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.

Abd al-Rahman (Wikimedia Commons)
Abd al-Rahman (Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 46: Which enslaved African managed to press his case for freedom all the way to the White House?  

Among Joel A. Rogers’ more astonishing claims was that an African-Muslim emperor’s grandson, named “Prince Abd-El-Rahman,” who hailed from “Timbuctoo,” had been captured and sold into slavery in the American South, and then regained his freedom decades later after a chance encounter with a white doctor “who had travelled in his land.” The first time I read it I remember thinking, “Really, Joel?” I’m sure I would still doubt it had professional historians not come along in the interim to document this strange story, none more expertly than Terry Alford, author of the book Prince Among Slaves, available in a 30th-anniversary edition and the basis for an award-winning documentary film and website of the same name. To my amazement, if anything, Joel Rogers had undersold the twists and turns of this tale of a “Prince.”

From African Military Leader to Frontier Slave

In 1760, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, an ethnic Fulani and a Muslim, was born into a prominent family and educated in the city of Timbo, “seat of the Fulani emirs until its occupation by French troops in 1896,” according to Brittanica.com. (Today, Timbo is part of Guinea, West Africa.) There, Ibrahima was taught to read and write Arabic. His father, Sori, was a leader of the Fulani people and fought to extend their influence in the Futa Jallon region (in West-Central Guinea) and was known to host at least one European visitor (but more on him later). While Joel Rogers made Ibrahima out to be the “grandson of the Emperor of Timbuctoo,” his major biographer, Terry Alford, concludes that Ibrahima’s family did not rule Timbuktu (the legendary center of learning and trade on the edge of the Sahara Desert, and now a regional capital in present-day Mali). Ibrahima, Alford says, likely “exaggerated his own rank in the family.” (As the black tradition says, “He wasn’t lying; he was signifying!”)

In 1788, Ibrahima led his own soldiers on a mission to open a trading route to the Atlantic coast of Africa — only to be surrounded by their rivals. ” ‘I will not run from a [Heboh],’ ” Ibrahima apparently said, staring down their rifles, according to Alford. Instead, when the Hebohs recognized who Ibrahima was based on his “clothes and ornaments,” they realized how valuable he would be to the Europeans as a slave, and then marched him 100 miles to the Gambia River. 

No ransom would have been high enough to assuage their fears of his “vengeance,” Alford writes, so, in a not uncommon move made “for African kings and princes … defeated in a war,” the Hebohs sold Ibrahima to the Mandinka slatees, “black merchants,” who then sold him to European slave traders for the Middle Passage. (For more on Ibrahima’s capture and the Muslim experience in West Africa and America, see Richard Brent Turner’s Islam in the African-American Experience.) As difficult as it is for many of us to understand today, the overwhelming percentage of the Africans sold into slavery to the New World were also captured by other Africans and then sold to European merchants along the coast. This is one of the most uncomfortable facts about the slave trade, and one of the most difficult for us to accept. But unfortunately, it is a painful fact.

Despite his father Sori’s efforts, including “burn[ing] the country,” as Ibrahima said, he was shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Dominica, then to New Orleans, and finally to Natchez, Miss., a distance of approximately 5,000 miles, as Alford and Turner both relate. Anyone who’s seen the TV series Roots or the feature film Amistad knows the conditions onboard a slave ship during the Middle Passage were among the most frightful any human beings had experienced at any time in history.

Arriving in chains at Natchez, Ibrahima was deeply unimpressed by what he encountered: a hard-scrabble frontier town still under Spanish control and rougher and less developed than his home city of Timbo, as the documentary Prince Among Slaves makes clear. (Mississippi did not become a U.S. territory until 1798, or a state until 1817.)

In Natchez, Ibrahima was purchased by Thomas Foster, a yeoman tobacco farmer who also raised cattle, Alford writes. When Ibrahima tried to explain who he was, even telling Foster his father would pay a ransom for his release, Foster ignored him. When Ibrahima tried running away, he found he had no viable means of escape back home. He was a trapped man.

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).