New York. Oxford University Press. 283 p.
The boy sets sail on the ocean of Iffe with a Beet of a thousand ships.
The old man reaches the shore at last, rescued on a single plank.
Friedrich von Schiller
The incredible story of this book begins in the spring of 1968, when I was a graduate student in American history at Mississippi State University. It was a time of political and emotional turmoil. The Tet Offensive, the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a near-riot at the University, and a full-fledged one at Mississippi Valley State College, a nearby school where I was teaching, had overwhelmed me, and I decided to take a few days off and drive down to the southern part of the state. Since southwest Mississippi is an old plantation area, I had the excuse of thinking I could work on a seminar paper on slavery that I had coming due.
I remember little about the drive itself. Meadville, Liberty, Woodville — the small towns were merely a succession of redbrick courthouses, old men at country stores, and cheerless rooming houses. But the uneventfulness of the drive was in complete opposition to the nature of the discovery awaiting me in Natchez. For it was in the courthouse in Natchez that I first became aware of the person who was to influence my own future. I was working in the county deed records, buried in giant clothbound volumes of laminated pages, when I found a letter written in 1828 by Henry Clay, then Secretary of State. It concerned the freedom of a slave who was said to be a Moorish prince. I had not heard of this particular individual before, although I knew that from time to time African princes and kings had wound up as slaves, so I wasn't surprised. What did surprise me was the full report of the man's life I received later that day from Miss Mary Postlethwaite, a Natchez antiquarian.
The fact of this person's royal heritage was, presumably, well known, since records showed that the man was called “Prince” while a slave at Natchez. But his true name was Abdul-Rahman. He claimed to have been born in Timbuktu, the son of a powerful monarch, and, educated there and elsewhere in Africa in the way common at the time to Islamic communities throughout the world. I learned that in 1788, when he was twenty-six and a colonel in his father's army, Abdul-Rahman had been defeated in a war, captured, and sold to a slave-ship captain who brought him to the West Indies. During the summer of that year he was purchased by a Natchez farmer named Thomas Foster, and, for the next four decades he was Foster's slave on a plantation near the city. Despite his extreme misfortune, Abdul-Rahman adhered to a strict, self-imposed code of conduct throughout that time, never drinking, stealing, or being found guilty of a breach of confidence or trust.
I became intrigued with the prince's story when Miss Postlethwaite told me that after the prince had been a slave about fifteen or twenty years, a most uncanny and remarkable event took place. One day, while he was selling some vegetables in a village in the county, he saw a white person he had known in Africa, a man who owed his life to Abdul-Rahman and his father, Almami Ibrahima Sori. The white man recognized him, lept off his horse, and embraced him. This started a chain of events that led ultimately to Abdul-Rahman's freedom. The prince was manumitted by his owner and returnd to, Africa, dying shortly after his arrival.
Miss Postlethwaite's story intrigued me. When I returned to the university, I researched the topic briefly, discovering only one published account of Abdul-Rahman's life. That was an article by Charles S. Sydnor entitled "The Biography of a Slave," which appeared in the January, 1937, number of the South Atlantic Quarterly. His article confirmed Miss Postlethwaite's remarks, and, although it lacked footnotes or bibliography, it was evidently factual. His text itself suggested sources where I might, find additional information on Abdul-Rahman.
Other things, however, prevented me from pursuing the story then. It was 1970 before I could consider an attempt at writing his life.
As I mused over the idea at that time, I realized I was dealing not only with an unusual story, but a remarkable man as well The drop from freedom to slavery was staggering for anyone to take. It was too difficult for some, as the numerous suicides on slave ships and plantations are witness. But Abdul-Rahman survived the fall. And, unlike many fellow Africans, he fell, too, from wealth, from power, from the world of formal education and ideas. How did he manage to withstand it? Why weren't his character and pride broken, if not his mind ? Quite simply, how did he keep himself together and manage to come out at life's end with some dignity and self-respect ? I wanted the answers to those questions, and the Library of Congress seemed to me to be the best place to get them. So, in late May, 1970, my wife, Jeanette, and I packed everything we had in our car and moved to Washington, D.C.
Within a week of commencing my research in the primary sources, I came upon new and unpublished material on the African. I worked on through the summer of 1970, principally in the manuscripts of the American Colonization Society, whose members had befriended Abdul-Rahman late in his life. Numerous letters and a pamphlet written about him turned up. , There was a moment of great satisfaction for me that year when I found the
engraving of the prince reproduced here. I also began to investigate Thomas Foster, his owner, in hopes that I could understand the milieu of the plantation on which Abdul-Rahman had been held a slave.
Abdul-Rahman, I soon learned, had given autobiographical accounts to several people who knew him in his old age. They were Cyrus Griffin, a young attorney; R. R. Gurley, secretary of the Colonization Society; and Thomas H. Gallaudet, the father of deaf-mute education in the United States. All three men had published short biographies of his life in 1828. As best as was possible at the time, each had attempted to evaluate Abdul-Rahman's remarks about himself in the light of travel accounts and second-party interviews. I subjected the facts he gave them to further scrutiny by checking them against contemporary and historical accounts of Abdul-Rahman's era. Less traditional accounts about him, like the Natchez folklore that I discovered, also had value, though subject to use with greater caution.
By September, 1970, the obvious sources had been worked, yet the volume of information I had amassed was distressingly low. There were lacunae in Abdul-Rahman's story that had to be filled. Research at the Library of Congress had brought to my attention important manuscript and newspaper collections in other cities. They needed checking. It was also clear that the Natchez records needed a careful combing. Descendants of Thomas Foster should be located and interviewed. Research in British archives would be necessary to identify the slave,ship that brought Abdul-Rahman to the New World and to illuminate that period of his life. African scholars, as well as the Awlube (the traditional historians of Abdul-Rahman's country), could also contribute to my work. What had seemed in May to be a simple project now swelled like a Christmas goose. The work would have to be continued in libraries and historical societies in dozens of places, at a great cost in time and money.
That, almost, was the end of the book. I had the time but not the money. Despite a flurry of letters I was unable to obtain foundation or grant support. Still, I was unwilling to begin writing with my research so incomplete or to abandon the idea of a biography altogether for a mish-mash of truth and fiction. I did not want a book that people could read and think upon concluding it, “It's interesting that this could have happened.” I wanted a book that people could put down, thinking, “It's amazing that this did.”
So it was that I drifted away from the library to some part-time jobs to help support the family. During 1970-71 I worked as a typist, a maintenance man at the Watergate, a Xerox-machine attendant, and a clerk at a bookstore. I kept on falteringly with Abdul-Rahman, going to the library when I found the time, but that wasn't very often. Jeanette and I did agree, however, that we would finish the book no matter how long it took.
A teaching position in the fall of 1972 was pivotal in reviving things. A salary and a schedule I could live with gave me the opportunity to work intensely on Abdul-Rahman again. I haunted the library anew, so familiar a sight by now that I was referred to jokingly as a “Reader Emeritus.” My wife and I made trips to Mississippi — usually two a year from 1972 on — working in courthouses and archives, and interviewing people. I visited the old Foster plantation site numerous times and photographed it extensively.
In 1973 a stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities greatly facilitated the appearance of this book by allowing me to spend time in libraries in New York, New England, and the South, researching Africans as immigrants to North America.
During the summer of 1974 one of the last steps in the work was taken when I traveled to Europe and Africa. The manuscripts in the Public Record Office in London were extraordinarily informative On my first day there I discovered the name of the ship that brought Abdul-Rahman to the Western Hemisphere, and with it a giant piece of his puzzle fell into place. Having come so far and so long with him, I don't think anything could have elated me more. I was gradually pulling Abdul-Rahman from obscurity.
The British Museum was also helpful, as were libraries and scholars at London University and in Edinburgh and Paris.
One of my regrets in writing this book is that I was not permitted to visit Fuuta-Jalon. The Republic of Guinea does not allow Western social scientists to run loose in the interior, hampering the national integration of its ethnic groups by recalling their past divisiveness. However sound this policy may seem to Guineans, it is ironic in view of the reputation Abdul-Rahman's people have always had for hospitality. But Abdul-Rahman's people are a minority 1 in the Republic and are not proportionately represented in its government One hopes that national self-assurance and internal democratization may in time lead to a change of the present policy While that may benefit future researchers, I prepared this work under restrictions that prevented investigations in Abdul-Rahman's homeland.
Fortunately, the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire at Dakar in neighboring Senegal has a splendid collection of historical and literary documents from African sources relating to the history of Fuuta Jalon. I worked extensively with these during the summer and enjoyed the benefit of conversations with Senegalese, Gambians, and Guineans there about Abdul-Rahman. The latter were especially interested in him and helpful to me.
Upon my return from Africa, I began at last to write the text. Now, nearly three years later, I have finished.
It is the spring of 1977, and Abdul-Rahman and I are about to go our own ways. Mississippi State University is just a fading memory for me. The Vietnam war is over and Dr King long gone. Most of the men and women I teach today don't even remember L.B.J. But, at least, Abdul-Rahman is out of time's shadow. He required a nearly unique synthesis of Africa and America, and I did the best I knew how.
In bringing him back, I not only learned a great deal about him, I learned a great deal from him, too And I hope that this book, like a stone thrown in still water, can send out that knowledge in ever-widening circles of understanding.
1. Erratum. Actually, the Fulɓe of Fuuta-Jalon are the main community and language among Guinea's 18 ethnic groups. Even though post-colonial governments have not carried out a reliable census, the United Nations estimate the size of the Fulɓe population at 40% of approximately 8.5 millions inhabitants. Also, Pular-Fulfulde (Fulani), the language of the Fulɓe, ranks 10th on the African continent, according to UNESCO. It has nearly 40 millions speakers. (T.S. Bah)