40 Years a Slave

An Enslaved Prince

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 31

During the infamous Atlantic trade in enslaved human beings, millions of people from across Africa were kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Detailed narratives of individuals forced into bondage are limited. The lives of these Africans are more often than not lost to history.

Despite this loss, it should be known that each of the millions of Africans brought to the Americas had a life prior to, and even after, being labelled ‘slave’.

One of the most interesting of those lives belongs to Abdul Rahman Ibn Ibrahim Sori.

Born in 1762 in the city of Timbo (in modern-day Guinea), Abdul Rahman was heir to the West African territory of Futa Jallon, an Islamic state consolidated by his father and ruler Almami (or emperor) Ibrahim Sori.

Educated in his native land as well as in the renowned city of learning, Timbuktu (modern-day Mali) Abdul Rahman is said to have been able to speak as many as six languages, including Mandinka and Arabic.

As a young man, Abdul Rahman was put in charge of an army of 2000 men and charged with protecting the coast from enemy nations.

It was during a military campaign that Abdul Rahman was captured in an ambush and sold to Europeans for two flasks of powder, a few muskets, some tobacco and two bottles of rum.

Eight months later, Abdul Rahman and his fellow survivors of the treacherous voyage across the Atlantic arrived in Natchez, Mississippi (North America), where they were promptly sold into slavery.

26-year-old Abdul Rahman was sold to an English farmer named Thomas Foster and immediately began to plead for his freedom, explaining that he was of royal blood and offering to pay a hefty ransom - Foster ignored these pleas.

Foster’s first act was to cut off Abdul Rahman’s hair; his long locks were, in Futa Jallon culture, a sign of his nobility. Abdul Rahman struggled frantically but to no avail.

A devastated Abdul Rahman promptly ran away from the Foster plantation, but after several weeks alone in the Mississippi swamps, he voluntarily returned.

It is not clear what happened to Abdul Rahman during his time alone in the Mississippi swamps; one may imagine that the impossibility of his predicament became painfully clear.

To be taken from his family and his father’s court and thrust into meaningless foreign bondage was cruelly unfair.

Whatever did happen, on his return, Abdul Rahman sought to change his fortunes. He would end up becoming indispensable to the plantation.

Foster, an uneducated man who grew tobacco and herded cattle, knew little about cotton - a crop of increasing consequence in North America.

Abdul Rahman did, as cotton was grown in Futa Jallon. With this insight, Foster’s plantation became one of Mississippi’s leading cotton producers.

Nothing is written on the effects that this had on his fellow enslaved captives; one can only imagine that it made their lives that much worse.

However, this was not of any concern to Foster or apparently Abdul Rahman, whose influence on the plantation grew. In 1794, Abdul Rahman married an enslaved woman named Isabella, and the two would go on to have nine children together.

In 1807, the Abdul Rahman story took an unexpected turn when he encountered a white man named John Cox whilst out in the local market.

In the 1780s, a shipwreck had left Cox, an Irish surgeon, marooned on the West African shore. Cox was rescued by Fulani tribesmen who brought him to the city of Timbo, where medical treatment was authorised by the Almami Ibrahim Sori.

Cox spent the next six months living in Futa Jallon, in time becoming friends with the royal family, including Abdul Rahman.

In a remarkable twist of fate, Abdul Rahman ran into Cox, the man who his family had saved and befriended.

Cox attempted to buy Abdul Rahman’s freedom but was unsuccessful with Foster refusing to sell at any cost. Abdul Rahman had been with Foster for nearly two decades at that point, and his knowledge was too valuable to lose.

Cox tried several more times to help Abdul Rahman but eventually passed away in 1816 without accomplishing his goal.

Abdul Rahman remained in captivity, but word of his fantastical meetings with Cox on either side of the Atlantic piqued the interest of a local newspaper.

An interview was organised with newspaper editor Andrew Marschalk, who agreed to help Abdul Rahman send a letter to his family back in Africa.

Marschalk, however, believed Abdul Rahman was from Morocco, probably due to his proficiency in Arabic and Marschalk’s ignorance of Africa.

Word of Abdul Rahman’s predicament eventually reached the Sultan of Morocco, who, after reading his letter, demanded that he be released. United States President John Quincy Adams obliged, and after forty years of enslavement, Abdul Rahman was freed on 22 February 1828.

Abdul Rahman was quickly able to buy his wife’s freedom and attempted to raise funds for the release of his children; however, this proved difficult with minimal local support.

Eventually, Abdul Rahman and his wife Isabella set sail for the African continent, reaching Monrovia, Liberia, in March 1829 - hoping to raise more funds from the motherland.

Sick and weakened from the journey, Abdul Rahman would contract a fever just four months later and die at the age of 67. He would never return to Futa Jallon or see his children again.