The Slavery Journey of "The Prince." (Ibrahima Abdur Rahman) (African World History)

By Hankins, Shakur Broyles | Diversity Employers, January-February 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Slavery Journey of "The Prince." (Ibrahima Abdur Rahman) (African World History)


Hankins, Shakur Broyles, Diversity Employers


From Africa to America and Back Again

The life of Ibrahima Abdur Rahman is so fascinating that it drew multitudes of people to his speeches as if it were some unbelievable fiction. In the late 1820s, he was the most popular African in America. He met some of the most influential people in America including then President John Quincy Adams. Why were people so fascinated by this man? As truth often engages us more than fiction, his life journey is the very stuff of legends.

Ibrahima Abdur Rahman (pronounced "Rahaman" in the West) was born about 1762 in an area of northwest Africa that is now Senegal and The Gambia. His father, Suri, was king of the Fulbe people, who are also called the Fulani and by a few other variations. As a prince he was given the most advanced education available. He received religious instruction (as they were Muslims), and attended a university at Timbuktu (in modern-day Mali) that was renowned for its studies in geography, medicine, chemistry, and other disciplines. Muslim science was so advanced that even today students the world over are required to study Islamic math, Al Jabbar (algebra). At Timbuktu, Ibrahima would have studied these and other subjects. Upon completion of his studies, he returned to Timbo, his home city, and became a leader in the community as well as an officer in the army. His sagacity, drive, discipline, and manners were known to be excellent. During this period of leadership, a key event that would profoundly affect him twice in his life occurred. An Irish surgeon named John Coates Cox came to Africa on an English vessel and was left ashore after becoming separated from his shipmates. He came on a hunting expedition and got lost. After searching unsuccessfully, his shipmates sailed without him. Dr. Cox went further into the interior where, overcome by hunger, fatigue, and insects, he collapsed. Ibrahima's people saw him and reported to King Suri that they had seen a white man. As the sight of a white man was unprecedented, the king ordered them to bring him to Timbo. The people were amazed and gathered in large crowds to see the Irishman. The king learned Dr. Cox's story and told him he could stay as long as he wished. The doctor was given a house and a nurse to cure his illnesses and to repair his injuries, which included a sore leg.

Within months, Dr. Cox had recovered enough to be mobile. Ibrahima became a close companion of his and even learned some English. After about six months, Dr. Cox informed the king that he would like to return home. The king didn't understand why, given the hospitality that had been shown him. Nevertheless, King Suri gave him an honor guard escort and enough gold to pay for his travels. Dr. Cox returned to the coast and found that the same ship on which he had arrived months earlier had returned. He left on the vessel.

While Dr. Cox was happy to be returning home, Ibrahima's fortunes were soon to turn dramatically. During a military expedition, Ibrahima was captured by the enemy. When his royal clothing was noticed, his enemies knew that he would fetch a large ransom. But since they were not eager to deal with their opponents, they sold him to the slavers. The slavers ignored the fact that they could have gotten much more in gold for him from his father (perhaps because of their ignorance or lack of respect for African royalty) than anyone would pay for him in the new world, and they shipped him off to the Americas. If the stupid claim of racial superiority based on strength, endurance, or intelligence were valid, African Americans could stand at the head of the line; for, truly, only the strongest, keenest, and luckiest of the kidnapped survived the journey here. The seagoing slaves suffered some of the most horrendous conditions imaginable. These conditions were necessary as the slaves' submission was as essential to the slavers as leg irons. Slaves, like any other "animals," had to be broken.

Ibrahima was one of those sifted through this arduous process.

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