THE IMAGE OF AN AFRICAN SLAVE IN NORTH America does not include a man who spoke three languages. History books do not tell us about a slave who, even after forty years of captivity, still remembered how to recite the Fatiha. Not many people have ever heard of the African prince that was worked on a plantation in Natchez, Mississippi for forty years before President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay shook hands with him and helped him return to Timbuktu.
Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori spoke Arabic, Pulaar (the language of his people, the Fulbe) and English and was the son of King Sori of Futa Jallon, present-day Timbuktu, where an Islamic state of cattle herders had organized thousands of schools for their children’s education. He knew more about mathematics, science and religion than did his owner Thomas Foster. He was a natural leader and was promoted to serve as a general in his father’s army. West Africa was then convulsed in unending warfare among various West African powers, brought on by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was during one such war in 1788 that the prince was captured at the age of 26 and sold to European slave traders for “guns, powder, two bottles of rum and eight hands of tobacco.” His capture was neither his defeat nor the end of his jihad. He was captured while defending his people in West Africa, then enslaved as he struggled to maintain his Islamic identity in the wilderness of 18th-century Mississippi.
Abdul Rahman’s story was a lost treasure until Terry Alford, currently a professor of history at Northern Virginia Community College in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., began following Rahman’s paper trails through Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Boston. Alford began his research in the 1960s and, without grants or funding, was the first to uncover the story of the enslaved prince. Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), a non-profit educational corporation based in Washington, D. C, is currently filming a documentary targeted for release in 2007. Alford’s book Prince Among Slaves, also the title of the documentary, serves as the starting point of the film.
“I believe this is one of the best researched lives of a slave in the U.S. that I’ve ever seen. It’s an extremely fascinating story of a man who falls from the heights of his society to the depths of another, and negotiates to get his freedom to return home,” said Michael Wolfe, co-executive producer of the film and co-founder of UPF. “The general image of a slave as it was shaped by the slaving society was ignorant, incapable people who were actually being rescued in a way and given something to do in life. Abdul Rahman breaks that stereotype.” Wolfe believes that Abdul Rahman’s biography challenges the stereotypical image most people have of slaves in antebellum America. He was more educated than his owner, and he was a Muslim that maintained his faith in God despite difficulties that slave-life presented.
In 1788 Abdul Rahman’s captors forced him to walk 100 miles barefoot as they led his horse in front of him. After being sold to Europeans he was deported via the Africa, a slave ship headed to New Orleans. The average height of the area where slaves were kept was five feet, and Abdul Rahman was six- feet-tall and chained by the ankle to another passenger. He was confined in a space that was filled with human excrement and vomit and then thrust onto the undeveloped lands of New Orleans with no idea how far he was from home. In New Orleans, Foster bought Abdul Rahman to work on his plan- tation in Natchez, Mississippi. Both cities were far more primitive compared to Futa Jallon, which Alford said was a shock to the prince of a well-organized and sophisticated society in Africa. Slavery stripped Africans of their identities; names were changed and families were torn apart. Abdul Rahman came from a culture where long hair marked one’s beauty and farming and was considered beneath him, but in Natchez his owner cut his hair and expected him to work in the fields. Abdul Rahman tried to explain to Foster that he was a prince whose father would pay a large ransom for his safe return, only to earn the name Prince as a mockery of his implausible story around the plantation.
Abdul Rahman had never treated anyone this way before; he came from a society where those who are lost are helped. In 1781, one-eyed John Coates Cox, an Irish surgeon from a ship that had washed ashore, arrived in Futa Jallon exhausted, ill and terribly bitten by insects. The Fulbe had never seen a white man before and treated him well, asking him to stay until he was well enough to return and furnishing him with gold to pay for his journey back to the NewWorld. This was the beginning of a long friendship between the white man and the Fulbe and Abdul Rahman would redeem his favor from Cox one auspicious day.
But pleasant memories of the white man he had once befriended were taken over by the miserable routine he had found himself in. Within a few weeks a miserable and rebellious Abdul Rahman ran away from the Foster plantation.
Some aspects of Alford’s research is supported by secondhand accounts of stories that circulated the neighborhoods of Natchez, stories that became engrained in the culture and history of the city. One such story is Abdul Rahman’s return to the Foster’s plantation. After several weeks of living in the woods, hiding from fugitive slave-hunters, Abdul Rahman returned to the plantation and prostrated on the floor in front of Thomas Foster’s wife, Sarah. He took one of her feet and lifted it so it was resting on his neck, a gesture that from a West African soldier meant that he was surrendering his life-his fate was to be decided by the Fosters. They could keep him as a slave or kill him. His faith kept him alive thus far; many slaves committed suicide after running away yet something kept Abdul Rahman from doing so. Suicide is forbidden in Islam, and Abdul Rahman felt that his life was not intended to be the slave of a white man. He was a servant of God, first and foremost.
Abdul Rahman’s faith in God kept him faithful to the Fosters, who held him in high regard as a trustworthy slave, allowing him the freedom to practice Islam. But Abdul Rahman is one of the few Muslim slaves to maintain an Islamic identity. Locally, he was known as the “Mahometan and was adhered strictly to the forms of his religion.” Practicing Islam as a slave was difficult; keeping up with the requirements of cleanliness, prayers throughout the day and fasting while being required to work long hours on plantations and unco-operative slave-owners kept many from practicing Islam. Because of all of these difficulties, Islam was not able to last through antebellum America, although Rahman’s story proves that Muslims are deeply rooted in the foundational period of the United States’ history.
The slave prince had a wife and son in Africa but after realizing that returning home was nearly impossible, he married a devout Baptist in 1794. Re-marrying meant he had to let go of his hopes of returning home, and accept his fate. His wife Isabella raised their nine children as Baptists, while Abdul Rahman remained steadfast in his beliefs in Islam. “His consistency in his faith and his devoutness is the key to his pesonality and his survival as a slave,” said Alford. “He is the connection between Africa and America in the Islamic sense.”
Abdul Rahman was able to maintain his faith in God but life’s events took a toll on him in other ways. Second-hand written accounts of him from locals claim Abdul Rahman was pious and a hard-worker yet never smiled. He was strange in the eyes of the white people as well as the slaves because of his education and claim to royalty. His piety was highly regarded by the Fosters and earned him the right to plow some land for himself and his family.
Abdul Rahman often made trips to a market about an hour’s walk from the plantation to sell vegetables he had grown on the plot Foster had given him. The money he earned was his own. In the summer of 1807 Abdu Rahman went to the main streets intent on selling sweet potatoes when he saw a one-eyed Irishman in front of him. Somehow the only white man who knew Rahman’s true identity had came into his life, again. John Cox embraced Abdul Rahman and invited him to share his story.
Cox did everything in his power to convince Foster to free Abdul Rahman, but Foster was unwilling to even name a price. Less than twenty years ago Abdul Rahman had put his life and his fate into the hands of the Foster family and now he had to come to terms with the fate that was decided for him, all over again. Cox died before Abdul Rahman was emancipated, but he was able to validate Abdul Rahman’s identity and drew the attention of Andrew Marschalk, editor of the Mississippi State Gazette. Marschalk met frequently with Abdul Rahman and assumed that the prince was a Moor.
Marschalk helped Abdul Rahman send a letter to Africa in which the slave wrote the only Arabic he knew he could remember perfectly: the Fatiha. Marschalk sent the letter to Morocco convinced that Abdul Rahman was a Moor, and the Moroccans, seeing that a Muslim man was captive in a foreign land, showed interest in helping Abdul Rahman gain freedom. On February 22, 1828, after forty years of enslavement, Thomas Foster granted Abdul Rahman his freedom. But Abdul Rahman was not happy. He was determined to negotiate the freedom of his wife and nine children so they could all return to Africa.
Alford was able to trace Abdul Rahman’s life through Abdul Rahman’s own journals and the newspaper accounts of his tour to Ohio, Kentucky, Boston. During his tour he met with President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay, both of whom were helping Abdul Rahman return home. Instead of being sent to Liberia, he was able to return home to Timbuktu on February 7, 1829. Just five months after his return, Abdul Rahman passed away.
Enslaved Africans had a religious identity before they came to North America and Abdul Rahman’s story addresses how slaves dealt with the enormous stress of being cut off from everything that is familiar to them. “It’s a universal story of what you do when you lose everything,” said Alex Kronemer, also co-executive producer of the documentary and co-founder of UPF. “When 9/11 happened, everyone went to their places of worship to help deal with that period of distress. It made me think of other people under enormous stress who also get cut off from their religions. What about the enslaved Africans who were largely barred from being able to seek comfort and support from their various religions? This story is about the spiritual struggles of those enslaved Africans.” The spiritual life of African slaves is hardly mentioned while the methodology of slavery is well recorded in history books. “That’s what educational television is about, exploring what hasn’t been dealt with,” said Kronemer.
Alford said his book has been optioned by Hollywood before but Wolfe and Kronemer were first to move forward with the idea. UPF’s first documentary, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, garnered the 2004 Cine Special Jury Award after being broadcasted on United States public television stations and translated into several languages to be broadcasted on stations internationally. Kronemer said that while working on their first documentary he learned that very few people knew about the long history of Muslims in America. “It didn’t begin on 9/ 1 1 or the waves of non-European immigration in the 1960s. It is something that goes back to the beginning of the country,” he said. “[Wolfe] came across Alford’s book and though it was a very fascinating story and carried a bigger theme: the enslaved Africans that had a spiritual identity before they were deported, which included Islam and various indigenous religion.”
Alford shed light on Abdul Rahman’s story almost thirty years ago yet he feels that there hasn’t been an increase in interest in slaves who were Muslims, something that he hoped and expected. “I don’t want to think there is a conspiracy here, but I do feel this topic hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.” Alford is an advisor to the filmmakers and will be a featured scholar in the film. UPF is planning to prepare a collaborative educational Web site when the film is released to provide additional information and history.
UPF’s film Prince Among Slaves will feature award-winning writer Sylviane A. Diouf, New York University history professor Boubacar Barry, among many other notable scholars called upon to discuss Abdul Rahman’s life.
“If you can put a human face on any epic it makes it more meaningful,” said Alford. “It really helps us know the stories, not just the numbers.”