marched ashore, singing, led by their high chief. Then at his direction, they walked into the marshy waters of Dunbar Creek, committing mass suicide. Roswell King, a white overseer on the nearby Pierce Butler plantation, wrote the first account of the incident. He and another man identified only as Captain Patterson recovered many of the drowned bodies. Apparently, only a subset of the 75 Igbo rebels drowned. Thirteen bodies were recovered, but others remained missing, and some may have survived the suicide episode, making the actual numbers of deaths uncertain.
Regardless of the numbers, the deaths signaled a powerful story of resistance as these captives overwhelmed their captors in a strange land, and many took their own lives rather than remain enslaved in the New World. The Igbo Landing gradually took on enormous symbolic importance in local African American folklore. The mutiny and subsequent suicide by the Igbo people were called by many locals the first freedom march in the history of the United States. Local people claimed that the Landing and surrounding marshes in Dunbar Creek where the Igbo people committed suicide in 1803 were haunted by the souls of the dead Igbo slaves. The story of Igbo, who chose death over slavery which had long been part of Gullah folklore, was finally recorded from various oral sources in the 1930s by members of the Federal Writers Project.
While many historians for centuries have cast doubt on the Igbo Landing mass suicide, suggesting that the entire incident was more legend than fact, the accounts Roswell King and others provided at the time were verified by post-1980 research which used modern scientific techniques to reconstruct the episode and confirm the factual basis of the longstanding oral accounts.
In September 2002, the St. Simons African American community organized a two-day commemoration with events related to Igbo history and a procession to the site of the mass suicide. Seventy-five attendees came from different states across the United States, as well as Nigeria, Brazil, and Haiti. The attendees designated the site as a holy ground and called for the souls to be permanently at rest. The Igbo Landing is now part of the curriculum for coastal Georgia schools.