“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’”
Left: Frank Duveneck, study for, Guard at the Harem (1888). Collection Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
Art Preserves the Historical Record: Muslim Slaves in 19th Century America
First, a little background…
Slavery is as old as civilization. The capture, sale and exploitation of slave labor had been a burgeoning business for the nations of Europe and Africa—then the center of the known world—and beyond, throughout recorded history.
So when slavery arrived on the shores of the American colonies, it was merely a natural progression of a widely recognized and accepted practice. It is important to note, at this point, a detail about exploration and settlement of the North American continent in the 400 years since its “discovery”, up until the Civil War. After the vast landfall’s presence was known for certain, this “New World” was invaded by three principle groups—each with its own agenda.
The French came to the North Country—specifically Canada—looking to trade with the natives, principally furs. The English came to the central coastline to settle the land and expand their presence for economic and social reasons. The Spanish & Portuguese came the southern route to plunder and extort the riches found in the Central and South American regions. In an era of religious orthodoxy, all came in the name of their benevolent Christian God, disguised as it was in one form or another of malevolence.
Right: European slave ship takes captives aboard (c. 1850).
All trading nations of Europe took and used slaves to varying degrees. The French did, but focused on sending pelts home to Paris with little lasting impact on the Northern Empire; the Spanish and Portuguese were the primary offender, using slave labor to ship boatloads of gold and silver home to Madrid and Lisbon, while decimating the native populations with war and disease; but the English settled into a labor-intensive relationship with the land they began to usurp from native tribes in order for their grand experiment to succeed. For this reason, they ranked second behind Spain in their appetite for slave labor.
Left: 1733- William Hoare’s compelling painting of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is the first portrait of a black African Muslim and freed slave. An educated man from a family of Muslim clerics in West Africa, whose family traded cattle and other commodities including slaves, in 1731 Diallo was taken into slavery. He arrived in London in 1733 where he mixed with high and intellectual society, was introduced at Court and was bought out of slavery through a public appeal. After nearly a year in England, he was one of the few victims of the transatlantic slave trade to return to his family in Africa.
North Africa had known Arab invasions in over many previous centuries. Muslim by faith and practice, they brought Islam to the tribes and lands they occupied. It is estimated that up to 30% of Africans were practicing Muslims at the time European settlers went in search of slave labor to work on the farms and in the cities of expanding colonial America. Pulled from countries like Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal, Algeria and the Senagambia and Trans-Sahara regions, an estimated 7-10 million Blacks were forcibly removed from the African continent and transported to the New World (colonies and Caribbean islands) on the deadly ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic. With estimates of 10-30% slaves entering America as Muslims, then somewhere in the range of one-to-two million Muslims found their way to our shores in between the 17th and 19th century.
Spanish explorer, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, explores the American Southwest (1540-41), on horses, unknown to native Americans until then.
So, what became of them? When the Spanish brought the very first Africans to the New World in 1501, they sought to ensure that these were not Muslims but ladinos – that is to say, captives who had spent some time in Spain where they had been forcibly converted to Christianity. The Spanish had a particular dread of the native Indians they were converting; because if enslaved Muslim Africans taught the locals equine skills acquired from Arab tribes, the Spaniards’ would then lose much of their military advantage.
Among the English communities, many slaves were also forced to convert to Christianity by their owners as signs of their compliance and forced assimilation. Many Muslims, therefore, practiced their faith little noticed or in secret. Some rose to prominence in their communities of fellow slaves, or beyond. A new century, the 1800s, did not start out well. In the decades following the American Revolution, a Virginia statute of 1682 remained on the books referring to ‘negroes, moores, molatoes, and others, born of and in heathenish, idollatrous, pagan, and Mahometan parentage and country’…’heretofore and hereafter may be purchased, procured, or otherwise obteigned, as slaves.’
Records from the American Revolutionary War indicate that at least a few likely Muslims fought on the American side. Among the recorded names of American soldiers are “Yusuf ben Ali” (a member of the Turks of South Carolina community), “Bampett Muhamed” and possibly Peter Salem, who played a key role in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation was the Muslim Sultanate of Morocco, in 1777. President Washington maintained correspondence with him over the years.
On December 9, 1805, Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Muslim ambassador to the United States at the White House during Ramadan. Having knowledge of Islam from his personal two-volume English translation of the Qur’an, Jefferson changed the afternoon meal to sunset to allow the envoy time to observe his religious tradition.
Left: 1807- Yarrow Mamout, an African Muslim slave, is set free in Washington DC, and later becomes one of the first shareholders of the second chartered bank in America, the Columbia Bank. Yarrow may have lived to be more than 128 years old, the oldest person in American history. Two portraits of Yarrow done by well known artists are on public display. The first, painted by Charles W. Peal in 1819 was done when Yarrow was 100 years old. It hangs in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Sadly, the reality of American history is that 12 of the first 18 presidents of the United States were slave owners, four out of the first five, and eight while holding the highest office in the land. So, even as Thomas Jefferson defended religious freedom in America, including that of Muslims, he likely owned at least several Muslims at the time. The last was Ulysses Grant, who fought to free the slaves, having relinquished his role as slave owner, to then become president in 1869.
Experts speculate that Muslim slaves may have accounted for “thousands, if not tens of thousands” of those working as slaves, but there is no precise estimate. The fact is that many non-Muslim slaves were acquainted with some tenets of Islam, due to Muslim trading and proselytizing activities. Historical records indicate many enslaved Muslims conversed in the Arabic language. Some even composed literature (such as autobiographies) and commentaries on the Qur’an. Many stood out in their communities because of their intelligence, resistance, determination and education.
Right: Another example is Omar Ibn Said (c. 1770–1864), among the best documented examples of a practicing-Muslim slave. He lived on a colonial North Carolina plantation and wrote many Arabic texts while enslaved. Born in the now-modern country of Senegal, he arrived in America in 1807, one month before the U.S. abolished importation of slaves. Some of his works include the Lord’s Prayer, the Bismillah, ‘This Is How You Pray,’ Quranic phases, the 23rd Psalm, and an autobiography.
In 1828, another unnamed Muslim slave was asked by his Christian teacher to translate the Lord’s Prayer into Arabic, so that the plantation community could recite it in unison. He appeared to do so, and for years it was dutifully spoken aloud until it was realized decades later that, in fact, it was not the Lord’s Prayer at all, but the opening chapter of the Qur’an.
Left: 1828- Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, a former prince from West Africa and now a slave on a Georgia plantation, is freed by the order of Secretary of State Henry Clay and President John Quincy Adams. He was known to many during his lifetime as “The Prince of Slaves.” A drawing of him, done by Henry Inman, is displayed in the Library of Congress.
In August of 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, New York. The captured slaves aboard the ship, led by Joseph Cinqué, of present day Sierra Leone, had risen up and killed the captain. They spared the lives of some of the crew on the condition they steered them towards the coast of Africa. The slaves were deceived and taken to New England, where they found themselves on trial in New Haven, Connecticut for mutiny. During the course of the trial it was revealed that the slaves were Muslim Africans. They had been given Spanish names and designated as black ladinos in order to circumvent laws and treaties against the international slave trade by Great Britain, Spain and the United States.
Left: Broadside reports of La Amistad mutiny and death of two crew, including captain.
Ex-British government administrator Richard Robert Madden testified in the trial. He said, “…I have examined them and observed their language, appearance and manners; and I have no doubt of their having been, very recently, brought from Africa. To one of them I spoke, and repeated a Mohammedan form of prayer, in the Arabic language; the man immediately recognized the language, and repeated the words ‘Allah Akbar’, or ‘God is great’. The man who was beside this Negro, I also addressed in Arabic, saying ‘salaam alaikum’, or peace be on you; he immediately, in the customary oriental salutations, replied, ‘alaikum salaam’, or peace be on you…” On the strength of their argument, they were freed.
Right: Leader of the 1839 Amistad mutiny, Sengbe Peih (Joseph Cinquè).
Two hundred and ninety-two Muslims are known to have fought during the Civil War. The highest ranking Muslim officer during the War was Captain Moses Osman. Nicholas Said, formerly enslaved to an Arab master, came to the United States in 1860 and he found a teaching job in Detroit. In 1863, Said enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiment in the United States Army and rose to the rank of sergeant. He was later granted a transfer to a military hospital, where he gained some knowledge of medicine.
In 1865, the American Civil War ends. During the war, the “scorched earth” policy of the North destroyed churches, farms, schools, libraries, colleges, and a great deal of other property. On the morning of April 4, when Federal troops reached the campus of the University of Alabama with order to destroy the university, Andre Deloffre, a modern language professor and custodian of the library, appealed to the commanding officer to spare one of the finest libraries in the South. The officer, being sympathetic, sent a courier to Gen. Croxton at his headquarters in Tuscaloosa asking permission to save the Rotunda. The general’s reply was no. The officer reportedly said, “I will save one volume as a memento of this occasion. The volume selected was a rare copy of the Qur’an.
Left: With clouds of war in Europe looming to right, “Welcome to All- U.S. Ark for Refugees,” cartoon (1890). Sign reads ‘No Repressive taxes, No Expensive Kings, No Compulsory Military Service.’
Prior to the late 19th century, most documented non-enslaved Muslims in North America were merchants, travelers, and sailors—in other words, just passing through. While today, Islam is the third largest religious group in the U.S. at 0.9%, behind Christianity (70%), unaffiliated (22%) and Judaism (0.7%), its one-time prevalence in 19th century American society was stringently suppressed on plantations. Compliance within these sealed communities was seen as a matter of survival, and generations of restrictions on religious practice managed to eradicate not only entire communities of devout Muslims, but the records about and by them. Much of the data we have to today is inferential or incidental to other documents from the period. But, due to their devotion to faith, scholarship and persistence, the record reveals a population of Muslims that left a lasting impression on an emerging nation.
Thank you for reading ARTES (Ar`tess)
Richard J. Friswell, Publisher & Managing Editor