New York. Oxford University Press. 1986. 283 p.
The land of living water, of fruit trees,
of faith, and of liberty.
This tale of an American slave called “Prince” is
an extraordinary story of an intelligent and courageous human being who, born
a prince, lived his life a slave and died in freedom. Like some other African
kings and princes, “Prince” had been enslaved when defeated in a
war. The events surrounding his discovery, in a small Southern American town,
of a white man whom his father, an African king, had once befriended, and his
being finally set free, were incredible events in themselves. However, the full
story, of his life, his origins among a Muslim people in Africa, and his development
into the unusual human being he was is one of the most powerful and moving tales
of that time.
The story begins with another name, which was “Prince’s” Muslim name, Abdul-Rahman. Abdul-Rahman's father was king of a cattle raising people, who, in their wanderings in West Africa, had found themselves in a series of wars with the farmers on whose land they had settled. It had been, in the beginning, a friendly invasion, and the farmers, known as the Jalunke, had been glad to have the dairy products and meat from the people known as the FulBe.*
However, difficulties between the two people soon developed, based on the great differences in their approach and understanding of how the world worked and what forces governed it. The farmers were animistic, they worshiped many gods. To them the prosperity of their country, which was commonly known as Fuuta-Jalon (“the land of the FulBe and Jalunke”), was made possible by appeasing the traditional spirits and maintaining a time honored relationship between the land and the people who lived on it. The FulBe, the cattle herders, were mostly Muslims. That they prayed to one god, and an invisible one at that, created a tension with the Jalunke that grew to the extent that the Jalunke at last forbade the FulBe to pray in public, and even forced them to hide their holy books in caves. These restrictions were intolerable. The noted Muslim cleric, Karamoko Alfa, raised a cry for a holy war, known as a jihaad, to establish the realm of Islam. God, he wrote in a circular letter, promised success to the faithful. But the FulBe were in need of a military as well as a religious leader for this war, and Karamoko Alfa, their spiritual head, was not a general.
It was Abdul-Rahman's father, Ibrahima Sori, a man known for his ambition, boldness, and love of life, who finally led the FulBe into war. In a traditional story still cherished in the mountains of Guinea, Sori, in one swift, dramatic act, slashed open the great ceremonial drum, of the farmers, thus beginning the war. The Muslims were few in number, compared to the Jalunke, but with Sori's leadership, and the zeal their religion supplied them, they went from victory to victory. By 1730 the Muslim supremacy was established.
The victors created a theocracy, administered by Karamoko Alfa, until his excessive religious practices drove him mad in 1748. Though he did not die until three years later, exigency required that his replacement be found straightaway. Sori, extremely popular with the army, was chosen and given the title of Almaami, “he who leads the community in prayer.” He was the people's choice. A ten day festival at Fugumba, where Sori received the white turban of office, preceded a fifteen day fête at Timbo, traditional seat of [power and of] Sori's family. The meat of two thousand cattle was distributed among the people at that time.
As Almaami, Sori quickly showed the aggressive spirit that had earned him his reputation during the Jihaad. In the 1750s he led regular campaigns on the northern and eastern frontiers of Fuuta. He enjoyed the habit of success, and his presence with the army gave it confidence and nerve. In time the expression “as brave as Ibrahima Sori” became common. Once, when attacking a town, Abdul-Rahman said of his father, Ibrahima Sori “found it close shooting and fell down as if dead. The [enemy] king came and danced around him, according to the custom of the country. [Sori, having only feigned death, watched for an opportunity, drew his knife, slew the king, and put his head on a pole and carried it to the city.” The defenders were so unnerved that they fled, leaving the town to the FulBe.
The FulBe recount the epic stories of their people in historical chronicles known as the tarikhs, documents often naming each country with which Sori went to war. Dynastic and military in content, these histories by themselves give a misleading view of the society as a whole. One would conclude from them alone that the FulBe were either on a battlefield or on the way to one every day. Raiding did play a part of undeniable importance in the nation's economic and religious life, but it was only one aspect of “the land of living water, of fruit trees, of faith, and of liberty,” as the FulBe called their home: Fuuta-Jaloo.
“[They] are handsome men, strong and brave; they are intelligent, they are mysterious and prudent,” wrote Antoine Golbery, a Frenchman living on the coast during Sori's reign. In armed caravans of hundreds the FulBe would appear at the river settlements bearing oblong baskets on their heads. They came to the coast to trade ivory, rice, hides, livestock, and gold, the latter hammered into rings carried about the waist. These items, and slaves who had been taken as prisoners of war, were exchanged for salt and European goods. “They [say that they] could not get any European articles without slaves, and they could not get slaves without fighting for them,” an Englishman wrote. “The people with whom we go to war do not pray to God,” a brother of Abdul-Rahman explained. “We never go to war with people who do God Almighty service.” These trips to the waterside, made from a land not visited by Europeans, brought much attention to the FulBe. Even in Karamoko Alfa's lifetime the land known as Fuuta had the reputation of being one of the richest interior nations. On the coast the Muslim FulBe were orderly and abstentious, quite a contrast to the quarreling degenerates living at the slave factories. Europeans were impressed.
The town called Timbo was to assume first rank in political life during Abdul-Rahman's lifetime. Set on a rolling plain, the town was shouldered on the east by the mountains known as Great and Little Helaya. Six years after Almaami Sori's death, the population of the town was estimated at seven or eight thousand. The houses were mud walled and circular, with conical roofs and low, projecting eaves. “They are remarkably neat in their houses,” James Watt wrote in 1794, “and have always everything clean and in order.” Rooms were large, and wide doors made them seem airy. Each establishment with its courtyard was usually surrounded by a hedge higher than a man so that anyone traveling the narrow streets and culs de sac could mind his own business without effort. The mosque, set among orange trees, was the most prominent structure in town, and the second oldest place of worship in Fuuta. Built in the shape of a great cone, it was supported internally by wooden pillars sunk into a pressed clay floor. The faithful worshiped on sheepskin mats placed in rows three feet apart. Prominent families such as Sori's had rural residences near Timbo and were often there. There was also a two-furlong track outside the town where the FulBe indulged their chief passion, racing the small horses of the country. The slopes, fields, and groves about Timbo were fed by tributaries of the Senegal River. Town and province imparted together the impression of a settled country of estates, prosperous herds, rural comfort.
“Considerable attention is devoted to the acquirement of knowledge, particularly with the higher class,” the American Cyrus Griffin wrote in 1828. Schools associated with clerics at the mosques taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and languages. Manuscript texts of the Qur’an, Moses' Pentateuch, and other works were circulated. Individual libraries on religion and jurisprudence were common, and books and writing paper were prized gifts. Most young Muslims, spurred by a teacher's ferule if all else failed, had read the Qur'an several times and copied it at least once by age twelve. Additional study in Islamic law was available to those who wished it. Many students and teachers came from outside Fuuta, and FulBe left in equal numbers to pursue an education or a career in another land. These comings and goings, together with the visits of merchants, kept the FulBe in touch with the Islamic world and informed of events throughout West Africa. Pilgrimages to Mecca, both across the Red Sea and over the isthmus, were performed by some; traveling mendicants from as far away as Morocco and Egypt came to Fuuta on occasion. Thus was the defeat of the Spanish at Gibraltar in 1782 known in this part of Africa forty days after it occurred. Mungo Park, while exploring the Niger River ten years later, learned similarly of the loss of the English Mediterranean convoy in 1795 during the wars of the French Revolution.
“The male Foulahs have a beauty of form which almost equals that of the women,” wrote the slave trader Theodore Canot, “and in fact the only fault I found with them was their feminine delicacy. However, they made up in courage what they lacked in form.” FulBe men ordinarily dressed in full sleeved, loose fitting robes and wore turbans or embroidered skullcaps. They kept their hair long' dangling in braids to the shoulders. Sandals were worn or the feet were left bare. Often a leather' amulet containing an inscription from the Qur'an was hung about the neck as a charm. Women, covered only from waist to knee in brightly colored cloth, wore gold earrings and elaborate coiffures. “Females were constantly busy over their cotton and spinning wheels when not engaged in household occupations; nor were the men less thrifty,” Canot continued. “I never saw man or woman bask lazily in the sun.”
Silversmithing, weaving, leatherworking, and fabricating products from iron bars went on daily in their towns. The FulBe pastoral influence was seen, however, in the lack of large markets or bazaars, peddlers alone being present.
Although the victory of the FulBe made them the rulers, they still retained a traditional contempt for farmers, the old herders' disdain for those who grub the earth. That work was done by the Jalunke, who fed themselves and provided much of the food for their masters, too. Their condition in this period is imperfectly known. It has been called everything from chattel slavery to a loose form of serfdom. One source states that the Jalunke were free to do their own labor after midday prayers; another, that they had two working days a week for their own fields. In time some modi vivendi were reached, like that under which a person born in the country would not be sold out of it except as a penalty for criminal conduct. Still, it was thralldom, and the Jalunke, always the majority, were slow to accept their servitude as the final state of affairs. The Muslims knew this, and a law required them to go armed in anticipation of a revolt.
A massive one occurred in 1756, when thousands of Jalunke rose up and left the country in great force. Sori, unable to stop them, felt his hold on power slip with this defeat. Every difficulty now rushed to throw itself upon him. His wealth gave birth to jealousy, especially among those who had lost their slaves in the exodus. He had “eaten to the limits of the possible,” as the popular expression went, and yet he was not generous enough, at least in the view of the afflicted. The nobles grumbled that they were slipping into a vassalage under his kingship and soon began intriguing with the heirs of the spiritual leader Karamoko Alfa. Often away on campaigns, Sori was being undercut by those whom he put in key posts at home. Not only were his appointees unpopular, some were corrupt and rapacious. They underreported tax revenues and were guilty of hoarding. These abuses undermined Sori's popularity and doomed his efforts to establish the equality of believers promised in the constitution of the confederation
The catalyst of rebellion against Sori was Karamoko Alfa's son Saalihu, who had grown to a handsome maturity in the eleven years since his father's death. This tall, courtly Pullo, backed by his family's immense fortune and by support from all parts of the population, threatened a coup d'Etat in 1759. The nobility supported his bid for power, as did the elders of Fuuta, eager to replace the warrior-almaami. In polling his army and followers, Sori was startled to find dissatisfaction even there. Resistance, he concluded, was impossible. His pride wounded, Sori denounced his thankless fellow citizens, quit Timbo, and, taking his family and herds, retired to Mount Helaya
It was a curious exile. A mountain top was a small stage for a giant to brood upon. And, since Mount Helaya overlooked Timbo, scene of happier days, it should have been all the worse. But Sori may have liked the spot. The mountain blocked the morning light from the city. The sun would have to labor up its summit, and when its light fell on Timbo at last, it would have seemed to be coming from his own mountain. The town could look up and see the sun and think of another eminence that loomed there. Sori would have enjoyed the metaphor. Out of power, “the beloved of God” did not intend to be out of mind or even out of sight.
There was one happy moment, when Abd al-Rahman was born in 1762. The name, by traditional naming practices, suggests Abdul-Rahman was born on a Monday or a Friday. Although Abdul-Rahman would later claim to be Sori's principal son, it seems that he was not. Abdul-Rahman was simply one of a large number of male children the old king fathered, though clearly he was a favorite. Nothing is known of Abdul-Rahman's mother, one of Sori's four wives, except that she was supposed to be a woman of rank and blood. History is equally mute as to the prayers and celebrations commemorating Abdul-Rahman's birth. There must have been some, perhaps the customary parade of women around the house, carrying the newborn child and the instruments of war that would be his as an adult.
But history gives somber colors to these years. Sori was deeply troubled. The father had had a dream whose meaning no one could interpret. He had seen the long dead Karamoko Alfa, a man whom everyone regarded as saintly, standing with a great wound on one arm.
Abdul-Rahman, son of the mountain years, had been born into a world falling to pieces.
The new Almaami, Saalihu, was weak. He seemed unable to take control of the country. Feudalism grew in the absence of Sori's strong hand, as Saalihu struggled continually with those who usurped his authority. He also had to contend with Sori's partisans, who worked to undermine him when possible. The result of this dissidence was an erosion of order, and, for the first time in decades, an increase in lawlessness in the country. But it was failure on the batdefield, where Saalihu hoped to become indispensable, that brought disaster to him and to everyone else. In 1762, the year of lbrahima's birth, a FulBe army attacked the kingdom of Wasulu, east of Fuuta. That country was populated by non Muslim FulBe called collectively the Wasulunke, “the people of Wasulu.” In the past Sori had gone there with such success that a difficult campaign was not expected. True to form, Konde Birama, who commanded the Wasulunke, was beaten wherever he appeared. But the rains set in early that year, and the FulBe withdrew before the Wasulunke were broken. Incredibly, Konde Birama came across the wet savannas after them. Now harassing, now ambushing, now feinting, this habitual victim showed an activity and skill that shocked the FulBe. Twice they turned about and forced battle, only to be routed both times.
The FulBe were staggered, but fate had not finished with them. The Solima, their allies to the south, tired of them and seeing the opportunity to throw them off at last, did not send assistance to the front. In retaliation, Saalihu executed some Solima chiefs. This, in turn, brought a Solima declaration of war, the last thing the FulBe needed, for Konde Birama was preparing an invasion of his own. Murders on both sides followed, with travelers and even students at the schools fleeing for their lives. Finally, a great army of Solima and Wasulunke moved toward Fuuta, driving wild animals from the woods before it. Deer are said to have appeared in the streets of villages where they had never been seen before. Advancing on the plateau, the enemy coalition seized Timbo in 1703 and razed it totally. Homes, storehouses, and crops were destroyed, along with the old mosque, where the constitution of the state and other historic papers were burned. The remnants of the FulBe army could do little now except watch at home a perf6rmance they had often given abroad. For two months the foreigners raged throughout the countryside. Slaves and goods disappeared. Cattle unable tobe moved were slaughtered. Mass executions took place. Then, to the horror of the Muslims, Konde Birama disinterred the body of Karamoko Alfa and cut an arm off the corpse. With this indignity he retired to the east.
The FulBe returned to Timbo in the spring. Only habit brought them back, for there was little city left to see. The scene was desolate. In the underbrush were found the remains of Karamoko Alfa.
“Here is that which my dream foretold,” said Sori, as he viewed the corpse of the one he had often called “my great brother.”
At the insistence of the people, Saalihu was deposed and Ibrahima Sori brought back to head a common war council. Who else could save the state? Although the old warrior was awarded, a less important title than almaami by the jealous elders, the crisis of the moment put him in no mood to argue with them. There would be no preferments or federation to give them if Konde Birama and his allies could not be stopped. At Timbo, Ibrahima Sori hastily erected a stone and clay bank thirty to fifty feet high and one hundred and twenty feet square, "elevated by the labors of half the country," and on top of it he put a square tower hemmed in by sixteen-foot-high walls. Constructed under the direction of a man in Timbo who had spent time in England, this fortress gave the city the security it had lacked the year before. Here, and in similar fortifications in the north, loopholes were cut in the palisades for the defenders to fire through.
The Solima arrived in Fuuta that year (1764) after murdering all the FulBe they found in their own country. Literally burning a trail through the south, they seemed intent on murdering all they found there, too. But Sori soon demonstrated how little he had forgotten in retirement. The Solima were beaten and for one season, at least, the FulBe caught their breath. The coalition returned, however, in annual campaigns in the late 176os and early 1770s. It orchestrated its attacks and employed its numbers in ways that Ibrahima Sori found impossible to resist. His country became a cache to which the enemy came each year and picked out whatever it wanted. Konde Birama even established personal control over a large area of the plateaus. A tradition states that, as an act of submission, he required each Pullo to bring a rock to a site near Fugumba. He erected a stronghold there with them and from it governed the area of his conquests. Konde Birama's throttle was so tight that many FulBe, powerless to oppose him, became his subjects.
— “Now I am the master, I am the law,” he said, “and if the FulBe do not work their fields and work them well, I will cut their throats.”
No one doubted he would. To eject this infidel it was clear that a long and bloody war of liberation would be required.
It is a comment on their love of learning that the Muslims managed to keep the schools at Timbo open during this time. Abdul-Rahman, Ibrahima Sori's son, began his studies there when he was seven, in 1769. His education was traditional ; first he learned to read, then to write, passages from the Qur'an. Community schools in Egypt and Morocco taught the same way. These were the first lessons of young Muslims everywhere, learned by rote and endless practice and forgotten only when memory itself was abandoned. Around a fire a marabout, or cleric, led the instruction, each student writing verses of the Qur'an on wooden tablets. Such training made Abdul-Rahman literate in Arabic and Pular (the language of the FulBe), but it did something vastly more important. It put the stamp of his culture upon him, opening to him the Islamic vision and teaching him the omnipotence of God and the importance of the community of believers. This faith was his strongest bond of identity with other people. Its lessons were indelible when fully grasped. To the believer Islam alone transcended the heterogeneity of West Africa and provided a basis for universal brotherhood. Profoundly impressed with, its promises, Abdul-Rahman wrote his lessons “forty-eight hours a day.”
Seeing this interest, his father decided to send him abroad for further education when he was twelve. Abdul-Rahman had become very familiar with the Qur'an by that age, reading it correctly and fluently, and he was already well on the way to the coveted titles of tierno and alfa, given, respectively, to those who progressed to make exegesis of the Qur'an in Arabic and Pular and to become masters of Islamic science. Perhaps Sori, head of a large family, intended to tithe this son to the faith. Abdul-Rahman later claimed that the trip was to prepare him to follow his father in office. While Karamoko Alfa is witness to the importance of superior education as a requisite to power, not en.ough.is known of the ages and lives of Abdul-Rahman's brothers to judge this assertion. For one motive or another, however, Abdul-Rahman left Fuuta in 1774 to study in Macina and at Timbuktu.
The ancestral home of most FulBe of Fuuta, Macina lay about one thousand miles to the east, in present-day Mali. The steady Macinan migration to Fuuta and the flow of teachers and, merchants had kept Fuuta in touch with this kingdom on the middle Niger. Traders often passed between Fuuta and Macina, selling tobacco, silver, ivory, and slaves from the west. The trip could take months, but it was possible to perform it with relative safety. Picking up a tributary of the Niger in eastern Fuuta, voyagers simply passed down by the gold country of Bure and onto the Niger itself.
Macina, peopled by rice farmers, herders, and fishermen, was chiefly pastoral and populated by FulBe. Its principal city was Jenne, a great trading entrepôt of brick and grass buildings on a Niger branch. Here turbaned traders plied the river, their boats poled or rowed along, their salt and cloth and guns covered from the sun by awnings. On small green islands, the FulBe attended their stock, safe from the lions on the banks. Fishermen drew up their catches in long cotton nets and dumped them in their roomy canoes. The explorer Mungo Park learned twenty years after Abdul-Rahman's visit that more than thirty thousand people lived in Jenne . It took him a day's ride on horseback just to circle it. But the size and prosperity of the place were not Jenne's only fame There was also its reputation as home for a group of sophisticated Islamic scholars. “God, the Most High, has brought to this fortunate city a number of learned and holy men, strangers to the country, who have come here to live,” a seventeenth-century Muslim had written. Such was its attraction to Abdul-Rahman, of whose stay here it is only recorded that he spent it in study. It is easy to imagine' however, the excitement of the Muslim minority in Jenne about his residence, for the iihaad in Fuuta had been an inspiration to the faithful there.
Timbuktu lay beyond Jenne, twelve days' travel by land. Several miles north of the river, it was an imposing city of mosques, markets, schools, and shops. Its population at this time, is not known, but, like Jenne, it was much larger than any town in Fuuta and much busier, too. “Caravans were continually arriving,” Abdul-Rahman observed, bringing salt and goods from North Africa. Rising above the two-storied, whitewashed houses of the rich were three ancient centers of worship: Dyingereyber, Sankore, and Sidiyahya. Abdul-Rahman's school, probably connected with one of these, had over two hundred pupils under four masters. “They read the Alcoran, attended to geography, astronomy, calculations, to the Mahomedan religion, and the laws of the country,” wrote Thomas H. Gallaudet. Regrettably, the prince gave Gallaudet no bibliography of his texts. The level of his studies might be gauged by them. There are only the statements of two men who met him much later in life. One, whose name is not known, thought him “well versed in Oriental literature,” perspicacious, and eloquent. The second, John Frederick Schroeder, an American knowledgeable in Eastern languages, wrote, “He is very familiar with the Koran, many passages of which he read for me with correctness and fluency (according to the usual manner of Oriental scholars).” Abdul-Rahman, he remarked, “read and wrote Arabick for me by the hour.”
When Abdul-Rahman was seventeen, he left Timbuktu and returned to Fuuta to enter the army. His father had made history in his absence. After years of being the, fly before the pagan sledge hammer, Ibrahima Sori gained an even hand, with the invaders. He regrouped the army and won the allegiance of the bandit chiefs of the west, whose occupation until that time had been attacking caravans to the coast. Small successes followed, and new recruits came forward. Sori turned then against the Solima, as they were less formidable than Konde Birama, pushing them southward and capturing their frontier posts year after year. “At length,” wrote Major Gordon Laing, who visited the Solima fifty years after these events and talked with their historians, “the Soolimas, tired of a mode of warfare which yielded no profit, made an arrangement with Konta Brimah to bring a grand armament against the Foulahs, and, if possible, to annihilate them at one blow.”
“God has punished Fuuta,” Ibrahima Sori told his sons upon hearing their plans, “and he asks now for an expiation. An angel has informed me that, in exchange for such a sacrifice, God will give us a victory.” That sacrifice had to come from Ibrahima Sori's own family. The tradition that reports Ibrahima Sori's remarks also says that each of the thirty-three sons present, even one sick with leprosy, wanted to be that offering. Finally, Mamadu, the eldest son, who had arrived late for the meeting, presented himself Ibrahima Sori greeted him, the historian Paul Guébhard wrote, as the one “who had come to deliver the country by sacrificing his life, for he alone had the courage of one hundred men.”
Mamadu embraced this certain call to death as a duty and rode out with the army to the place where the enemy coalition would approach. Ibrahima Sori had collected all the FulBe and their allies for this last, great struggle. An appeal to other countries brought in Muslims from distant lands and may even have caused Abdul-Rahman's return from the Niger at this time. At any rate, Sori gathered an army said to number forty thousand (twice the size George Washington was managing in the same year, 1778), and he awaited the coalition on a large plain near a river east of Timbo.
“To you alone comes the honor of this”, he told Mamadu when the enemy approached. “Dream of your name living in the memory of all true Foulahs.”
Blessed by Ibrahima Sori, Mamadu mounted a horse saddled for him
by his brothers and flew into the enemy lines. Tradition says that Konde
Birama was killed by him. In the confusion that followed, Ibrahima Sori
threw his armies forward. “A most sanguinary battle was the consequence,” wrote Major
Laing, “long and gallantly contended on both sides.” As the
fighting became intense, Ibrahima Sori noticed that, his troops, attacking from
all sides, were actually firing upon each other by mistake. Rising on his horse
and holding his arms and face skyward, he pleaded, “God! Help us!” This
chilling act inspired those near him to fight madly, and a terrible slaughter
ensued. At last the coalition faltered and fell back toward the river, where
many drowned. Those who escaped rushed away so fleetly that the FulBe who followed
them lost their trails completely. Mamadu and many others died, but that day
had given the FulBe a second chance.
They would not need a third.
Ibrahima Sori was at the pinnacle of his power. At an extraordinary
session of the elders, he was proclaimed Almaami again and
invested with the white turban of office. He was also voted MawDo, “the
great.” Secure in the public regard, he moved the capital from Fugumba
to Timbo, followed there by the principal families. When some of the elders
subsequently accused him of eating impure meat, a violation of Islamic law for
which he could be removed from office, Sori marched to Fugumba, seized his opponents,
and executed them. He did not intend to be deposed twice in one lifetime by
jealous preachers. With this ruthless step, the almaami demonstrated that the
fire of 1763 had destroyed not only the text of the constitution but some of
its liberties as well. No doubt burdened by his murder of fellow Muslims, Ibrahima
Sori sought absolution in building mosques and patronizing marabouts with finely
flowered robes. But the return of independence had brought honor to him, and
that was penitence enough, it appears, to most of his countrymen. After clearing
the remainder of Konde Birama's army away, Ibrahima Sori resumed those wars
for the expansion of the faith and the purse which characterized the state.
These remarkable campaigns often reached hundreds of miles from Timbo, and it
was in these wars that the young Abdul-Rahman first distinguished himself. Ibrahima
Sori had assigned him to the cavalry. “Until I was twenty-one,” Abdul-Rahman
wrote of this, [I] followed the horsemen.” The apprenticeship led at nineteen
to an adventure that illuminates the young prince well.
The year was 1781. Abdul-Rahman, under the command of his uncle Sulimina, set out against a Bambara army of five or six thousand. But Sulimina was killed in the first fighting and the inexperienced Abdul-Rahman found himself in charge. Naturally, the army doubted he could lead it into anything happy and prepared to return home with or without him, an inauspicious first command for a son of the almaami. Abdul-Rahman persuaded the soldiers at last to remain three days and put him to a test. The Bambara war leader agreed to an armistice of equal length, Abdul-Rahman having convinced him that he wanted to send to his father for the terms on which he might surrender. Abdul-Rahman took the time to move his army back and open a path into a great cane thicket. The road was about one third of a mile long. In the middle of the cane he had a field cleared large enough to contain the Bambara army. The trap was set in seventy-two hours.
To the surprise of the Bambara, the morning of the fourth day found Abdul-Rahman demanding they make an appearance and fight. Angered by his duplicity, they attacked. Abdul-Rahman withdrew by design, reaching the cane and retreating with his men along the narrow road they had cut. The Bambara followed, anticipating an easy victory, but Abdul-Rahman, reaching the center field, led his men onto a second exit that had been built. When the Bambara reached the middle of the thicket, they found Abdul-Rahman blocking one road out and his cavalry following their heels up the other. The cane was so thick it offered no other exits. “Then commenced a terrible destruction,” wrote a friend to whom Abdul-Rahman gave this story. “The cane was set on fire. Those who attempted to escape were put to the sword; those who remained were destroyed by the flames. Nearly the entire army was exterminated.”
Among the survivors was the dazed Bambara war leader. He was found sitting on the ground, surrounded by a few of his followers. Abdul-Rahman, berating him for attacking the FulBe frontier, asked what punishment he deserved.
“I must die,” said the old warrior, who, looking up and seeing how young Abdul-Rahman was, added, “and I rejoice! I have been defeated by a boy!”
His wish was granted. A broadsword took off his head.
The year of 1781 came to a portentous close. A one-eyed Irishman
named John Coates Cox, surgeon of a ship on the coast, went ashore to hunt and
became separated from his companions. When he could not be found, they sailed
without him. Learning this, Dr. Cox began to wander inland. “Our people
saw him,” Abdul-Rahman wrote, “and ran and told my father that they
saw a white man.” Since no such creature had been known before in Fuuta,
Ibrahima Sori ordered him brought to Timbo. Dr. Cox arrived ill and exhausted,
one account stating he had been found lying face down on the ground, horribly
bitten by insects. One leg was nearly lame from the bite of a poisonous worm.
Future travelers would tell of the intense interest the FulBe took in them. Brian O'Beirne wrote that they almost got their eyelashes tangled with his in their efforts to examine him. Theodore Canot reported that the press of spectators day and night became a kind of hell. He needed guards just to take a walk. Mungo Park was assured he had been dipped in milk when born, while FulBe rubbed their eyes in disbelief at Gaspard Mollien and asked if he had a mother at all, speculating he had come from the bottom of the sea. “Being the first white man who had ever been there,” Gallaudet wrote, Dr. Cox was “a great curiosity.”
“They brought Dr. Cox,” Abdul-Rahman continued, “and my father asked him whither he was going. He said he knew not where to go, that the ship had left and that he had a bad sore leg. My father told him he had better go no farther, but stay with him and he would get a woman to cure the leg. My father told him to stay as long as, he chose.”
Ibrahima Sori proved as kind as his words. He gave the doctor a house and a nurse, and Dr. Cox recovered enough in a few months to go horseback riding. Abdul-Rahman became an intimate, passing time with him and learning a bit of English. Dr. Cox is probably the person whom the traveler Mollien, writing in 1820, mentions as taking a wife and fathering a son at Timbo. According to the historian André Arcin, whose Histoire de la Guinée Française (1911) is still a landmark work on Fuuta in many respects 1, that wife would have been Abdul-Rahman's sister. The story is credible. Easygoing by nature, Dr. Cox was a warm and impulsive man. A rationalist on religion, he would have thought Islam no worse than Christianity, and in his position as unpaying guest he had considerable incentive to be agreeable. As for the FulBe, this was the beginning of a long friendship with whites. No traveler was ever to be killed in these plateaus, and, indeed, when another visitor fell sick there fifty years later, one of Abdul-Rahman's brothers was greatly upset, “for, if any accident happened, the character of Timbo, might be ruined, and he should never again, he feared, see another white stranger.”
Abdul-Rahman recalled that at the end of six months, probably the conclusion of the rains, the doctor had a conversation with his father in which the Irishman expressed a wish to return to his own country.
“What makes you desire to go back?” the almaami asked. “You are treated well here.”
Dr. Cox replied that he feared his parents would think him dead when his ship returned without him.
“Whenever you wish to go,” Ibrahima Sori said, “I will send a guard to accompany you.”
Outfitted with clothes and furnished with gold to pay for any passage he might find on the coast, Dr. Cox bid farewell to Ibrahima Sori and Abdul-Rahman (and to his pregnant wife, if one supposes correctly) and quit Fuuta in company with fifteen warriors sent along for his protection. These men were under orders to leave the doctor if he found a ship, but to bring him back if none was discovered. Ibrahima Sori warned them “not to go on board the ship” themselves, fearing a slaver might take them away. After some waiting, Dr. Cox was so fortunate as to find the same vessel from which he had become separated. Soon he had set sail.
In the years that followed the doctor's departure, Abdul-Rahman, married and, in 1786, had a son named al-Husayn 2. This child, unlike his father, was born in, a country at peace. Laws were respected once more, trade was flourishing, herds were thriving. Fuuta was secure and no longer threatened by its neighbors. Generations would come and go before it knew another invasion of consequence. Ibrahima Sori took pride in the restitution of order, and so it seemed appropriate, at least to him, to build for himself and his family ten fine houses on the summit of the great fortification he had had erected at Timbo after the fire of 1763.
In one of the houses near him lived the favored son, Abdul-Rahman.
*In the singular, Pullo. These people are better known by the names that others have given them, such as Fula or Fulani. Writers of Abdul-Rahman's time often called them “Foulah's,” “Poulas,” or variants thereof.
1. Tauxier a review and critique of Arcin.
2. This given name usually suggests that the mother gave birth to twins. This, according to a Muslim custom honoring the children of Fatima and Ali, the daugther and the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.