Which African Prince Was Sold Into Slavery?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: His plight moved a president to act, and his fate defied the odds.

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Defiant and proud, Ibrahima soon proved himself of value to Foster as a laborer, and so in a strange twist, the warrior's son, once a leader of men, was promoted to slave overseer. His one resolve: He would not convert to Christianity. It didn't matter what they called him -- even "Prince" -- his name was Ibrahima, and he was and would remain a Muslim for life.

With the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s, Thomas Foster shifted from tobacco to a new "cash king," a move that induced him to buy more slaves. In 1794, Ibrahima married a slave named Isabella, born in South Carolina. Their marriage had no legal status, of course, but they wed in a small Christian service conducted by Foster (Isabella was a Christian).

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The Amazing Coincidence

The break in Ibrahima's story came 13 years later when he met a white man at a Natchez market. The year was 1807, the last year of the legal trans-Atlantic slave trade to the U.S. (at least according to the law) and the 20th year of Ibrahima's enslavement. In a truth stranger than fiction, the white man he met turned out to be no stranger. He was John Coates Cox -- the John Coates Cox who, incredibly, many years before had fallen ill on a trip to West Africa and been taken to Ibrahima's father's house to recover, according to Alford. (I told you I'd get back to that European visitor!) More surprising to me, Joel Rogers, often prone to hyperbole, actually underplayed this aspect of the story, referring to Cox only as "a white doctor, who ha[ving] travelled in [Ibrahima's] land, saw him at Natchez, Miss."

Actually, Cox was an Irish surgeon, and until his death in 1816 he worked to free Ibrahima, but Foster remained adamant: Ibrahima was too valuable to let go. While Cox ultimately failed in his efforts, Ibrahima was only more determined in his. By this time, he also had made other powerful friends, among them Andrew Marschalk, editor of the Mississippi State Gazette. Affected by Ibrahima's story, Marschalk pledged to him that if he wrote it down in a letter, Marschalk would forward it on to the U.S. consul to Tunis in North Africa, who happened to be his friend. (Marschalk falsely believed Ibrahima was a Moroccan "Moor.")

For unknown reasons, however, several more years passed before Ibrahima put pen to paper; perhaps, Alford speculates, because Ibrahima had a hard time expressing himself in writing or doubted anything would come of it. Whatever the reason, it was not until 1826 that he finally generated the letter Marschalk had requested. Honoring his pledge, Marschalk posted it with his own explanation of the plight of the "Prince."

Help From the Highest Levels of Two Governments

Their letters reached the U.S. consul in Morocco in 1827, and, once apprised, the sultan of Morocco (perhaps impressed by Ibrahima's insertion of Koranic verses into his letter) reached out to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Clay with an offer to pay for Ibrahima's release. Clay then turned for support to U.S. President John Quincy Adams.

What makes this move so fascinating is that Clay was a Kentucky slaveholder -- and a renowned "compromiser" on slavery -- while Quincy Adams was a Massachusetts anti-slavery man who would go on to make a dramatic argument for freedom in the 1841 Amistad (registration required) case. The two were political bedfellows, however, and when it came to Ibrahima's case, they proceeded in lockstep. Whatever Clay's views were on the rights of slaveholders, he was, at the same time, an early supporter of the American Colonization Society. Founded in 1817, it was the conservative (and often racist) wing of American anti-slavery politics and an effort to rid the country of its original sin -- eventually -- while "solving" its race problem by sending freed slaves "back" to Africa. That Ibrahima had actually been born on that continent and wanted to return must have made him the perfect "poster child" in ACS members' minds.