Prince Among Slaves

By Alex Kronemer and Michael Wolfe

Prince Among Slaves is a nationally broadcast documentary, which is now a part of a major humanities outreach project.  The documentary is a production of Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) in association with Spark Media and Duke Media.   It tells the amazing story of an enslaved Muslim Prince from Africa who had an incredible life story.

Overview

Some biographies help us understand the broad historical themes and issues of the period during which the subject lived.  Others appeal to the universal emotions of the human experience.  And some simply entertain us with vivid characters and nearly novelistic events.  One compelling story that does all three is Prince Among Slaves. 

A 60-minute documentary that was broadcast on PBS, it tells the true story of an African Muslim prince who was sold into slavery and brought to the American South in 1788.  His name was Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, and he remained enslaved for forty years before ultimately regaining his freedom and returning to Africa.

The broad outline of Abdul Rahman’s biography reads like a fabulous legend:  a young Muslim prince falls from a life of power and privilege into exile and enslavement in a strange land.  There he endures unimaginable indignities, yet carves out a life, marries a woman enslaved like himself, and has children.  Then, through improbable circumstances, he is granted his freedom and returns to his homeland, manages to rescue his wife and some of his children from enslavement, and sees his royal status recognized in the very land that held him in bondage.  But the story of freedom sold and nobility dispossessed did not take place in some fictional realm or ancient land. Rather, it happened in the United States.

Nothing bestrode this country’s early history like slavery. The trans-Atlantic trade in slaves was a cruel yet critical component of the settlement and continuation of the New World colonies.  Slavery supplied the foundation on which the great agricultural economies of the South—and the careers and fortunes of Washington, Jefferson, and other founding fathers—were built.  It was the great moral issue before which the country’s first patriots—men bold enough to have taken on the world’s most powerful empire—flinched when they wrote the Constitution.  And as the conflict between the institution of slavery and the country’s bedrock values of freedom and equality reached critical mass, it was slavery that accomplished what no foreign enemy could have done: it split the country.

History divided Abdul Rahman’s life into three periods, and dramatically into three acts.

Act I:  A Prince in Africa 

Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori was born in 1762, son of Sori the almaami or king of the Fulbe, a predominantly Muslim population of cattle herders that ruled the West African country of Futa Jallon (an area now part of the Republic of Guinea) from his family’s traditional seat in Timbo, a town of airy, large-roomed houses surrounded by hedges and dominated by a large mosque.  Economically, the Fulbe were traders, acquiring salt and European manufactured goods in exchange for the products of Fulbe craftsmen, and in exchange, too, for slaves, members of rival tribes defeated in battle.

As a prince, Abdul Rahman received a traditional Muslim education, beginning with learning to read and write passages from the Quran.  His aptitude for his studies persuaded his father to send him abroad for further education, first to Macina, in what is now Mali, then toTimbuktu, where he studied not only Islam, but also geography, astronomy, calculations, and the law.

At seventeen, Abdul Rahman returned to Timbo, entered the army, and quickly rose to the rank of commander. It was during this period that Ibrahima met a white person for the first time, John Coates Cox, a marooned Irish ship’s surgeon, who was found ill and insect-bitten, and brought to Sori, who provided shelter and care until Cox regained his health and returned to Ireland.  It was also during this period that Abdul Rahman married and fathered his first child—a son.

In 1787, Sori dispatched Abdul Rahman, then in his late twenties, at the head of an army of two thousand to confront rival tribes then threatening the commerce on which the Fulbe depended.   The campaign went well at first, with Abdul Rahman’s army advancing easily against only scattered opposition. Flush with apparent success, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima sent his infantry home, retaining only a detachment of three hundred horsemen. The enemy, however, had not fled, but merely retreated to a more strategically advantageous position.  As Abdul Rahman and his cavalry entered a narrow mountain pass, they were engulfed in a hailstorm of gunfire.  By the time Abdul Rahman escaped the pass and reached the summit, he faced the enemy virtually alone.  In short order he was overwhelmed, stripped, bound, and walked barefoot a hundred miles, trailing behind his own horse.

In March of 1788, just three months after he had left Timbo as commander of a powerful army, Ibrahima Abdul Rahman and about 160 other men were marched onto the river-running brig Africa, manacled, and led below deck to begin the long journey into slavery, down the Gambia River and across the Atlantic.

After a trans-Atlantic voyage of 3000 miles, the Africa made landfall in tiny Dominica in the Windward Islands at the foot of the Caribbean Sea. There Abdul Rahman and fifty-six others from the Africa’s human cargo were sold for $4090, less than $72 each, and transferred to the cargo hold of another ship, the Navarro, for a 2600 mile journey across the Caribbean Sea to the Yucatan Channel, then north to Spanish-ruled New Orleans, and up the Mississippi to the river town of Natchez.  In Natchez, 6000 miles from Timbo, eight months from his reign as a prince, Abdul Rahman reached the end of his commandeered journey.

Act II:  A Slave in America

Natchez today is a river city of a little less than 20,000, trading on its plantation mansions and antebellum charm.  But the settlement Abdul Rahman first saw in August of 1788 was a collection of twenty houses, an old earth and wood fort, and a handful of taverns and stores to service the tobacco planters who lived inland along the creeks that fed the Mississippi.

Four planters examined the African captives on auction there on an August Saturday in 1788.   But only one of them, Thomas Foster, could pay cash. He purchased Abdul Rahman and Samba, a fellow Fulbe soldier who had served under Abdul Rahman’s command.   The two men were secured with rope and led to Foster’s land in the Pine Ridge area, six miles from Natchez.

Thomas Foster was twenty-nine—the same age as Abdul Rahman—a tobacco farmer with a wife and three children, working a thousand acres.  Home was a fifty year-old blockhouse, little more than a hut (as a daughter later remembered). Here the entire family, including Foster’s mother, lived in a single room.  The rude building sat in the only five acres that had been fenced.  This land was to be Abdul Rahman’s home for the next forty years.

A series of incidents quickly demonstrated to Abdul Rahman the depth of his fall and the bleakness of the future he faced.  Upon arriving at Foster’s land, Abdul Rahman (probably communicating through another African from a neighboring plantation) offered Foster a ransom for his freedom, a common strategy in West Africa, but an outlandish suggestion on the Mississippi River.  The offer was rejected out of hand.

Further indignities awaited him. In Futa Jallon, Abdul Rahman’s long, plaited hair had been a symbol of distinction. The plaits were immediately cut, though Abdul Rahman struggled so hard that he had to be tied to a tree. He was then confined to a shed for three days to teach him submission.

He was released to gather in the tobacco crop, the kind of labor that in his kingdom would have been performed by people far below Abdul Rahman’s caste and royal breeding.  He refused to go into the fields, and this time only whipping overcame his defiance.

In due time, he managed to escape, slipping out of his bed one night, crossing the fields, and entering the trackless woods that lay beyond. Patrols were mustered but failed to find him.  Sadly, he had not been in the New World long enough to know where to flee to find his freedom, or whether, indeed, freedom was available to Africans anywhere on the new continent.  Suicide was foreclosed to him by his Muslim faith.  After several weeks in the forest, Abdul Rahman returned to the Fosters’ plantation.  Escape solved nothing. Now only his faith would give him the strength to accept his situation as the will of God, as a test in which he must endure and prevail.

Battle, capture, the Middle Passage, from Africa to Dominica, to New Orleans and Natchez, from the auction block to a tobacco plantation, escape and surrender, all in a matter of weeks—Abdul Rahman’s life had moved at a dizzying pace.

Now it slowed.  Henceforth, his life would be measured not in hours, days and weeks, but in years and decades.  Outside the Foster plantation, the world moved on.  In Futa Jallon, Abdul Rahman’s father died, and was succeeded as almaami by his second son, Saadu.  Seven years later, Saadu was killed in a coup. That same year, 1795,Spain ceded the Natchez District to the United States, where it became part of theMississippiTerritory.  The new territory, with its agricultural economy and slavery,  joined America’s rapidly expanding western regions, helping to build the developing American economy. Its benefits and growing pains would no longer be Spain’s but America’s.

On Thomas Foster’s Pine Ridge plantation, later known as Foster’s Fields, Abdul Rahman slowly pieced together a new life, albeit one of a slave. After his early escape attempt, he “sank into [being] a common slave,” as an acquaintance of his later life put it. Although farming had been considered déclassé for Fulbe soldiers, not to mention Fulbe royalty, Abdul Rahman became primarily a farm hand, working crops he was familiar with from Futa Jallon—tobacco, cotton, coffee and indigo—and tending farm animals. On occasion, he distinguished himself even now, drawing on his experience as a leader and a soldier, becoming in time the groom to Foster’s racing horses and gradually rising in the plantation’s hierarchy.

He accepted his condition in other ways as well.  Although he had left behind in Africa a wife and child, in time he married a recently acquired woman, Isabella, a Christian.  Abdul Rahman did not convert to Christianity; rather, he maintained his Muslim faith.  Without a Quran, without pen or paper, he maintained his literacy in Arabic by tracing figures in the sand.  And he maintained a temperate life with its industrious character, tolerance, and obedience to the Will of God that had been cornerstones in his Muslim education and upbringing in Futa Jallon.

These qualities—his intelligence, experience, and self-discipline—served him, and his purchaser as well.  Foster switched from tobacco to cotton, expanded his acreage, and became one of the area’s most prosperous planters. His original complement of three adult slaves grew to ten by 1795, to twenty in 1800, forty in 1810, seventy by 1818, and more than a hundred in 1819.

Abdul Rahman’s status improved too, raising him to a position of authority on the plantation. As a result, Foster granted Abdul Rahman small but important privileges.  He enjoyed freedom of worship.  He tended a small garden and sold the excess in Natchez, keeping the proceeds. His family grew to nine.  His place on the periphery of the cash economy, his skill with the crops, and his acknowledged position on the Foster plantation made him a familiar figure in Natchez on weekends.

Abdul Rahman’s success in dealing with the unfortunate changes in his life was due in large part to the moral and spiritual legacy he brought with him from Africa.  As a prince and commander, he was used to leading and directing others.  And his personal characteristics, proceeding from his Muslim faith, earned him in Natchez status, money, and a degree of autonomy in plantation life.

Nor was his experience unique.  Scholars have remarked that enslaved people of the Muslim faith were especially well equipped to survive slavery’s ubiquitous cruelty and oppression. “There is ample evidence,” says Dr. Sylviane Diouf, author of Servants of Allah, “that the Muslims actively used their cultural and social background and the formation they had received in Africa as tools to improve their condition in the Americas.”

Despite his capacity to adapt to the life he was forced to lead, even with the relative privileges granted and successes he achieved, Abdul Rahman still bore the stigmata of slavery.  From the day his hair was cut, he ceased caring for it, and it grew coarse and tangled.  His skin became weathered and dry.  A friend of long-standing recalled that over the course of their long acquaintance, he had not once seen Abdul Rahman smile.

In 1807, a weekend trip into Natchez changed Abdul Rahman’s life forever.  While selling his produce by the road, he saw a familiar-looking white man in the streets.  After a moment’s hesitation, the man asked where in Africa Abdul Rahman was from.  When he replied that he was from Timbo, the man asked whether his name was Abdul Rahman.  It was Dr. John Cox, the Irish ship’s surgeon who, marooned in Africa in the early 1770s, had been nursed back to health in Timbo by Abdul Rahman and his father.

The two embraced, and went to Cox’s rooms, where Abdul Rahman recounted the story of what had happened over the past two decades.  Together they went to the plantation to talk to Foster.  Cox asked Foster to name a purchase price for Abdul Rahman. When Foster refused, Cox stated his own price, and raised it in one-sided bidding until it reached $1000, almost twice the market price for a male slave at the Natchez slave auctions. Foster still refused: the auction price could not come close to the value Abdul Rahman had added to Foster’s fortune.

Although Cox was unsuccessful in buying Abdul Rahman’s freedom, the two continued to see each other frequently over the years. Cox settled in Natchez.  Periodically, he renewed his offer to Foster; always it was refused. Although the friendship ended with Cox’s death in 1816, Cox’s son continued his father’s efforts to gain Abdul Rahman’s manumission.

By the time of Cox’s death, Abdul Rahman’s relationship with the doctor, combined with his royal lineage and the tale of his dramatic escape and return, made him a figure of some prominence in Natchez, and his circle of acquaintances widened.  One newly acquired friend was Andrew Marschalk, a New York-born printer who had come toMississippiwith the Army in 1798.  Marschalk and Abdul Rahman may have met as early as 1803. Their relationship deepened over the years.  In letters to friends, Marschalk extolled Abdul Rahman’s virtues.

In 1821, Abdul Rahman was in Marschalk’s printing office, when he saw a book of type specimens, one of which was Arabic.  It was the first Arabic Abdul Rahman had seen since leaving Futa Jallon, and he quickly copied it and translated it into English.  He told Marschalk that he wished to write to his home country.

Act III:  Freedom—To Redeem His Family from Slavery

After forty years of slavery, events moved quickly.  Once Abdul Rahman wrote his “letter home” and gave it to publisher Andrew Marschalk in 1826, Marschalk wrote a cover letter and gave it and Abdul Rahman’s statement to Mississippi Sen. Thomas Reed, who in turn forwarded them to Secretary of State Henry Clay.  Clay then sent the documents to the U.S. Consul inTangier,Morocco, who presented the case to the vizier of Moroccan Sultan Abd al-Rahman II.   The Sultan’s favorable response was duly returned to Clay. He read and passed it to President John Quincy Adams, who approved the purchase of Abdul Rahman from his owner.  Adams’ decision was duly sent to Marschalk, who then approached Thomas Foster, by this time one ofNatchez’s wealthiest, most influential planters.

For twenty years Foster had refused to sell this valuable slave at any price.  By 1827, however, Abdul Rahman was well into his sixties and his economic value to Foster was considerably diminished.  Foster now told Marschalk that if means were found by which Abdul Rahman could return to Africa, he would be released without payment.  But one condition was demanded— he was only willing to release Abdul Rahman if he would leave the United States.

Marschalk relayed these terms to Henry Clay, who replied in February of 1828: “There is no difficulty in acceding to the conditions presented by Mr. Foster.  You will please to send Prince to [Washington]…for the purpose of his being transported to his native country.”   On February 22, less than a month after receiving Clay’s letter, Foster and Abdul Rahman rode into Natchez, and Foster deeded the slave in trust to Marschalk.  The forty years of Abdul Rahman’s slavery were indeed over, but he now faced perhaps his biggest challenge: how to also free his family.   A local fundraiser, on his behalf, helped obtain the money to buy the freedom of his wife, Isabella, in less than twenty-four hours.  But where to find the money to free nine more?

Forty years before this, Abdul Rahman had traveled up the Mississippi to Natchez in the hold of a schooner.  On April 8, 1828, he headed upriver again, this time in the cabin of a steamboat, a transportation marvel invented during his years of bondage.  His ultimate destination was Africa, as Marschalk and Clay had promised Foster, but Abdul Rahman had his own priorities.  For him, a more important obligation took precedence over the agreement among Foster, Marschalk, and Clay—the obligation to redeem his children from slavery trumped everything.  Redemption cost money.  Abdul Rahman was going up the Mississippi to find a way to secure the necessary funds.

He steamed first to Louisville, then to Cincinnati. From Cincinnati he headed north on the Ohio River to Wheeling, Virginia, then by stagecoach to Baltimore along the route now followed by Interstate 68.  At each stop he called on town leaders, giving them letters of introduction penned by Marschalk. More than once he walked the streets soliciting contributions.  In the next eight months, while the heat of a presidential election rose around him, Abdul Rahman raised $3,000, money that ultimately freed all but one of his children. In Baltimore he met Henry Clay, who was busy campaigning for President Adams in the election.  Clay urged him on to Washington D.C.

The Washington Abdul Rahman visited on a rainy day in May, 1828, was one of the smaller cities on his tour, just a quarter the size of Baltimore and very much a work in progress, “[s]traggling out hither and thither,” wrote a visitor from Philadelphia just a few years later, “with a small house or two a quarter of a mile from any other.”  After thirty years as capital of the young nation,Washington was home to the great-domed U.S. Capitol and the White House—and to the largest slave market in North America.

Abdul Rahman secured an appointment with the President and called on John Quincy Adams at the White House. The meeting was cordial, but when Abdul Rahman asked directly for the President’s help in redeeming his children and grandchildren from slavery in Mississippi, Adams was sympathetic but non-committal. From the White House Abdul Rahman went next door to the State Department to meet with Clay.  Clay was cordial too, offering Abdul Rahman the hospitality of his own home, but like Adams he made no decision on the redemption of the former slave’s family. After just a few days in Washington, Abdul Rahman returned to Baltimore, then traveled north, bound for Philadelphia and Boston.

Natchez received word of Abdul Rahman’s fundraising campaign with displeasure. Marschalk had personally vouched for Abdul Rahman’s character and for his desire to return immediately to Africa.    Foster was incensed.  Had not Clay given his word that Abdul Rahman would be at liberty only in Africa, not in the U.S.?   “I consider the contract entered into by [Clay] entirely violated,” he wrote.

Back in New England, Abdul Rahman continued his resolute canvassing for assistance.  InHartfordhe met Reverend Thomas Gallaudet, later the benefactor of education for the deaf, who took up his cause.  From his pulpit Gallaudet preached the importance of Abdul Rahman’s return to Africa.  “It would seem as if Providence had taken him under His peculiar care, and destined him…to be the means of opening into the very interior of Africa ‘a wide and effectual door’ for the diffusion of [the] Gospel.”  “I think I see Africa,” he told another audience, “pointing to the tablet of eternal justice, making us Americans tremble, while the words are pronounced, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.’”

Gallaudet’s patronage re-energized the movement in support of Abdul Rahman’s mission.  From Hartford Abdul Rahman went to New Haven, then toNew York.  Wherever he went, Gallaudet wrote letters of introduction to philanthropists and advocates of colonization.  Prominent men agreed to contribute and to initiate arrangements for Abdul Rahman’s voyage.  From New Yorkhe traveled toPhiladelphia, where he marched withPhiladelphiafree blacks in their New Year’s Day parade.  From Philadelphia, it was back to Baltimore.

By now, his time in the United States was drawing to a close.   Andrew Jackson had won the 1828 election.  Inauguration Day would end the terms of Adams and Clay, and Abdul Rahman had been warned that Jackson’s new pro-slavery White House might return him to Natchez. On January 21, 1829, almost a year after leaving Mississippi, he and Isabella boarded the steamboat Virginia. After stopping to pick up fifteen freed people, the Virginia proceeded to Norfolk, the point of embarkation for the voyage to Liberia.  There Abdul Rahman and his traveling companions from the Virginia joined 136 other free blacks on board the Harriet, bound for Africa.  On February 7, less than a month before Inauguration Day, the Harriet cast off.

On his return crossing, Abdul Rahman traveled not in the cargo hold but in the Harriet’s best cabin, a guest of the government of the United States.  After an uneventful thirty-eight days, the Harriet sailed into the harbor of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.  Hundreds of settlers welcomed the new arrivals as they disembarked.  Forty-one years after being abducted, Abdul Rahman was back in Africa.

Epilogue: A Prince Returns to Africa

No man can step into the same river twice, said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, because neither the man nor the river remains the same.  The man who returned toAfricain 1828 was not the same man who had left in 1788.  And the continent to which he returned was not the place he had been from.

Facing a seasonal delay before he could travel from Monrovia, the capital ofLiberia, to Timbo, his home inFuta Jallon, Abdul Rahman set about planning his future.  He hoped in Timbo to complete his goal of buying his children’s freedom and bringing them to Africa. He also took seriously the dreams of the many businessmen who had contributed to his journey. “I shall try to bring my countrymen to the Colony [Liberia] and try to open the trade,” he wrote in a letter home. He hoped to divert at least some portion of Futa Jallon’s trade from British Sierra Leone to American Liberia.  A supporter raised $500 for Abdul Rahman to travel on to his birthplace and begin to lay the foundations for this trade.

Mid-May brought the seasonal rains.  After four decades in the drier climate of Mississippi, Abdul Rahman was no longer used to the night chills that accompanied the monsoon and penetrated the bamboo walls of his makeshift cottage.

Forty years of slavery had weakened his constitution, too.  June brought diarrhea, but he failed to consult a doctor.  As with many elderly people, the illness sapped his strength.  On July 6, 1829, at the age of sixty-seven, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori died in Monrovia.

That same year, Thomas Foster also died.  The fates of these two men could not be more ironic. While Abdul Rahman received a long obituary on the news of his death, Foster, the man of power and accomplishment, received no mention in the local Mississippi papers.   After his death, Foster’s holdings, including his slaves, were divided among his children.  All but one descendant agreed to sell Abdul Rahman’s children into freedom and, except for one son, Prince, all were freed and joined their mother in Monrovia.

The story of the Prince is far from over. In April 2003, the first reunion of Abdul Rahman’s Liberian and American families was held in Natchez, Mississippi as part of a celebration of the 175th anniversary of his liberation.  There, Dr. Boubacar Barry, an African descendant from Timbo, author of Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, and a project advisor, made a presentation to his oldest living American relative.  “When they enslaved us,” Barry said, “the first thing they did was take our sandals.”  Then handing the American relative a gift of sandals made in Timbo he said, “Here are yours back that you may come and visit us someday.”

 

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