New Online: Rare Autobiography by Enslaved West African Scholar

This is a guest post by Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division.

Omar Ibn Said. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

In the summer of 2017, the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress acquired a collection of unique documents, some dating back to the 1830s. Although the documents are not very old by Library standards — the division and the Library hold manuscripts that are more than 1,000 years old — nonetheless this collection is special. The reason is that at the heart of the 42 documents purchased by the Library is the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a native of West Africa captured in 1807 and brought to North Carolina as a slave. He wrote his 1831 autobiography in Arabic while still in captivity. It remains to date the only known one of its kind still in existence.

Now, for the first time, the Omar Ibn Said Collection is available online at the Library of Congress.

The autobiography is short, no more than 15 handwritten pages, in addition to which are blank pages. In it, Ibn Said relates how he was captured and brought on a ship from his homeland to foreign shores in Charleston, South Carolina. He describes how his first owner was a small and evil man who did not fear God and who treated him so badly that after a month, he ran away, moving north until he reached Fayetteville, North Carolina. There he was captured and jailed for 16 days, eventually ending up in the home of General John Owen, the brother of the governor of North Carolina, where he spent the rest of his days until his death in 1863.

The first page of Ibn Said’s autobiography.

But who was Ibn Said before his enslavement? He gives a brief sketch of his life in Africa but enough to create a portrait of a highly educated and well-to-do individual. He says that before he came to this Christian country, meaning the United States, he was a follower of Muhammad the Prophet of God, meaning he was a Muslim. He writes that he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, prayed five times a day, went to the mosque, fought the jihad (holy war) against nonbelievers and gave alms to the poor.

It is from his charitable donations that we can deduce how wealthy he was: “I used to give alms … every year in gold, silver, harvest, cattle, sheep, goats, rice, wheat and barley — all I used to give in alms,” he is quoted as saying in the book “A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said.”

Ibn Said also names the place where he was born: Fut Tur, or Futa Toro, located between the two rivers of Senegal and the Gambia. He recounts how he studied and names his teachers, stating, “I continued seeking knowledge for 25 years.”  He also describes his family in West Africa, saying that his father had six sons and five daughters, while his mother had three sons and one daughter, implying that his father had had more than one wife. He himself never got married in the United States, and he makes no reference to a wife or children in West Africa.

Ibn Said wrote his autobiography in response to a request by someone he referred to as “Sheikh Hunter” and apparently also at the request of Theodore Dwight (1796–1866), a founder of the American Ethnological Society and a member of the New York Colonization Society, either directly or through the slave owner.

A July 1831 letter from Joseph Jenkins Roberts to Theodore Dwight.

It is thanks to Dwight that much of this collection of documents still exists. It includes his own correspondence with a number of notable individuals who translated, referred to or discussed the autobiography of Ibn Said. For example, the first two presidents of Liberia, Joseph Jenkins Roberts (1809–76) and Stephen Allen Benson (1816–65), responded to Dwight’s enquiries. Their handwritten responses are part of the documents the Library acquired, as are those of Daniel Bliss (1823–1916), one of the founders of what became the American University of Beirut, and those of the Reverend Isaac Bird (1793–1835), a Protestant missionary in Syria who translated some of Ibn Said’s writings.

Dwight, as well as other prominent colonizationists, wanted Ibn Said to write his autobiography, and wanted it to be translated, to undermine claims justifying slavery in the United States. The autobiography was meant to bolster an argument linking literacy and monotheism to manumission, or the freeing of slaves. Dwight was also interested in Islam and in educating Americans about Africa and the people they were capturing and enslaving.

So, what was it that roused the interest of Dwight and others in Ibn Said? There is no doubt that from the start of his captivity Ibn Said stood out because of his erudition and his demeanor. For example, as documented in a 1925 issue of the American Historical Review, a pastor who met him in North Carolina noted, “His whole person and gait bear marks of considerable refinement.” Articles also appeared in journals at the time describing him and discussing his literacy in Arabic and his conversion to Christianity.

The Ibn Said collection also includes a few items written in Arabic by other West Africans. For example, there are three short texts in Arabic by a man called Sheikh Sana See, which were collected by Frederick Hicks, a Sunday school teacher in Panama. See may have been working on the Panama Canal Railway, which was built between 1849 and 1855. In any case, his texts reveal him to have been educated in the Sufi tradition of Islam. Another important Arabic text in this collection, “On the Origin of Man,” was written in a beautiful calligraphy by Mohammed Dekr. This text appears to have been sent to Dwight by Liberian president Benson or former president Roberts. It combines elements of Genesis in the Bible, as well as Islamic thought and African concepts regarding the origin of the world and of man.

11 Comments

  1. APL Z.J. Public Library
    January 15, 2019 at 4:59 pm

    I have been waiting all my life to see such
    material.

  2. Osama Raad
    January 16, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    I am sure there are many many examples of this in the US history and many were not allowed to write in arabic for example and were forced to in christianity but there are no mentions of this but History is funny, things will pop up when you dont expect them to. You can’t hide history for too long. History finds a way to show it’s truth as time goes by.

  3. Meghan
    January 16, 2019 at 6:57 pm

    Fascinating! Thank you!

  4. Barbara Summey Marshall
    January 17, 2019 at 7:42 am

    Omar Ibn Said was a man of distinction. In his involuntary journey from West Africa to Fayetteville, NC, he maintained his religious beliefs and his heritage. Fascinating to read about an American slave who was beaten, jailed, observed, and yet who clearly had something within that was mighty enough to give him strength. Writing his story in Arabic is monumental. His slave narrative must be studied in public schools, community colleges and universities (i.e. Duke University, Harvard University, Howard University). As a current resident of town where he was enslaved, I am emboldened to speak up against injustice, mass incarceration and homelessness of the marginalized. Omar Ibn Said has bequeathed a legacy of extraordinary courage and determination…..

  5. G. A.R.
    January 18, 2019 at 10:42 am

    This is incredibly fascinating!

  6. Khalil
    January 23, 2019 at 4:41 am

    Amazing. It would always have been the case that many muslims were enslaved and shipped to america and forced to adopt new beliefs. So much for the western freedoms and freedom of religion! History destroys so many concepts held in the west and exposes how it was built by slavery. Sadly the legacy of slavery continues with the treatment of the american black population. Sadly in the western world rather than embrace the contribution of immigrants slaves etc to how the west was built be it the americas or europe they treat them as aliens and it sums up how humanity has evolved or not! This also forgets the toll exaxted on the native american population and the carnage to the environment the americans have left which history will never forget.

  7. Vallerie DeDrate-Vaughn
    January 28, 2019 at 10:00 pm

    I love reading history. This is awesome!

  8. Israel
    January 29, 2019 at 9:31 am

    This was a Moor not a slave, you guys know this.

  9. Nazirah
    February 20, 2019 at 10:55 am

    You’re right Israel….none were slaves to anyone…they were all very learned men and women (yes, from various cultural groups within Africa) who were captured but did not forget who they were and whose they were.

  10. Darian Tate
    March 1, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    I find it interested that White Men, and Women continue to write history, rather with “good” or “ill” intentions with use of Euphemisms.

    White Men & Women
    Captured: apprehend, seize, arrest
    Journey: trip, tour, journey

    Correct Terminology
    Stolen, Looted, Poached, Marauding, Pillage, Pilferer,
    Murderers, Executioner, Entrap, Beguiled.

    The List Goes On.
    Black History 365/7

  11. Kalia
    April 23, 2019 at 9:00 pm

    This is a so cool to see, especially to a young African woman who sometimes I feel lost because i don’t know my real history or culture. I only know what they teach me in school and that is I was brought over as a slave.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.