(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 7: Which slave literally wrote his way to freedom?
From the time when they first landed in Florida in the early 1500s, African Americans did their best to run away from the inhumane conditions of slavery. Over the course of slavery in the United States between 1513 and 1865, tens of thousands of people managed to escape, first south from the Carolinas and Georgia to the haven afforded by Spanish Florida before 1763, and later, north from the Southern colonies and states across the Mason-Dixon Line. More than a hundred of these "fugitive slaves," as they were called, even wrote or dictated books about their deliverance from bondage, detailing how they were able to escape. While each escape was something of a miracle, some of the methods that they used are astonishing.
Everyone has their favorite slave narratives, as the genre of books is called. My own short list includes the stories of Henry Brown, William and Ellen Craft and Frederick Douglass. In 1838 Frederick Douglass donned a sailor's uniform, sewn by his soon-to-be wife, who was free, and rode a train from Baltimore to Philadelphia disguised as a free man using papers he had obtained from a free black seaman. In 1848 Ellen Craft, who had a very light complexion, did a double cross-dress as white man and, accompanied by her dark-complexioned husband, rode to freedom on a train ride from Macon, Ga., to Philadelphia, masked as master and slave. A year later Henry "Box" Brown actually had himself nailed into a wooden, claustrophobic, coffin-like box, and then shipped from slavery in Richmond to freedom in Philadelphia.
But the oddest way that a slave escaped from slavery, to me, without a doubt, is the story of Ayuba.
Ayuba wrote his way out of slavery. As incredible as this may seem, this is literally true. The man who came to be known in England as "Job ben Solomon" was born Ayuba Suleiman Jallo (or, in French, "Diallo") into a prominent family in Bundu, an independent, precolonial country located in current-day Senegal. Bundu was situated where the Falémé River meets the Senegal River, and it was a strictly Muslim country.
Ayuba was a member of the Fulbe ethnic group. As his biographer Allen Austin tells us, Ayuba was a highly learned man, adept at both Koranic and Arabic studies. And, as the historian John Thornton explained to me, "he was a religious cleric who, like so many other Africans at the time, sold people as slaves, along with [selling] other things, as a way of participating in the international economy of his day, as an incidental element of his life."
Some time in February 1730, he left his home on a two-week journey to purchase paper and other goods in exchange for two slaves. Mandingo slave traders captured and sold him to an English captain whom he had angered over the terms of sale of those two slaves. Ayuba survived the Middle Passage on board the slave ship Arabella (voyage 75094 in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Database) and ended up enslaved on a tobacco plantation on Kent Island, near Annapolis, Md.
Now renamed Simon by his master, Ayuba managed to run away, only to be recaptured and imprisoned. As luck would have it, he was visited by a lawyer named Thomas Bluett, who became fascinated by stories of this man's insistence on praying, refusing to eat pork or consume alcohol and most of all, by the habit of an African man writing on the wall of his prison cell in some unknown language.
And then the strangest thing happened: Ayuba sat down one day, and — hope against hope — wrote a letter addressed to his father, back in Senegal. The letter was written entirely in Arabic. I have no idea what possessed this brother to do such a crazy thing, something completely impossible to achieve. After all, there wasn't exactly a postal service delivering letters from slaves back home to their relatives in the motherland, was there? But this is what this man did. And, incredibly, it worked!
Ayuba gave the letter, which implored his father to come to America and rescue him from slavery, to his master, Alexander Tolsey, who in turn gave it to Vachel Denton, who sent it by boat to Henry Hunt, an English merchant in London for whom Denton was a factor or agent. Hunt worked with a Captain Pyke, the man who had sold Ayuba into slavery in the first place. (It was a very small world!) Pyke in turn showed the letter to General James Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia. Oglethorpe contacted his friend in the Royal African Company, Sir Bibye Lake, who had the bright idea of sending it to John Gagnier, a professor who held the Laudian Chair of Arabic at the University of Oxford, asking him to translate it. And what the letter revealed astonished them.
Amazed that an African was literate and well-educated, obviously so very intelligent and of noble lineage, Oglethorpe got the Royal African Company (which possessed a monopoly on the slave trade) to purchase Ayuba and ship him from Annapolis to London! Ayuba sailed for London with Thomas Bluett in March 1733. In London, the exotic Ayuba, dressed in his native garb, as we can see in his portrait by William Hoare, was the toast of the town. Called Job ben Solomon, he was befriended by a host of English notables, including the physician to the king, Sir Hans Sloane, the antiquarian Joseph Ames and the Duke of Montagu, who become one of his patrons, among many others. Ayuba had an audience with King George II and Queen Caroline, and was even made an honorary member of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society, in which Isaac Newton and Alexander Pope were members.
These friends raised the funds to purchase his freedom from the Royal African Company, giving him the freedom to return home. At his request, Bluett wrote and published a memoir in 1734 detailing the strange circumstances of Ayuba's enslavement and freedom, including an explanation of the Anglicization of his name from the original Arabic "Hyuba, boon Salumena, boon Hibrahema," to Job, the Son of Solomon (ben Solomon), the Son of Abraham, the name Bluett used in his book.
As the African-American food historian Michael Twitty told me, with only a hint of exaggeration and a dash of anachronism, "Job ben Solomon was essentially the first slave to FedEx himself back to Africa." (One is tempted to quote that sage philosopher of the people, Don King: "Only in America," but Thornton points out that a few examples of this can also be found in the history of slavery in Brazil.)
And in a final twist in a most ironic life, Ayuba did indeed return to Senegal, arriving on Aug. 8, 1734, the year in which his book was published, on board the Dolphin Snow, but now as an employee of the Royal African Company. He assisted the company in its bid to compete with the French commercial presence in Senegambia, including, presumably, the slave trade. One of the first things he did after he had landed was to trade some of the gifts his English patrons had given him to purchase two horses and, incredibly, a female slave.
Ayuba died in Gambia in 1773, the same year that the Boston slave Phillis Wheatley, who wrote fondly of "Pleasing Gambia" as her own native land, would become the first person of African descent to publish a volume of poetry in English.
Like her metaphorical countryman, Wheatley would be freed by her master because of the power of her literary skills, some 40 years after Ayuba became the first African-American slave to write his way out of slavery.
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.