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)

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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.

President Adams reported on the news in his diary, once again proving that even presidents receive inexact information. To Adams, Ibrahima was an “African, who appears to be a subject of the Emperor of Morocco” and a Georgian, not Mississippian, slave. What the president got right, however, was also what mattered most: the “earnest recommendation that the Government of the United States should purchase the man and send him home as a complimentary donation to the Emperor,” as Alford quotes him.

A donation? you askof a man? I know, but remember: This was a time when slaves were routinely bought and sold down the street from the White House, as Steve McQueen’s new feature film, Twelve Years a Slave, so graphically depicts in the case of the kidnapped free man Solomon Northup. That this slave’s story had reached the highest levels of the federal government is extraordinary. So, too, that a president was prepared to intervene.

There were limits, however. While the Adams administration was prepared to grant the sultan of Morocco’s request, only Ibrahima was to be released, leaving his wife and children in bondage. As a halfway measure, Natchez citizens raised the funds needed to buy Isabella’s freedom. Ibrahima’s owner, Thomas Foster, agreed to let him go as long as he carried out a plan to leave the country. Otherwise, according to Marschalk (as Alford relates), Foster feared Ibrahima’s presence would have an “improper influence” on his children still trapped on the other side of slavery.

To accept Ibrahima’s own transfer, whites in Mississippi like Cyrus Griffin (pdf), editor of the Southern Galaxy, continued seizing on the misinformation that he was a “moor,” not a “negro,” a distinction that allowed them to portray Ibrahima as an exception — a mistake — without upsetting the racial underpinnings of the slave system as a whole.