From deep within the coastal marshes of Georgia comes a powerful story of human resistance to oppression.
Near the mouth of Dunbar Creek on Georgia's St. Simons Island, there's a section of swampy marshland where some fishermen refuse to cast their lines. In the daytime, it doesn't look any different from the other vast marshes stretching across Georgia's coastal islands. Elongated white herons call to one another over the endless plain of reeds and mosquito infested marsh grasses. Fiddler crabs scurry across the sands. Unseen creatures plop into the black waters.
But when night falls, it is said that one can hear a different sound entirely. Swamps are known to make strange sounds at night. But if you listen closely, you may hear what sounds like the faint rattling of chains drifting across the marsh, followed by an eerie chant:
"The water brought us the water will take us away."
If you think your ears are deceiving you, think again. For the old timers in the area will tell you that what you're hearing is the brave warrior Oba, leading his people on their final march home.
-- Sea Island Slavery
It's hard to believe that, in this coastal area of posh beach resorts, shopping centers and freeways, there were once thousands of enslaved Africans toiling in the fierce coastal heat. The foundation of an old plantation house or a crumbling slave cabin here and there are virtually the only structural reminders of this shameful period of history - General William T. Sherman saw to that.
Until General Sherman's devastating march through Georgia, the Sea Island plantations, like most of the South, were heavily dependant on slave labor. Wealthy cotton and rice plantation owners valued the expertise of slaves who once farmed similar crops in the grasslands and marshes back in Africa. If it wasn't for the slaves, the vast plantations that once lined the Georgia/South Carolina coast wouldn't have thrived as they did.
Near the start of the nineteenth century, many slaves were being kidnaped from the interior of Nigeria and shipped down the rivers to coastal ports. The majority were members of the Ibo tribe, whose traditional homeland was in southeast Nigeria between the Niger and Cross Rivers. Their captors were mainly rival tribesmen who traded with white slave traders for currency, goods and firearms.
In the late 1700s, after a horrific voyage across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage, the Ibos would typically be brought into ports on the Southern U.S. mainland or in the Caribbean. They were placed into pens, given plenty of food and drink and encouraged to exercise, solely to make them more attractive on the auction block. Then, after a humiliating viewing period where they were stripped, pinched and prodded, the Ibos were sold to speculators who, in turn, transported them to areas of demand.
Of course, not everyone agreed with the practice of slavery. The abolitionist movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries succeeded in banning slavery throughout the Northern states. As early as 1749, even Georgia discouraged overt slaveholding within state lines. In 1798, it was made illegal in Georgia to import slaves from Africa.
But these so-called laws were too late in coming for an area so dependent on slave labor. Most plantation owners saw slavery as a necessary evil, and resorted to secretive tactics to keep their workforce growing. At high tide under the cover of darkness, slave holders would sneak their ships through the tidal creeks directly to the island plantations.
By all accounts, life on the Sea Island plantations was brutal for the slaves. They were given the backbreaking task of converting heavily wooded islands into cotton and rice fields. This involved draining the salt marshes, cutting down huge trees and clearing stumps. Some Ibos had accomplished a similar task in their African homeland, but never under slavery conditions.
Few slaves tried to escape the plantations. Capture was almost certain, and even if they did escape to an uninhabited island, poisonous snakes or a lack of food and fresh water usually brought them back. Escape or suicide also meant the abandonment of loved ones.
Life on the coastal plantations came to an abrupt end when the Civil War erupted over the region. As Union ships blockaded the ports of Charleston and Savannah, plantation owners took their healthiest slaves and fled the islands, leaving the sick and elderly slaves behind.
But as the Confederacy collapsed, many of these healthy slaves ran straight into General Sherman's troops during their destructive march through Georgia. Sherman ordered the slaves to return to the islands and, after the war, issued Special Field Order #15, which ceded most of the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands to former slaves and forbade white settlers other than military personnel to live there.
Many slaves didn't make it back, becoming refugees along the war-torn Southern roads. Others migrated to surrounding cities. But several did return to reunite with the older slaves left behind. In a perverse twist, many former slaves had become attached to the land they were enslaved upon, and returned to farming the old plantation grounds. Despite widespread poverty, the former slaves formed working communities that would become the nucleus of the African-American island communities found today.
In 1865, President Andrew Johnson expanded the terms of the Confederate pardon to include the return of property abandoned during the war. This meant that the white plantation owners could return to the islands and reclaim what General Sherman had promised the former slaves barely a year before. These plantation owners naturally assumed that their impoverished former slaves would be happy to come back to work for them as sharecroppers.
But this time, the former slaves resisted. They chose to live in their own communities, living on whatever they could catch from the sea or grow in tiny backyard plots. Some even formed land companies to consolidate black-owned farmlands. Individual businesses and schools also sprung up. Without a stable work force, the plantation families lost money, causing many to give up their lands for good.