Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori: 40 Years A Slave

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Podcast Transcript

In 1788, the son of the leader of the Confederation of Futa Jallon in West Africa was commanding his 2,000 troops against a neighboring military force and was captured. 

He was sold into slavery and spent the next 40 years of his life living as a slave in Mississippi. That was until a chance meeting revealed his true identity, which eventually led to his freedom and the involvement of the President of the United States. 

Learn more about Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, the prince who became a slave and whose emancipation became an international issue, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Over the 300-year history of the transatlantic slave trade,12.5 million people were forcefully taken from their homes in Africa and brought to the Americas. 

Of all the people taken in the slave trade, almost none of them ever saw freedom or returned home. Many of them never even made it across the ocean as the conditions in slave ships were so horrendous. 

To that extent, this episode’s story is very much an aberration. It is the exception, not the rule. 

Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori was born in 1762 in the town of Timbo in what is today the nation of Guinea in West Africa.

He was born to one of the noblest and most powerful families in all of West Africa at the time.

His father was the Emir Ibrahim Sori, the leader of the Islamic State of Futa Jallon in the highlands of central Guinea. He was a brilliant military leader who managed to build his kingdom after defeating several neighboring tribes. 

His first-born son, Abdulrahman, was the heir apparent to Futa Jallon. As such he was well educated and trained. He attended the Islamic university in Timbuktu, in what is today the nation of Mali. 

He studied philosophy and law and was reportedly fluent in four African languages and Arabic. He earned the title of Torodo, which was a 17th and 18th-century term for West African Islamic clerics.

When he returned home at the age of 21, he was given charge of a regiment of 2,000 soldiers in his father’s army. It would probably have been the equivalent of the modern-day rank of colonel. 

While out on campaign, he and his men were ambushed and Abdulrahman was captured by a neighboring tribe. 

They then traded him to British slavers for muskets and rum,  who sent him, along with so many other Africans, to the Americas. 

In 1788, at the age of 26, he wound up being purchased by a plantation owner in Natchez, Mississippi by the name of Thomas Foster. At the time, Mississippi was still technically a Spanish Territory. 

Foster’s plantation at that time grew tobacco because cotton had still not become the staple crop for that region yet. 

When Abdulrahman arrived, he had his long hair cut, which was a symbol of his nobility, and was immediately put to doing hard labor. he did what you would expect. He escaped. 

I should note that in a later autobiography, he noted just how backward and primitive he thought Natchez was when he first saw it, compared to what he had seen in places like Timbuktu. 

He survived for weeks on the run. However, he realized his predicament. He was in a foreign country, he had no allies, no money, and even if he could get to a port, he wouldn’t be allowed on a ship back to Africa. 

He accepted his position that he wasn’t a prince anymore and returned to Foster’s plantation. His plan to ensure his survival was to make himself indispensable. 

He did just that. ??Abdulrahman was far more educated and smarter than his owner who was uneducated and illiterate. He also had a particular set of knowledge that made him particularly valuable. 

Abdulrahman was familiar with growing cotton, which was commonly grown back where came from. Cotton was just starting to be grown in Mississippi and he told Foster how to grow it. 

The plantation soon became the largest cotton producer in the region, and Abdulrahman soon found himself managing the operation. He was a natural leader, made his owner a lot of money, and as such was given certain liberties. 

He got married to a woman who worked on the plantation, who served as a doctor and a midwife, and they had nine children. 

He also was allowed to keep a vegetable garden and to sell his produce in town to keep the money. 

In 1807, almost 20 years after he arrived in Mississippi, he was selling his vegetables at the market when he had a chance encounter that changed the course of his life. 

It was there, in Natchez, Mississippi, Abdulrahman unexpectedly met the Irish surgeon, Dr. John Cox.

Who, you might be asking, is Dr. John Cox?

It turns out that decades earlier, Cox was serving as the surgeon on a British ship that sank off the coast of Africa. Cox washed up on the shore in West Africa and was taken in by none other than Abdulrahman’s father, Ibrahim Sori. 

Dr. Cox stayed with the family for six months as he regained his health. He was the first European to visit the town of Timbo and he became acquainted with the young Abdulrahman. 

Both men were astonished to see each other, and Dr. Cox was especially astonished to find this young man, a prince, and member of a royal family, to be a slave in Mississippi.

Cox set it as his mission to free Abdulrahman, not only to end the injustice inflicted upon him, but also the repay the debt to his family who helped him so many years ago. 

Cox offered Foster to buy Abdulrahman’s freedom, but he refused. He went as high as $1,000, which was a lot of money in 1807, but Foster still refused. 

Abdulrahman’s plan of making himself invaluable had worked too well. He was so invaluable, that Foster didn’t want to let him go as his whole operation was dependent on him. 

The other thing Cox did was to provide an independent verification of Abdulrahman’s story that he was in fact a prince. A story which, until that point, no one else believed. 

The story of this chance encounter and of the prince who became a slave soon spread. A local newspaper reported in Natchez named Andrew Marschalk interviewed Abdulrahman and found out that he spoke Arabic.

The fact that he spoke Arabic made Marschalk think that Abdulrahman must have been Moroccan. Abdulrahman didn’t bother to correct him because, in their racial hierarchy, Moroccans were considered above West Africans, and this confusion about his homeland could help him get his freedom. 

Dr. Cox continued to fight for the freedom of Abdulrahman until his death in 1816, when the fight was picked up by his son.

The fact that everyone thought he was Moroccan is an important point because Morocco was the first country ever to sign a treaty with the United States of America. 

That treaty guaranteed the protection of Moroccan subjects in the United States. 

Abdulrahman, being trained in law, became aware of the treaty and realized this might be the loophole that could get him his freedom.

The local newspaperman, Marschalk, helped Abdulrahman send a letter to the Sultan of Morocco stating how Abdulrahman wanted his freedom and to be reunited with his family in Morocco. 

Here I should note that while Guinea was far from Morocco, the Sultan of Morocco claimed an ancient protection over the Muslims of West Africa, especially royalty. 

Along with the letter, several pages of the Quran in Arabic, transcribed by Abdulrahman were also sent with the letter to establish his credentials. 

By chance, the letter go to the Sultan, who then petitioned the President of the United States, John Quincy Adams, for his release. 

The Sultan actually sent an emissary to Futa Jallon to verify his claims and did in fact find out that he could be considered a prince of the Moors. 

Secretary of State Henry Clay, not wanting to anger the United States’s longest and first ally and cause an international incident, petitioned the president to free him. 

On February 22, 1828, by order of the president of the United States, Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori was freed after 40 years in slavery.

However, his now-former owner insisted that upon his manumission, he leave for Africa immediately, as he didn’t want him to enjoy the privileges of a free man in the United States.

The story of Abdulrahman spread throughout the country, and he took his time working his way to Washington DC. People in cities along the way were fascinated by the story of the man who was a Moorish prince who was a slave. 

The reporter who helped arrange everything, purchased a Moorish costume for him which he could wear when he addressed crowds on his trip to Washington. 

Along the way, he earned enough money to free his wife, but not enough to free his children. 

When he got to Washington DC, he had a meeting with President Adams. From there, on March 18, 1829, he and his wife set sail to Liberia, which had become a colony of freed slaves who returned to Africa. 

Word was sent to Abdulrahman’s brother who had taken over for his father when he died. He was overjoyed and sent a caravan to Liberia to meet his brother and to take him back home. 

He did make it back to Africa, arriving in Liberia. However, during the journey back he became ill, and four months after arriving, he died in Monrovia, Liberia in 1829 at the age of 67.

In the end, he managed to raise enough funds to free two of his sons and their families, both of which moved to Liberia. 

There are two interesting footnotes to this story. 

One is that Thomas Gallaudet, the founder of the American School for the Deaf in Washington DC, took an interest in Abdulrahman’s story. Gallaudet was part of the American Colonization Society which had a mission of spreading Christianity in Africa. 

He met with Abdulrahman and asked him to show his commitment to Christianity by writing the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic. 

Abdulrahman just wanted to make more contacts with influential Americans to help free his family, so he obliged by writing it down on a page. 

Years later, after Abdulrahman had gone back to Africa and had passed away, they discovered that he in fact hadn’t written down the Lord’s Prayer, but instead had written the first paragraph of the Quaran. 

The second footnote to the story has to do with his children which he was unable to free. 

They obviously remained in America, but because they had what was now such a famous father, his legend, and the story of his royal lineage, was passed along from generation to generation. 

The descendants of Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori are still around today and some of them have claimed royal status, consider themselves a royal family, and use royal titles. Some of them are still living around Natchez, Mississippi today.

Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori’s case was used by abolitionists groups for decades to highlight the injustice of slavery. Long after slavery was abolished, his story has been remembered. He remains an inspiration as someone who kept his dignity and never lost hope, despite being denied his freedom for over 40 years. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener “Sparkie with iPod touch” over at Apple Podcasts in the US. They write:

An excellent appetizer for everything

This show provides a wonderful introduction (or appetizer) to a cornucopia of different topics! It’s not so In-Depth as to get boring, but just enough information to let me decide if I want to know more or not, and gives me places to go find more (the main dish) if I want to, and even sometimes provides dessert in the way of personal experiences with some subject matters. Keep up the good work!

Thanks, Sparkie!  Your username is interesting. Sparkie is the nickname for the electric chair, which actually gives me an idea for a future episode. 

Also, I purchased an iPod Touch at the Apple store in Tokyo in 2007 and it was one of the greatest purchases I had ever made at the time. 

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