40 The Journal of American History June 2010"The fate of those Igbo in 1803 gave rise to a distinctive regional folklore and a placename, but both individual and collective suicide were also part of the general history ofNorth American slavery. From the start of the transatlantic slave trade, mariners, mer-chants, and masters exchanged reports of slave suicide along with their human traffic, andthey noted alarmingly that captive Africans often responded to enslavement by destroyingthemselves. Some ship captains kept account of their cargo losses for investors and insur-ers; one study of surgeons' logs for the period 1792-1796 reveals that 7.2 percent of cap-tive Africans killed themselves at some point during capture, embarkation, or along themiddle passage. Particularly at loading points on the African coast and aboard ships dur-ing the middle passage, captive Africans' self-destruction was common enough to warrantthe use ofthe earliest technologies for suicide prevention. Nets were strung on the decksof slave ships to forestall any captives who might leap to their deaths and the
was used to forcibly feed those who chose to starve themselves. While work by MichaelGomez and, more recently, Marcus Rediker and Eric Robert Taylor has underscored thefrequency of suicide among captive Africans during the early stages of the transatlantictrade, little attention has been given to the meanings of self-destruction among newly im-ported slaves after disembarkation or among seasoned and former slaves born in colonialNorth America and, later, the United States.^Self-destruction in the context of North American slavery has been overlooked, inpart, because of the problematic nature of all evidence for suicide. We simply cannotknow how many enslaved persons—or even free people—chose suicide in early modernAmerica. Because no systematic public accounting of deaths was undertaken when slaveswere domestically dispersed, traded, and resold on the North American mainland, sui-cide figures for disembarkation are difficult to ascertain. Naval office shipping lists fromthe colonial period provide the numbers of slaves who died within forty days of arrivalat American ports, but they do not give reasons for the deaths. Because surviving NorthAmerican plantation records are essentially private documents, they also do not system-atically account for the causes of slave deaths. The incidence of suicide under the slave
Ebos Landing, see Michael A. Gomez,
of African Identities in the
and Antebellum South
(Chapel Hill, 1998), 117-18; Powell, "Summoning the Ancestors," 253-80; Timo-thy B. Powell, "Ebos Landing," June 15, 2004,
http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2895&hl=y; and Malcolm Bell Jr.,
(Athens, Ga., 1987), 131-32.' See Gomez,
Ship: A Human History
(NewYork, 2007); and Eric Robert Taylor,
IfWe Must Die: Shipboard
of he Atlantic
(Ba-ton Rouge, 2006). David Eltis,
(Cambridge, Eng., 1999), 157n73. The earli-est sustained consideration of suicide among Africans who were forcibly transported to the Americas is William D.Pierson, "White Cannibals, Black Martyrs: Fear, Depression, and Religious Faith as Causes of Suicide among New
Slaves," Journal of Negro History,
62 (April 1977), 147-59. On slave suicide among newly imported Africans, seeStephanie E. Smallwood,
SaltivaterSlavery:A Middle Passage from Africa
(Cambridge, Mass.,2007); John Thornton, "Cannibals, Witches, and Slave Traders in the Atlantic World,"
William and Mary Quarterly,
60 (April 2003), 273-94; Alex Bontemps,
(Ithaca, 2001);and Orlando Patterson,
and Social Death: A Comparative Study
(Cambridge, Mass., 1982). On suicide inthe colonies and the early United States, see Daniel E. Walker, "Suicidal Tendencies: African Transmigration in theHistory and Folklore of the Americas,"
18 (Spring 1999), 10-18; Vincent Brown,
(Cambridge, Mass., 2008); Terri L. Snyder, "What Historians Talk aboutWhen They Talk about Suicide: The View from Early Modern British North America,"
5 (March2007), 658-74. Donna Merwick,
Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York
(Ithaca, 1999);Howard I. Kushner,
of American Suicide
(New Bruns-wick, 1989); Richard Bell, "The Double Guilt of Dueling: The Stain of Suicide in Antidueling Rhetoric in the EarlyRepublic,"
Journal ofthe Early Republic,
29 (Fall 2009), 383-410; and Richard James Bell, "Do Not Despair: TheCultural Significance of Suicide in America, 1780-1840" (Ph.D. diss.. Harvard University, 2006).