An Arabic Slave's Memoir

Jan 30, 2019 by jw

The Library of Congress has acquired and published online a rare autobiography by an African Muslim, Omar Ibn Said, who was captured in a village in Senegal and enslaved in the United States. What makes this autobiography rare is that it is the only known autobiography of a Muslim-American slave which was written in Arabic in 1831, twenty-four years after the ship he was carried on arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in 1807. The story chronicles Said's life in slavery and the account of how he was apprehended and taken into slavery. Because the account was written in Arabic it was not edited by anyone, including any slaveowner which is of notable value. The book unveils that a great number of Africans who were taken to America as slaves, from west Africa, were the followers of Islam. This book and its narrative rejects the beliefs of the Western world's presupposition of African life and their culture.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress, African and Middle East Division, Omar Ibn Said Collection.

Said's story is one of pride, faith, and adversity.

In 1770 he was born to a wealthy family in the present-day Senegal. He was extremely educated by Islamic scholars and learned a variety of subjects that included mathematics and theology. He eventually became a scholar as well. Said's town was blitzed, he was captured, and then he was sold into slavery. After arriving to Charleston, South Carolina he escaped to Fayetteville, North Carolina after brutal treatment from his owner. He was captured and jailed and then sold to James Owen at age thirty-seven.

The Owen family realized that Said was educated and allowed him to continue to practice Islam while he was a slave. They purchased an Arabic version of the bible for Said who later converted to Christianity. Omar became a national sensation in 1825 after a person in Fayetteville wrote an article about him. He died in 1864 in his 90s.

The Omar Ibn Said Collection can be viewed online at the Library of Congress.

*Portrait courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.