The Only Surviving Text Written in Arabic by an American Slave Has Been Digitized & Put Online: Read the Autobiography of Enslaved Islamic Scholar, Omar Ibn Said (1831)

Sev­er­al impor­tant pieces of pri­ma­ry doc­u­men­tary evi­dence have now become freely avail­able to schol­ars, stu­dents, and any­one inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can slav­ery, one an auto­bi­og­ra­phy writ­ten in Ara­bic by Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Mus­lim man who was active­ly encour­aged to read and write by his North Car­oli­na own­ers. The Library of Con­gress announced this month that it had acquired the 1831 man­u­script in 2017 and has now uploaded dig­i­tal scans of Said’s Ara­bic orig­i­nal and sev­er­al oth­er doc­u­ments about him and in his hand.

A 1925 Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Said’s short mem­oir appeared in The Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Review as “the first sto­ry of an edu­cat­ed Mohammedan slave in Amer­i­ca.” Since 2013, it has been avail­able online at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Carolina’s Doc­u­ment­ing the Amer­i­can South project.

It is a con­fus­ing doc­u­ment, in Eng­lish at least: frag­ment­ed not only in its style but also in its shift­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tions. This is hard­ly sur­pris­ing giv­en Said’s sto­ry, both a com­mon and very uncom­mon one.

Like mil­lions of Africans, Said had been cap­tured and enslaved, brought to Charleston, South Car­oli­na in 1807, escaped, then been cap­tured, jailed, and enslaved again in North Car­oli­na. What made him a minor­ly famous fig­ure in his own time—variously known as “Uncle More­au” (or just “Mor­ro” or “Moro”) and Prince Omeroh—as well as an impor­tant his­tor­i­cal fig­ure in ours, was that his is the only known sur­viv­ing account in Ara­bic. It is one writ­ten, more­over, by a man who had been a writer and Islam­ic schol­ar for 25 years before his enslave­ment in what is now Sene­gal.

Said “gives a brief sketch of his life in Africa,” in the 15-page auto­bi­og­ra­phy, the Library of Con­gress notes, “but enough to cre­ate a por­trait of a high­ly edu­cat­ed and well-to-do indi­vid­ual.” His learn­ing and lit­er­ary tal­ents so impressed his own­er James Owen, broth­er of North Car­oli­na gov­er­nor John Owen, that he was giv­en an Eng­lish Qu’ran, “in the hope that he might pick up the lan­guage,” writes Brig­it Katz at Smith­son­ian. He was also giv­en an Ara­bic Bible. “In 1821, Said was bap­tized.”

He became “an object of fas­ci­na­tion to white Amer­i­cans,” after con­vert­ing to Chris­tian­i­ty, “but he does not appear to have for­sak­en his Mus­lim reli­gion.” Said prais­es his own­er copi­ous­ly in the sketch of his life, with many expres­sions of Chris­t­ian piety. He also opens his text, which is addressed to a “Sheikh Hunter,” with sev­er­al vers­es quot­ed from the Qu’ran. “These might be omit­ted as not auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal,” the 1925 trans­la­tor wrote, “though it has been thought best to print the whole.”

To the con­trary, these vers­es, claims Mary-Jane Deeb—chief of the Library’s African and Mid­dle East­ern Division—tell us quite a lot about Said, per­haps as much as the main text itself. They can be seen as a sub­ver­sive means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing his con­tin­ued Islam­ic faith and his con­tin­ued resis­tance to his enslave­ment. The Surah he chose to quote “is extreme­ly impor­tant. It’s a fun­da­men­tal crit­i­cism of the right to own anoth­er human being.”

Said also inscribed in his Ara­bic Bible the phras­es “Praise be to Allah, or God” and “All good is from Allah.” The North Car­oli­na Depart­ment of Cul­tur­al Resources notes that “four­teen Ara­bic man­u­scripts in Umar’s hand are extant. Many of them include excerpts from the Qu’ran and ref­er­ences to Allah.” It’s pos­si­ble that Said’s con­ver­sion was gen­uine, and that he still expressed him­self in the idiom of his for­mer reli­gion and sub­ject of long study. It’s also quite like­ly that, for all the free­dom he received to study and write, he still had plen­ty of good rea­sons to fear open­ly resist­ing the iden­ti­ty forced upon him.

Said died in 1864, Katz notes, “one year before the U.S. legal­ly abol­ished slav­ery. He had been in Amer­i­ca for more than 50 years. Said was report­ed­ly treat­ed rel­a­tive­ly well in the Owen house­hold, but he died a slave,” hav­ing “much for­got­ten” as he writes in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy “my own, as well as the Ara­bic lan­guage,” hold­ing on to what he remem­bered of his lan­guage and his faith by writ­ing down what he recalled from mem­o­ry. View the dig­i­tized doc­u­ments from the Omar Ibn Said Col­lec­tion at the Library of Con­gress and learn much more about his life at UNC’s Doc­u­ment­ing the Amer­i­can South.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mas­sive New Data­base Will Final­ly Allow Us to Iden­ti­fy Enslaved Peo­ples and Their Descen­dants in the Amer­i­c­as

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visu­al­ized in Two Min­utes: 10 Mil­lion Lives, 20,000 Voy­ages, Over 315 Years

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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