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Slave Suicide

Slave Suicide

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Published by Chad Whitehead
Article about slaves who committed suicide.
Article about slaves who committed suicide.

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Published by: Chad Whitehead on Aug 04, 2013
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11/15/2014

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Suicide, Slavery, and Memoryin North America
Terri L. Snyder
Lots of slaves what was hrung over from Africa could fly. "There was a crowd of themworking in the field. They don't like it here and they think they go back to Africa.One by one they fly up in the air and all fly off and gone back to Africa.^J Tattnall, Georgia Writers' Project Interview, in Georgia Writers' Project,
Drums and Shadows: Survival
Stories
among the
Georgia Coastal Negroes
(1940;Athens, Ga., 1986), 108.When ex-slaves were interviewed by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s, the subjectof suicide rarely surfaced.
'
Exceptions to this silence about slave self-destruction camefrom the particular region of the Ceorgia and South Carolina Sea Islands where ex-slavesand their children related stories, similar to Jack Tattnall's, of Africans who literally hadthe power to take flight to escape enslavement. The flying African folktale probably hasits historical roots in an 1803 collective suicide by newly imported slaves. A group ofIgbo (variously, Ebo or Igbo) captives who had survived the middle passage were soldnear Savannah, Ceorgia, and reloaded onto a small ship bound for St. Simon's Island. Offthe coast ofthe island, the enslaved cargo, who had "suffered much by mismanagement,""rose"from their confinement in the small vessel, and revolted against the crew, forcingthem into the water where they drowned. After the ship ran aground, the Igbos "took tothe marsh" and drowned themselvesan act that most scholars have understood as a de-liberate, collective suicide. The site of their fatal immersion was named Ebos Landing.^
Terri L. Snyder is professor of American studies at California State University, Fullerton. The author wishes to thankVincent Brown, Kevin Dawson, Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Edward
T.
Linenthal, Mark M. Smith, Jordan
Y.
Taylor,Sharon E. Wood, and the anonymous readers for
t\\eJAH for
their perceptive commentary and helpful contribu-tions. She also is grateful to the staff of the 7^//, especially Stephen Douglas Andrews, Sarah B. Rowley, and Gyn-thia Gwynne Yaudes, for their assistance in shepherding this article through the publication process. Support forresearching and writing this article was provided by a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and afaculty research grant from Galifornia State University, Fullerton.Readers may contact Snyder at snyder@exchange.fullerton.edu.' Interviews with African American informants in the 1930s were often rendered in "negro dialect," which, asRhys Isaac has pointed out, used spelling conventions that were developed for minstrel shows. Following the ex-ample of Isaac and others, I have regularized spelling without changing the syntax or the idiom ofthe informants'interviews. See Rhys Isaac,
Landon
Carter's Uneasy
Kingdom: Revolution and
Rebellion
on a
Virginia
Plantation
(NewYork, 2004), 193; and Timothy B. Powell, "Summoning the Ancestors: The Flying Africans' Story and Its EnduringLegacy," in
African American Life in the
Georgia
Lowcountry:
The
Atlantic
World
and the Gullah Geechee,
ed. PhilipMorgan (Athens, Ga., 2010), 259-62. For the list of questions used by the Federal Writers' Project interviewers,see Gharles L. Perdue Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips,
Weevils
in the
Wheat:
Interviews with Virginia
&-j¿2m (Bloomington, 1976), 367-76.• William Mein to Pierce Butler, May 24, 1803, folder 27, box 6, Series II: Plantation Management, Miscel-laneous Correspondence 1802-1803, Buder Family Papers (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia). On
June 2010 The Journal of American History 39
 
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
speculum oris
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,
Exchanging
Our
Country
Marks:
The Transformation
of African Identities in the
Colonial
and Antebellum South
(Chapel Hill, 1998), 117-18; Powell, "Summoning the Ancestors," 253-80; Timo-thy B. Powell, "Ebos Landing," June 15, 2004,
New
Georgia
Encyclopedia,
http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2895&hl=y; and Malcolm Bell Jr.,
Major
Butler's
Legacy:Five
Generations
of a
Slaveholding
Family
(Athens, Ga., 1987), 131-32.' See Gomez,
Exchanging
Our
Country
Marks,
116-31
;
Marcus Rediker,
The Slave
Ship: A Human History
(NewYork, 2007); and Eric Robert Taylor,
IfWe Must Die: Shipboard
Insurrections
in the
Era
of he Atlantic
Slave Trade
(Ba-ton Rouge, 2006). David Eltis,
The Rise
ofAfrican
Slavery
in America
(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
to
American
Diaspora
(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,
Ihe Punished
Self:
Surviving
Slavery
in the
Colonial
South
(Ithaca, 2001);and Orlando Patterson,
Slavery
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,"
Griot,
18 (Spring 1999), 10-18; Vincent Brown,
The Reaper's
Garden: Deathand
Power
in tbe
World
of Atlantic
Slavery
(Cambridge, Mass., 2008); Terri L. Snyder, "What Historians Talk aboutWhen They Talk about Suicide: The View from Early Modern British North America,"
History Compass,
5 (March2007), 658-74. Donna Merwick,
Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York
(Ithaca, 1999);Howard I. Kushner,
Self-Destruction
in the
Promised
Land:
A
Psychocultural Biology
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).
 
Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in North America
41
The
speculum
oris
was used in the forced feeding of suicidal slaves. Ac-cording to a merchant who sold the instrument, "slaves were frequentlyso sulky, as to shut their mouths against all sustenance, and this witha determination to die; and it was necessary their mouths should beforced open to throw in nutriment, that they who had purchased themmight incur no loss by their death."
Thomas Clarkson,
The History ofthe Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the AfricanSlave-Trade by the British Parliament
(2 vols., London, 1808), I, 377.
Courtesy
Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
system is also difficult to assess because cultural and legal principles encouraged the sup-pression of evidence of self-destruction in all historical periods, including the present.While some captive Africans viewed suicide as an honorable escape from slavery, for earlymodern Anglo- and European Americans, suicide—what they termed self-murder—wasa sinful act and also a felony that carried substantial penalties. Individuals who killedthemselves could be denied Christian burial rites, and their bodies could be subjected topost-mortem desecration; their surviving families could also be penalized financially andsocially. Such societal attitudes might appear to have had no bearing on enslaved people,who lacked personhood under the law; nevertheless, slaves who killed themselves oftenreflected badly on their masters, some of whom worked to conceal evidence of slave
self-
destruction.''
* Walter Minchinton, Celia King, and Peter Waite, eds.,
Virginia
Slave
Trade
Statistics, 1698-1775
(Richmond,1984),viii-xi, 41-46; Elizabeth Donnan, ed..
Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave
Trade
to America
(4vols., Washington, 1930-1936), IV,
175-81,
table 131. William Waller Hening,
The Statutes
at Large,
Being
a Col-
lection
of All the
Latvs
of Virginia from the
First Session
of the
Legislature
in the
Year
1619
( 13
vols., Richmond, 1819-1823), IV, 471-74. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman argue that the suicide rate among slaves was "extremely

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