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. Shipped to the Caribbean then to New Orleans, he ended up in Natchez, Mississippi. There he was owned by a man named Thomas Foster, who, along with anyone who met Ibrahima, noticed a "presence" about him. This presence was so noticeable and his manner so regal that he was named "Prince."
In time, many other white citizens of the Natchez and Washington, Mississippi area came to know that Prince was indeed an educated man. His knowledge of plants, geography, and mathematics astounded the people who dealt with him. Respect for him grew (along with Thomas Foster's wealth) to the point that he was allowed to own a portion of land for his use, a fact virtually unheard of for a slave. The never "broken" Prince excelled in his environment while always longing and looking for a way to return home.
As Divine Providence had so decreed, Dr. Cox rode into Washington, Mississippi one day. The very same once lost and injured Irishman rode into town and saw an African carrying potatoes who looked very familiar. Over 15 years had passed since their last meeting, but extraordinary events burn places and faces well into the memory.
There was Ibrahima, the same man whose father had saved the doctor's life. A prince of a vast kingdom was now a slave in the southern United States--what words could describe that meeting, the questions and answers? Dr. Cox went with Ibrahima to his master's house and explained the incredible events that brought them together twice and assured him that Ibrahima was a prince in the actual sense of the word. But Thomas Foster would neither sell nor part with him, even when offered sums much greater than the going rate and being assured that an additional amount in gold would be sent from Ibrahima's homeland if he were freed. Ibrahima had become so valuable that Foster would not part with him for any price. Crushed, Ibrahima still hoped to return home. Meanwhile, the news of the two men with their meetings in Africa and America spread over the country. The story of the Irishman and the African prince became another catalyst for the hot abolitionist debate on the morality of slavery. Other unsuccessful efforts were made to free Ibrahima. Years later Ibrahima inquired of a white printer, whom he had befriended, if he would help him send a letter home to Africa. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write English, but Ibrahima had learned Arabic as a child. Sympathetic to his quest for freedom, the printer agreed.
Ibrahima wrote a few passages from the Muslim holy book, The Qur'an, and the printer sent an accompanying letter. These were sent to some contacts in Washington, DC and forwarded to a friend who was a diplomat in Morocco. The letters were then taken to the Ameer, or leader, of the country, who, upon reading it, assumed that Ibrahima was one of his subjects (although he wasn't) and informed the consular that the Moroccan government would pay for Ibrahima's freedom.
Money was again not the object, but would Thomas Foster sell? Because the U.S. government was now involved, including the President, Foster agreed to free Ibrahima without cost, the only stipulations being that his return to his native country be free of cost to his former master and that his freedom begin after he left the United States. Finally, after 40 years as a slave, Ibrahima and his wife were freed. Their children would have to wait until additional money was raised.
During his time in the U.S., after his release and before his return to Africa, Ibrahima toured the Midwest and the East Coast. He spoke at many gatherings to African-American, white, and integrated audiences who had come to hear his remarkable story. At these gatherings, he raised money to purchase his children. He spoke about his homeland and his life as a slave. He met many professionals who questioned him repeatedly about different aspects of his country--its rivers, minerals, and products. He was asked about Arabic grammar and Islamic history. These and many other questions were asked to ascertain Ibrahima's authenticity and to seek potential markets for American commerce. Again and again his formal education proved invaluable in obtaining his freedom and raising money for the release of his children.
Ibrahima's was not the only story such as this. It is well documented that the technologies brought over by the slaves included skills in mathematics, language, geography, and science, as well as skills in medicine, metallurgy, shipbuilding, masonry, art, and many other areas. Slavery was terrible, but even in the worst conditions, those slaves who had skills and an education were more likely to improve their condition than those who didn't.
In Ibrahima's case, his integrity and education proved to be the reason he was given such credibility. He eventually greatly impressed President John Quincy Adams at the White House with the depth of his knowledge. The same president would, years after leaving office, represent some kidnapped Africans petitioning for their freedom before the U.S. Supreme Court in the great Amistad Incident of 1839. One could wonder how his contact with Ibrahima influenced his decision later to take the case of the captives.
Ibrahima returned to Africa, but died before reaching his home city of Timbo. But because of his tenacity and focus, his wife and, later, one of his children eventually arrived there.
For students who read this, particularly those who appreciate the value of an advanced education, there is no need to inspire them toward that goal. But remember this story when times get tough, when the semester seems long, or when external conditions have you thinking of leaving school. Even in the most adverse conditions it is best to be aware of the example of Ibrahima Abdur Rahman. In the words of the Qur'an, "Not equal are those who know and those who do not know."
African Muslims in Antebellum America by Allan D. Austin, Garland Publishing, 1984.
A Prince Among Slaves by Terry Alford, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
Jallon Arabic Prince of Old Natchez by James Register, Mid South Press, 1968.
Shakur Broyles Hankins is a writer, researcher, and Arabic language tutor. His book, Wordsculpture, is scheduled for release in the spring of 1994.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Slavery Journey of "The Prince." (Ibrahima Abdur Rahman) (African World History). Contributors: Hankins, Shakur Broyles - Author. Magazine title: Diversity Employers. Volume: 24. Issue: 3 Publication date: January-February 1994. Page number: 82+. © 1998 IMDiversity, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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