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READ: The 1831 autobiography of a Muslim slave in America stolen from Senegal

January 29, 2019 at 03:00 pm | History

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson | Staff Writer

January 29, 2019 at 03:00 pm | History

The United States Library of Congress has acquired and published the autobiography of African Muslim scholar Omar ibn Said who was enslaved in America after his village in Senegal, Futu Toro, was raided.  

This is the only known surviving autobiography of a Muslim-American slave written in 1831, decades after Said arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1807.

The autobiography which was originally written in Arabic and later translated in English has been made available online. It embodies Said’s narrative of his life in 1831 and how he was captured in West Africa and taken into slavery in America.

Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress said: “It also reveals that many Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves were followers of Islam, an Abrahamic and monotheistic faith. Such documentation counteracts prior assumptions of African life and culture”.

She went on to explain that Said’s autobiography is of significant importance due to the fact that it was not edited by anyone. Later in February, the library is set to host a special program to discuss the significance of Omar ibn Said’s words to coincide with the Black History Month.

The original Arabic script of the life of Omar Ibn Said, a Fula Slave in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Library of Congress

Born into a wealthy family in 1770 in present-day Senegal, Omar ibn Said was educated under highly respected Islamic scholars and he learned a range of subjects including mathematics and theology to become a scholar himself.

Said’s village was raided and he was sold to an American slave trader who shipped him and others to Charleston, South Carolina. He escaped to Fayetteville, North Carolina, after a harsh treatment from his master and was captured and jailed before he was sold to James Owen when he was 37.

The Owens noted that Omar ibn Said was educated and they gave him special treatment while he worked for them and continued to practice Islam. His masters purchased an Arabic version of the Bible for Said who later converted to Christianity and regularly attended church with the Owen family. 

A script of the translated version. Library of Congress

Omar later gained national attention after a Fayetteville resident wrote an article about him in 1825. Omar wrote the autobiography of his life in 1831 in Arabic.

Ibn Said died in his 90s in 1864 and was buried at the Owen family cemetery in Bladen County, North Carolina, where his tombstone is now lost. His Bible, which contains Arabic inscriptions including dedications to the prophet Mohammed, is being kept at Davidson College.

Omar ibn Said’s autobiography exchanged hands in over a century and the Library of Congress acquired and published the undated translated version by Isaac Bird. 

Below is the translated version of the autobiography by John Franklin Jameson which was published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

From Omar to Sheikh Hunter.

You asked me to write my life. I am not able to do this because I have much forgotten my own, as well as the Arabic language. Neither can I write very grammatically or according to the true idiom. And so, my brother, I beg you, in God’s name, not to blame me, for I am a man of weak eyes, and of a weak body.

My name is Omar ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tûr, between the two rivers. I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years, and then returned to my home where I remained six years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language. There they sold me to a small, weak, and wicked man called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all. Now I am a small man, and unable to do hard work so I fled from the hand of Johnson and after a month came to a place called Fayd-il [Fayetteville].

There I saw some great houses (churches). On the new moon I went into a church to pray. A lad saw me and rode off to the place of his father and informed him that he had seen a black man in the church. A man named Handah (Hunter?) and another man with him on horseback, came attended by a troop of dogs. They took me and made me go with them twelve miles to a place called Fayd-il, where they put me into a great house from which I could not go out. I continued in the great house (which, in the Christian language, they called jail) sixteen days and nights. One Friday the jailor came and opened the door of the house and I saw a great many men, all Christians, some of whom called out to me, “What is your name? Is it Omar or Seid?” I did not understand their Christian language. A man called Bob Mumford took me and led me out of the jail, and I was very well pleased to go with them to their place. I stayed at Mumford’s four days and nights, and then a man named Jim Owen, son-in-law of Mumford, having married his daughter Betsey, asked me if I was willing to go to a place called Bladen.

I said, Yes, I was willing. I went with them and have remained in the place of Jim Owen until now.

Before [after?] I came into the hand of Gen. Owen a man by the name of Mitchell came to buy me. He asked me if I were willing to go to Charleston City. I said “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, I not willing to go to Charleston. I stay in the hand of Jim Owen.” O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of S. Carolina, O ye people of America all of you; have you among you any two such men as Jim Owen and John Owen?

These men are good men. What food they eat they give to me to eat. As they clothe themselves they clothe me. They permit me to read the gospel of God, our Lord, and Saviour, and King; who regulates all our circumstances, our health and wealth, and who bestows his mercies willingly, not by constraint. According to power I open my heart, as to a great light, to receive the true way, the way of the Lord Jesus the Messiah.

Before I came to the Christian country, my religion was the religion of “Mohammed, the Apostle of God–may God have mercy upon him and give him peace.” I walked to the mosque before day-break, washed my face and head and hands and feet. I prayed at noon, prayed in the afternoon, prayed at sunset, prayed in the evening. I gave alms every year, gold, silver, seeds, cattle, sheep, goats, rice, wheat, and barley. I gave tithes of all the above-named things. I went every year to the holy war against the infidels. I went on pilgrimage to Mecca, as all did who were able.–My father had six sons and five daughters, and my mother had three sons and one daughter. When I left my country I was thirty-seven years old; I have been in the country of the Christians twenty-four years.–Written A. D. 1831.

O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of South Carolina, O all ye people of America– The first son of Jim Owen is called Thomas, and his sister is called Masa-jein (Martha Jane?). This is an excellent family.

Tom Owen and Nell Owen have two sons and a daughter. The first son is called Jim and the second John. The daughter is named Melissa. Seid Jim Owen and his wife Betsey have two sons and five daughters. Their names are Tom, and John, and Mercy, Miriam, Sophia, Margaret and Eliza. This family is a very nice family. The wife of John Owen is called Lucy and an excellent wife she is. She had five children. Three of them died and two are still living. O ye Americans, ye people of North Carolina–have you, have you, have you, have you, have you among you a family like this family, having so much love to God as they? Formerly I, Omar, loved to read the book of the Koran the famous. General Jim Owen and his wife used to read the gospel, and they read it to me very much,–the gospel of God, our Lord, our Creator, our King, He that orders all our circumstances, health and wealth, willingly, not constrainedly, according to his power.–Open thou my heart to the gospel, to the way of uprightness.–Thanks to the Lord of all worlds, thanks in abundance. He is plenteous in mercy and abundant in goodness. For the law was given by Moses but grace and truth were by the Jesus the Messiah. When I was a Mohammedan I prayed thus: “Thanks be to God, Lord of all worlds, the merciful the gracious, Lord of the day of Judgment, thee we serve, on thee we call for help. Direct us in the right way, the way of those on whom thou hast had mercy, with whom thou hast not been angry and who walk not in error. Amen.”–But now I pray “Our Father”, etc., in the words of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. I reside in this our country by reason of great necessity. Wicked men took me by violence and sold me to the Christians. We sailed a month and a half on the great sea to the place called Charleston in the Christian land. I fell into the hands of a small, weak and wicked man, who feared not God at all nor did he read (the gospel) at all nor pray.

I was afraid to remain with a man so depraved and who committed so many crimes and I ran away. After a month our Lord God brought me forward to the hand of a good man, who fears God, and loves to do good, and whose name is Jim Owen and whose brother is called Col. John Owen. These are two excellent men.–I am residing in Bladen County.

I continue in the hand of Jim Owen who never beats me, nor scolds me. I neither go hungry nor naked, and I have no hard work to do. I am not able to do hard work for I am a small man and feeble. During the last twenty years I have known no want in the hand of Jim Owen.

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