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Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina, 1831.
Ed. John Franklin Jameson.
From The American Historical Review, 30, No. 4. (July 1925), 787-795:

Electronic Edition.

Said, Omar ibn, b. 1770?

J. Franklin (John Franklin) Jameson, 1859-1937


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(caption) Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina, 1831. Ed. John Franklin Jameson. From The American Historical Review, 30, No. 4. (July 1925), 787-795
Omar ibn Said, b. 1770[?]
J. Franklin (John Franklin) Jameson (1859-1937)
787-795 p.
Washingon, D.C.
The American Historical Association:
July, 1925

Call number E171 .A57 (Davis Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)


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Page 787

2. Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina, 1831.

        MOST of the slaves who were imported into the American colonies, and into the United States before 1808, were brought from that part of the African coast which lies east of Cape Palmas, or still further south, but a considerable number came from the regions of the Gambia and Senegal rivers. These were mostly Mandingos, but partly Fulas. The Fulas are not precisely negroes, but seem to be a mixture of negro and Berber stock, and have long been devout Mohammedans. Among them, as among the Mandingos, education, to the point of reading the Koran and writing, was not infrequent. 1
1 Mungo Park, who in 1795 travelled in this region, having for some time a local schoolmaster as his companion, describes the status of education. Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (London, 1816), I. 468-473. See also Comte Mollien's Voyage dans l'Intérieur de l'Afrique en 1818 (Paris, 1820), II. 99.

Therefore it is not surprising that, among the American slaves, there were a certain number of literate Mohammedans; but there are only a few of whom accounts have appeared in print, and the only instance known to the present editor of an autobiographical sketch from the hand of one of them is that set forth below, from a manuscript in Arabic lent to him by its present possessor, his friend Mr. Howland Wood, curator of the American Numismatic Society, in New York.

        The first story of an educated Mohammedan slave in America which has come to the writer's attention is that which is set forth in the rare pamphlet entitled Some Memoirs of the Life of Job the Son of Solomon the High Priest of Boonda in Africa.2
2 By Thomas Bluett of Maryland (London, 1734). Later portions of his career are narrated by Francis Moore in his Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa (London, 1738).

This will be reprinted in one of those volumes of documents illustrating the history of the slave trade which are being prepared for the Carnegie Institution of Washington by Miss Elizabeth Dorman, associate professor in Wellesley College; it suffices here to say that Job, a slave in Maryland in 1731-1733, was, like the writer of the sketch below, a Fula from the kingdom of Futa, in what is now French Senegal, who wrote Arabic and was familiar with the Koran--indeed he could repeat the whole of it.


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        Another educated and originally Mohammedan Fula of whom there is an account in print is a slave called Old Paul, or Lahmen Kebby, of whom the Rev. R. R. Gurley, secretary of the American Colonization Society, reports in 1837, in the African Repository,3
3 XIII. 204

that "more than a year ago" he was preparing to embark at New York for Liberia. The fullest account of him, however, is given in the Methodist Review for January, 1864,4
4 "Condition and Character of Negroes in Africa ", Methodist Review, XLVI. 77-90, especially pp. 80-84.

in an article by Theodore Dwight (1796-1866), who for many years was recording secretary of the American Ethnological Society. Dwight was deeply interested in West Africa, and made special efforts to obtain information from or respecting Mohammedan slaves in the United States. "But there are insuperable difficulties in the way in slave countries, . . . which quite discouraged a gentleman who made exertions in the South some years since, and compelled him to abandon the undertaking in despair, although he had resided in Africa and had both the taste and the ability necessary to success."5
5 This means William B. Hodgson, of Georgia, who had been U. S. consul in Tunis for some years.

Old Paul, he says, "was liberated in 1835, after being about forty years a slave in South Carolina, Alabama, and other southern states, and spent about a year in New York, under the care of the Colonization Society, while waiting for a vessel to take him back to his native country". Dwight had many talks with him, took copious notes of his information about Senegambia, and printed three or four pages from them in the proceedings of the American Lyceum in 1836.6
6 This periodical, for this year, the editor has not found.

Paul came from Futa, as Job and Omar did. "Paul was a schoolmaster in Footah, after pursuing a long course of preparatory studies, and said that he had an aunt who was much more learned than himself, and eminent for her superior acquirements and for her skill in teaching. Schools, he said, were generally established through the country, provision being made by law for educating children of all classes, the poor being taught gratuitously." He gave Dwight an account of their manuscript books, and a list of some thirty that were in his mother tongue (Sarakullé) though written in Arabic characters.

        Finally, the early Transactions of the American Ethnological Society7
7 I. xi.

show that there was read, in one of their meetings in 1843, "A letter from J. Hamilton Couper, Esq., of Georgia, to William B. Hodgson, giving an account of an aged Foulah slave now living in that State, together with his African reminiscences".


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        The manuscript translated below is written, in good Arabic script, on some fifteen pages of quarto paper, and is inscribed in English as having been "Written by himself in 1831 and sent to Old Paul, or Lahmen Kebby, in New York, in 1836, Presented to Theodore Dwight by Paul" in that same year, and translated into English in 1848 by Alexander I. Cotheal, who for many years was treasurer of the Ethnological Society and was a fancier of Arabic manuscripts.8
8 See the account of his library in James Wynne, Private Libraries of New York, pp. 161-172.

In February, 1863, the Bulletin of the society states, "Another Arabic MS. was again exhibited by the Recording Secretary, written in 1836 sic], by the remarkable old slave Morro [Omar], in Fayetteville, N. C., which contains a connected narrative of the writer's life, according to a translation made by Mr. Cotheal, and formerly read to the society." In 1864 Dwight published in his article in the Methodist Review some extracts from that quite imperfect translation.9
9 XLVL 88.

Some time after this he obtained a better version from Rev. Isaac Bird (1793-1876) of Hartford, who had been for a dozen years (1823-1835) a missionary in Syria,10
10 H. H. Jessup, Fifty-three Years in Syria, pp. 42-46.

and had a good knowledge of Arabic. It is this translation, slightly revised through the kindness of Dr. F. M. Moussa, secretary of the Egyptian Legation in Washington, which is here presented. The manuscript and both translations were given to Mr. Wood by a friend, who bought them at an auction.

        Besides what Omar tells of his life, some additional facts may be found in an article in the New York Observer of January 8, 1863, entitled "Meroh, a Native African", and signed "A Wayfaring Man". The writer, who was the Rev. William S. Plumer (1802-1880),11
11 Letter of Mr. Bird, among the manuscripts.

Presbyterian pastor in Allegheny and professor in the Western Theological Seminary 1854-1862, says that he first met the man in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1826, and had seen him once or twice since, and that he was born about 1770 on the banks of the Senegal.

        I write his name Meroh. It was originally Umeroh. Some write it Moro; and some put it in the French form Moreau. It is commonly pronounced as if spelled Moro.12
12 Mr. Bird says, in the letter just mentioned, "The name Moro is doubtless the same as Amrou or Omar, the final o or u being only a vowel point".

Meroh's father in Africa was a man of considerable wealth. He brought up his children delicately. Meroh's fingers are rather effeminate. They are very well tapered. His whole person and gait bear marks of considerable refinement. At about five


Page 790

years of age he lost his father, in one of those bloody wars that are almost constantly raging in Africa. Very soon thereafter he was taken by an uncle to the capital of the tribe. Here he learned and afterward taught Arabic, especially some prayers used by Mahomedans. He also learned some rules of arithmetic, and many of the forms of business. When a young man he became a dealer in the merchandise of the country, chiefly consisting in cotton cloths.


        Mr. Plumer adds that when "Meroh" first landed in Charleston (which, it will be observed, was apparently in 1807, the last year in which importations of slaves were legal) he was sold to a citizen of that city who treated him with great kindness, but soon died. He mentions that when confined in the Cumberland County jail, the poor man, finding some coals in the ashes, wrote in Arabic on the walls what were understood to be appeals for succor; that when he came to General Owen's family he was at first a staunch Mohammedan and kept Ramadan; that through the kindness of his friends an English version of the Koran was procured for him, and was read to him, along with the Bible, but that gradually he became a Christian; that he was baptized and received into the Presbyterian Church at Fayetteville by the Rev. Dr. Snodgrass (which fixes the date of such reception to 1819-1822), but later was transferred to a Wilmington church.

        In a letter from Augusta, Georgia, May 21, 1837, Rev. R. R. Gurley reports,13
13 African Repository, XIII. 203-204.

"In the respected family of General Owen of Wilmington I became acquainted with Moro or Omar, a Foulah by birth, educated a Mahometan and who, long after he came in slavery to this country, retained a devoted attachment to the faith of his fathers, and deemed a copy of the Koran in Arabic . . . his richest treasure". He adds that, when Paul was about to embark from New York for Liberia, Moro or Omar "corresponded with him and presented him with one of his two copies of the Bible in that language". Omar speaks of them, in a letter from which Gurley quotes, as "two Arabic Bibles, procured for me by my good Christian friends", meaning doubtless the Owens. The copy which he retained, an Arabic Bible of the edition of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1811, is now in the Library of Davidson College, in Charlotte County, North Carolina, well worn, and bearing the inscription, "Old Uncle Moreau's Arabick Bible, Presented to the Williams Missionary Association, Davidson College, by Mrs. Ellen Guion, Charlotte, N. C., April, 1871".14
14 Letter of the librarian, Miss Cornelia Shaw.

Mrs. Guion was a daughter of Governor John Owen.


Page 791

        Miss Anna Guion Stith, of Wilmington, a connection of the Owen family, recalls from tradition that when Omar, arrested at Fayetteville as a vagrant, and put in Jail and advertised for sale as a slave, had "astonished the natives" by writing in Arabic on the walls, General James Owen, brother of Governor John Owen, out of curiosity, when visiting Fayetteville, went to the jail to see this remarkable man, became interested, and purchased him, carrying him to his country home, "Milton", in Bladen County, where he enjoyed life, without being treated as a slave, had a seat by himself in the country church, etc.; he spent his later years mostly at "Owen Hill", Governor Owen's estate, where he occupied his own home in the yard, and had his meals prepared by the Owens' cook and brought in by a little negro, and where he was buried. He lived till after the Civil War. A daguerreotype of him is in the possession of Miss Mary Owen Graham, of Charlotte, North Carolina, who also has (inaccessible at present) some of his Arabic manuscripts, and who has kindly written the editor at length concerning him.

        The earlier pages of the manuscript are occupied with quotations from the Koran which Omar remembered, and these might be omitted as not autobiographical, and are indeed separated from what follows by blank pages; but it has been thought best to print the whole. These remembrances from the past were a part of the man, and help to give the narrative greater completeness as a "human document" of unusual and indeed somewhat pathetic interest.

        In the name of God, the merciful the gracious.--God grant his blessing upon our Prophet Mohammed. Blessed be He in whose hands is the kingdom and who is Almighty; who created death and life that he might test You; for he is exalted; he is the forgiver (of sins), who created seven heavens one above the other. Do you discern anything trifling in creation? Bring back your thoughts. Do you see anything worthless? Recall your vision in earnest. Turn your eye inward for it is diseased. God has adorned the heavens and the world with lamps, and has made us missiles for the devils, and given us for them a grievous punishment, and to those who have disbelieved their Lord, the punishment of hell and pains of body. Whoever associates with them shall hear a boiling caldron, and what is cast therein may fitly represent those who suffer under the anger of God.--Ask them if a prophet has not been sent unto them. They say, "Yes; a prophet has come to us, but we have lied to him." We said, "God has not sent us down anything, and you are in grievous error." They say, "If we had listened and been wise we should not now have been suffering the punishment of the Omniscient." So they confess they have sinned in destroying the followers of the Omniscient. Those who fear their Lord and profess his name, they receive pardon and great honor. Guard your words, (ye wicked), make it known that God is all-wise in all his manifestations. Do you not know from the creation that God is full of skill? that He has made for you the way of error, and you have


Page 792

walked therein, and have chosen to live upon what your god Nasûr has furnished you? Believe on Him who dwells in heaven, who has fitted the earth to be your support and it shall give you food. Believe on Him who dwells in Heaven, who has sent you a prophet, and you shall understand what a teacher (He has sent you). Those that were before them deceived them (in regard to their prophet). And how came they to reject him? Did they not see in the heavens above them, how the fowls of the air receive with pleasure that which is sent them? God looks after all. Believe ye: it is He who supplies your wants, that you may take his gifts and enjoy them, and take great pleasure in them. And now will you go on in error, or walk in the path of righteousness. Say to them, "He who regards you with care, and who has made for you the heavens and the earth and gives you prosperity, Him you think little of. This is He that planted you in the earth, and to whom you are soon to be gathered." But they say, "If you are men of truth, tell us when shall this promise be fulfilled?" Say to them, " Does not God know? and am not I an evident Prophet? " When those who disbelieve shall see the things draw near before their faces, it shall then be told them, "These are the things about which you made inquiry." Have you seen that God has destroyed me or those with me? or rather that He has shewn us mercy? And who will defend the unbeliever from a miserable punishment? Say, "Knowledge is from God." Say, "Have you not seen that your water has become impure? Who will bring you fresh water from the fountain?"

        O Sheikh Hunter,15
15 The address to some one named Hunter remains obscure. The document, for whomever written in 1831, was sent to Paul in 1836. Omar's own language was probably Fula.

I cannot write my life because I have forgotten much of my own language, as well as of the Arabic. Do not be hard upon me, my brother.--To God let many thanks be paid for his great mercy and goodness.

        In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.--Thanks be to God, supreme in goodness and kindness and grace, and who is worthy of all honor, who created all things for his service, even man's power of action and of speech.

From Omar to Sheikh Hunter.

        You asked me to write my life. I am not able to do this because I have much forgotten my own, as well as the Arabic language. Neither can I write very grammatically or according to the true idiom. And so, my brother, I beg you, in God's name, not to blame me, for I am a man of weak eyes, and of a weak body.

        My name is Omar ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tûr,16
16 Futa Toro, one of the Fula states of that time, now a part of French Senegal. A description of it as it was at a time not much later than that at which Omar left it can be found in Comte Mollien's Voyage dans l'Intérieur de l'Afrique, I. 269-297.

between the two rivers. I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years, and


Page 793

then returned to my home where I remained six years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language. There they sold me to a small, weak, and wicked man called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all. Now I am a small man, and unable to do hard work so I fled from the hand of Johnson and after a month came to a place called Fayd-il.17
17 Fayetteville.

There I saw some great houses (churches). On the new moon I went into a church to pray. A lad saw me and rode off to the place of his father and informed him that he had seen a black man in the church. A man named Handah (Hunter?) and another man with him on horseback, came attended by a troop of dogs. They took me and made me go with them twelve miles to a place called Fayd-il, where they put me into a great house from which I could not go out. I continued in the great house (which, in the Christian language, they called jail) sixteen days and nights. One Friday the jailor came and opened the door of the house and I saw a great many men, all Christians, some of whom called out to me, "What is your name? Is it Omar or Seid?" I did not understand their Christian language. A man called Bob Mumford18
18 Sheriff of Cumberland County, of which Fayetteville is the county seat.

took me and led me out of the jail, and I was very well pleased to go with them to their place. I stayed at Mumford's four days and nights, and then a man named Jim Owen,19
19 James Owen (1784-1865), M. C. from North Carolina 1817-1819, and afterward president of the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad and major-general of militia.

son-in-law of Mumford, having married his daughter Betsey, asked me if I was willing to go to a place called Bladen.20
20 Bladen County, N. C.

I said, Yes, I was willing. I went with them and have remained in the place of Jim Owen until now.

        Before [after?] I came into the hand of Gen. Owen a man by the name of Mitchell came to buy me. He asked me if I were willing to go to Charleston City. I said "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, I not willing to go to Charleston. I stay in the hand of Jim Owen."

        O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of S. Carolina, O ye people of America all of you; have you among you any two such men as Jim Owen and John Owen?21
21 John Owen (1787-1841), brother of the preceding, governor of North Carolina from December, 1828, to December, 1830.

These men are good men. What food they eat they give to me to eat. As they clothe themselves they clothe me. They permit me to read the gospel of God, our Lord, and Saviour, and King; who regulates all our circumstances, our health and wealth, and who bestows his mercies willingly, not by constraint. According to power I open my heart, as to a great light, to receive the true way, the way of the Lord Jesus the Messiah.

        Before I came to the Christian country, my religion was the religion of "Mohammed, the Apostle of God--may God have mercy upon him and give him peace." I walked to the mosque before day-break, washed my


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face and head and hands and feet. I prayed at noon, prayed in the afternoon, prayed at sunset, prayed in the evening. I gave alms every year, gold, silver, seeds, cattle, sheep, goats, rice, wheat, and barley. I gave tithes of all the above-named things. I went every year to the holy war against the infidels. I went on pilgrimage to Mecca, as all did who were able.--My father had six sons and five daughters, and my mother had three sons and one daughter. When I left my country I was thirty-seven years old; I have been in the country of the Christians twenty-four years.--Written A. D. 1831.

        O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of South Carolina, O all ye people of America--

        The first son of Jim Owen is called Thomas,22
22 According to Miss Graham's recollection, the genealogical details which Omar here inserts are nearly though not quite correct, assuming that "Tom Owen and Nell Owen" of whom he speaks in the next paragraph were Colonel Thomas Owen of Revolutionary days and his wife Eleanor Porterfield Owen, father and mother of the two brothers with whom his later years were so pleasantly spent.

and his sister is called Masa-jein (Martha Jane?). This is an excellent family.

        Tom Owen and Nell Owen have two sons and a daughter. The first son is called Jim and the second John. The daughter is named Melissa.

        Seid Jim Owen and his wife Betsey have two sons and five daughters. Their names are Tom, and John, and Mercy, Miriam, Sophia, Margaret and Eliza. This family is a very nice family. The wife of John Owen is called Lucy and an excellent wife she is. She had five children. Three of them died and two are still living.

        O ye Americans, ye people of North Carolina--have you, have you, have you, have you, have you among you a family like this family, having so much love to God as they?

        Formerly I, Omar, loved to read the book of the Koran the famous. General Jim Owen and his wife used to read the gospel, and they read it to me very much,--the gospel of God, our Lord, our Creator, our King, He that orders all our circumstances, health and wealth, willingly, not constrainedly, according to his power.--Open thou my heart to the gospel, to the way of uprightness.--Thanks to the Lord of all worlds, thanks in abundance. He is plenteous in mercy and abundant in goodness.

        For the law was given by Moses but grace and truth were by the Jesus the Messiah.

        When I was a Mohammedan I prayed thus: "Thanks be to God, Lord of all worlds, the merciful the gracious, Lord of the day of Judgment, thee we serve, on thee we call for help. Direct us in the right way, the way of those on whom thou hast had mercy, with whom thou hast not been angry and who walk not in error. Amen."--But now I pray "Our Father", etc., in the words of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

        I reside in this our country by reason of great necessity. Wicked men took me by violence and sold me to the Christians. We sailed a month and a half on the great sea to the place called Charleston in the Christian land. I fell into the hands of a small, weak and wicked man, who feared not God at all nor did he read (the gospel) at all nor pray.


Page 795

I was afraid to remain with a man so depraved and who committed so many crimes and I ran away. After a month our Lord God brought me forward to the hand of a good man, who fears God, and loves to do good, and whose name is Jim Owen and whose brother is called Col. John Owen. These are two excellent men.--I am residing in Bladen County.

        I continue in the hand of Jim Owen who never beats me, nor scolds me. I neither go hungry nor naked, and I have no hard work to do. I am not able to do hard work for I am a small man and feeble. During the last twenty years I have known no want in the hand of Jim Owen.