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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Prince Among Slaves - Our History; Our Culture; Ourselves

[Communicated for the National Republican}
Natchez, April 7, 1828

“This letter will be handed to you by a very extraordinary personage — no less than your old acquaintance Prince, (or Ibrahim,) who is now free, and on his way to his own country; where he was captured in battle, nearly forty years ago, and has been in slavery nearly the whole of that period, upon the plantation of Mr. Thomas Foster, of this county.  I am much gratified to have been the instrument of his emancipation — although from his advanced age (sixty-six years) he can but possess merely a glimpse of the blessings to which he was entitled from his birth.”

Thus begins an article in a national newspaper dated 1828, describing the fight for the freedom by Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, an educated African prince who spent the majority of his life as a slave on Thomas Foster’s Plantation north of Natchez.

The man writing it (probably local newspaperman Andrew Marschalk) clearly thinks of Abdul Rahman not as chattel, but as a person, a man in his own right.  Ask anyone in the South about race and they'll tell you it's complicated.  Seems as though it was complicated in the 1700s as well.

Here was an African slave, sold into slavery by rival Africans; yet he had powerful white allies fighting to gain his freedom while ignoring the fact that there were millions more for whom there was no fight, no hope for freedom.

Born in 1762 in Timbo, West Africa (present day Guinea, Fouta Djallon), Abdul-Rahman was educated in Mali at Timbuktu, and served as a leader of one of his father's army divisions.  In 1788, after winning a battle against a warring tribe, he and a handful of soldiers who had left to report back to his father were ambushed, captured and sold to slave traders, who brought him to America and sold him to Natchez plantation owner, Thomas Foster.  He was 26 years old.

After a couple of escape attempts from Foster's plantation, Abdul-Rahman became resigned to his fate and worked for Foster. Because of his knowledge about growing cotton in Fouja Djallon and his ability to read and cipher numbers, he proved a valuable asset to Foster, becoming the plantation's de facto foreman, allowed to travel and make purchases and sales.  In 1794 he married another Foster slave, Isabella, with whom he had five sons and four daughters.

One day about 20 years later, he ran into someone whose life he and his family had saved many years before in Fouta Djallon -- Dr. John Cox, an Irish surgeon who had served on an English ship that had become marooned off the coast of Africa.  Badly injured and ill, Cox was taken in by Abdul-Rahman's family, who nursed him back to health.  

Abdul-Rahman was walking down the street one day when Cox happened along and recognized him.  When he learned that his old benefactor was a slave, he vowed to see to it that he would be given his freedom and returned to his native land.  But Foster would have none of it.  Abdul-Rahman was too valuable an asset, and he refused to release him for any price.  Cox worked to gain his friend's freedom until his death in 1816.

In 1826, Abdul-Rahman wrote a letter to his relatives in Africa. A local newspaperman, Andrew Marschalk sent a copy of the letter to Senator Thomas Reed in Washington, who took it to the US Consulate in Morocco. The Sultan of Morocco then asked President Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay to give Adbul-Rahman his freedom.  Finally, in 1828, Foster agreed to free Abdul-Rahman with the stipulation that he return to Africa and not live as a free man in America.

Before leaving the country Abdul-Rahman and his wife went to Washington and tried to raise enough money to buy their children and take them with them. They were unable to raise enough funds before Foster found out about it and said it was a breach of their agreement.  So he and Isabella left America and sailed to Liberia.  He was an old man, and had been a slave for more than 40 years.  He died of a fever four months after arriving in Liberia, never seeing Fouta Djallon or his children again.

Although the capture and enslavement of the prince robbed him of his potential kingship of his home country, his descendants think of him not only as royalty but as a family patriarch who gives a specific identity to otherwise innumerable faceless African ancestors.

One of those descendants, Adams County resident, Beverly Adams, says, “It is a bittersweet tale, which contrasts his identity with the injustice done to him.  His faith brings honor and nobility from his native country, Futa Jallon, to Natchez, like jewels dug out of the muddy water of the Mississippi.”

She adds, “It is ironic that the indignity and suffering of slavery created such a rich history for my own African-American family, as portrayed by Dr. Terry Alford’s book, Prince Among Slaves.”

The final paragraph in the article from 1828 reflects this bittersweet story.

"Prince called to see us yesterday, with his wife and sons, who are really the finest looking young men I have seen.  They were all genteely drest; and although they expressed themselves pleased with the freedom of their parents, there was a look of silent agony in their eyes I could not bear to witness."

(Many thanks to Beverly Adams and David Dreyer for their help in writing this story)
Engraving of Abdul-Rahman courtesy of Library of Congress 

For further information, see the PBS documentary Prince Among Slaves based on the book Prince Among Slaves by Terry Alford.

Prince Among Slaves - Screening and Discussion June 5

Click on Photo to enlarge