Which African Prince Was Sold Into Slavery?

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).

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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.

White House Meeting

While Joel Rogers identified 1829 as the year of Ibrahima's release, it is more likely he and Isabella traveled as freed people to Cincinnati in March 1828, as Alford relates. From there, Ibrahima toured the U.S. telling his story, including, apparently, at a meeting with President Adams at the White House. (You may recall from Fact No. 10 in this series that Paul Cuffee was the first free black man to visit the White House in 1812. According to Alford, Adams received Ibrahima May 15, 1828.)


While Adams' remarks to Ibrahima were not recorded, in his diary the president indicated Ibrahima's desire to clear up any confusion over his birthplace and to travel to Liberia, not Morocco. Liberia? Right, that wasn't Ibrahima's home, either. Liberia was actually the colony that the American Colonization Society had helped set up six years earlier for free and freed African Americans. 

Really, Ibrahima was being pragmatic. Whatever Liberia meant to the ACS, it was closer to Timbo than Morocco was, and to Ibrahima, those miles would have counted. (According to the website distancefromto.net, present-day Liberia and Guinea are only 240 miles apart, while Morocco to Guinea is some 1,520 miles.) 


The president and the "Prince" also discussed Ibrahima's children. Per John Quincy Adams, Ibrahima "left at Natchez five sons and eight grandchildren — all in slavery; and he wishes that they might be all emancipated, and be sent with or to him." As important as they were to Ibrahima (the living legacy of his 40-year nightmare in slavery), there's no evidence that the matter went any further for John Quincy Adams than conversation.    

Reluctant Symbol of Colonization

On his "farewell" tour, Ibrahima met with representatives of the American Colonization Society. He also was greeted by their critics, even given a banquet at the African Masonic Hall in Boston in August 1828. A local newspaper reporter ran one of the toasts, according to Alford: " 'May the Slave-Holders of the world be like the whales in the ocean, with the thrasher at their back and the swordfish at their belly, until they rightly understand the difference between freedom and slavery.' "


Also present at the Boston dinner was David Walker, a free black man and prominent anti-slavery activist who, a year later, would issue his famously strident (infamously so, to Southern whites) "Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World," including a section attacking colonization as the solution for ending slavery. Perhaps to Walker, too, Ibrahima was an exception — really, how could anyone fault a man for wanting to go home? (For more on this Boston fete, see my Harvard colleague Jill Lepore's chapter, "Strange Characters," in her A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States.)

While Ibrahima may have dined with David Walker in Boston, the American Colonization Society made sure to sponsor a tour for him of other major American cities. As part of the rollout, T.H. Gallaudet (a founder of the American School for the Deaf) released a pamphlet titled, "A Statement With Regards to the Moorish Prince, Abduhl Rahhahman" (1828). There is a lot to excuse in it, including spellings, titles and the claim that the "Prince has embraced the Christian religion." Whatever Ibrahima meant to the ACS, he saw it as his one-way ticket home, and he leveraged his tour appearances to solicit donations for his descendants' freedom. His life and legacy in Africa and America could not be whole until they were free as well. 


Death and Legacy

For the record, it was the U.S. government that paid for Ibrahima and Isabella's freedom, and it was the U.S. government that sent them to Liberia aboard the ship Harriet, which left the U.S. Feb. 7, 1829. Before then, Ibrahima collected signatures from anyone willing to donate money for the rest of his family's freedom, yet at the time of his departure, promises remained promises.


The end game for Ibrahima arrived a short time later. On March 18, 1829, he and Isabella arrived in Liberia. Four months later, he died after an initially untreated strain of diarrhea advanced to weaken his aging body. He was not yet 70, not yet home to Timbo (though one of his last requests was to have his papers sent there, according to Alford). Had the Homer of the Iliad and the Odyssey been writing Ibrahima's tale, he might have gotten there himself, but as I indicated at the top, this is history, and Ibrahima's widow, Isabella, a former South Carolina slave, now found herself a free woman in Liberia without the comfort of her husband, the African warrior's son.

Back in the United States, a sum of $3,500 was eventually raised as a result of Ibrahima's farewell tour, and when his former master, Thomas Foster, died (within months of Ibrahima), Foster's children agreed to accept it in exchange for freeing two of Ibrahima's children, Simon and Lee, along with Simon's wife and children. The rest of Ibrahima's slave family, including seven additional children and many grandchildren, were parceled out to Foster's heirs. Hence, we see that what Joel Rogers wrotethat "$4,000 was paid for the liberation of [Ibrahima's] children" — was, unfortunately, only partially true.


Remembering Ibrahima

Today, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima has many living descendants seeking to keep his memory alive. Among them is Dr. Artemus Gaye, a direct seventh-generation descendant who fled Liberia during that country's civil war and moved to the U.S., where he continues researching his family's genealogy. I hope his labors pay off so that we will one day know the complete story of "the Prince and the Slave," and the fate of his descendants on both sides of the Atlantic. In the meantime, let's all give thanks to Joel A. Rogers, Terry Alford and other scholars who have kept Ibrahima's remarkable story alive.


As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.