Between the seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth century, numerous West African Muslims mostly from Senegambia (Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Guinea) were deported to the United States. They were overwhelmingly young men; most often prisoners of war but also victims of kidnapping. It is difficult to estimate their numbers […]. But nowhere else in the Americas was the proportion of Senegambians – 24% – as high as in this country. Senegambia was the area of West Africa that had been Islamized the longest, beginning as early as 1010.
If most Muslims maintained their faith in secret in the barbaric environment of servitude, others succeeded in living their religion openly. Reports of their religious activities appear in court and police records, plantation logs, newspapers, books, and runaway notices. Their portraits were captured in paintings, prints, daguerreotypes, and photographs; and they have left a few manuscripts written in Arabic.
Prince Among Slaves introduces the viewer to three large thematic areas often omitted from popular portrayals of the slavery experience in Hollywood film and in history textbooks. One of these themes is Identity. “The narratives of African Muslims enslaved in America are playing a critical role in Muslim community-building in the United States,” notes Dr. Hishaam Aidi (Columbia University), “as young Muslims realize that Islam’s roots in the New World harkens back to the 17th century.”
Prince Among Slaves raises our awareness of the rich and diverse economic and social contributions of enslaved people to the formation of America. Popular American culture has usually portrayed the societies of the enslaved people as primitive and unsophisticated, yet they came from advanced West African societies, many of which rivaled their European counterparts in literacy, economic development, and cultural output. Despite this popular understanding of the slavery experience as primitive and unsophisticated, many young people, particularly Muslim Americans, have looked to antebellum slave narratives as a source of identity and community building. Slave narratives, and how we tell them, tell us a lot about who we are as Americans.
The film Prince Among Slaves encourages us to think about matters of identity-particularly African American identity. What’s in a name? How does it feel to be called by a name which isn’t yours? What names and labels identify us?
Spellings sometimes change when we attempt to represent the sound of a name in another language, or with another alphabet. For example, on this website, you learn about two prominent West African ethnic groups: the Fulbe and the Mandinka. In some sources, you will find the Fulbe referred to as the Fulani, the Fulah, or even the Peul. Don’t be confused: all of these are names for the same group of West African pastoral people. In some sources, you will find the Mandinka referred to as the Mandinga or the Mandingue. Again, these are simply variations in spelling the same name.
The bill of sale between Thomas Edwin and Thomas Foster for the purchase of Abdul Rahman and Samba referred to these captives as “brute Negroes”. This term may imply “wild” or “unskilled”, but in fact, many captives were sought out and purchased precisely because they had skills which would be very important to the success of their owner’s business. In short, they had professions! Here are the names of some of the valued professions of enslaved Africans in America: blacksmith; accountant; midwife; carpenter; potter; weaver (or, textiles expert); soldier; agricultural specialist with expertise in rice, sugar, cotton, corn, yams, peanuts, or millet; specialist in beekeeping and beeswax; mineralogist; goatherd; shepherd; cattleman; expert in paper production.
Our hero’s name was Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori. In the religion of Islam, “Rahman” is one of the Names of God. It means “the Compassionate One”. “Abdul Rahman” means “servant of the Compassionate One”-Servant of God. “Ibrahima” is a version of “Abraham”-after the great prophet/patriarch who figures importantly in the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His owner called him “Prince” sarcastically, but Abdul Rahman was indeed from a royal family. His father was King Sori of Futa Jallon. West Africa.
Would you like to learn more about this topic? Here are some suggestions for digging deeper:
Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Gates Jr, Henry Louis. Finding Oprah’s Roots; Finding Your Own (Crown 2007).
Smith , Franklin Carter and Emily Anne Croom. A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African-American Ancestors: How to find and record your unique heritage (Betterway Books, 2003) Woodtor, Dee Parmer.
Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity (Random House, 1999).
Source: Prince Among Slaves