The Autobiography in Arabic of a Senegalese Enslaved in North Carolina

By Sylviane A. Diouf
September 26, 2011
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

In 1831, Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese trader and Qur'anic teacher enslaved in North Carolina, wrote his autobiography in Arabic. It is the only known surviving slave narrative written in that language in the Americas. On October 13, at 6pm at the Schomburg Center, Yale Professor Ala Alryyes will present A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said, which features a new translation of the document, a commentary, and contextual essays by five scholars. Omar's original manuscript will be on display.

Like another 92,000 Senegambian victims of the transatlantic slave trade, Omar ibn Said—born in 1770 in a wealthy and erudite family—was transported to the United States. He landed in Charleston in the last months of 1807, just before the official (if not effective) end of the trade. He ran away and was captured in North Carolina where he spent the rest of his life.

Omar produced several documents in Arabic, and some have been preserved. His earliest and latest known manuscripts are dated 1819 and 1857. Omar was photographed and articles were written about him. Still, he died enslaved in 1863.

I feel a special connection to Omar. I have an essay in Alryyes’ book, “'God Does not Allow Kings to Enslave Their People': Islamic Reformists and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” But there is something else, more personal.

Omar was made a prisoner during a war to depose Abdul Kader Kane, the Almamy (Muslim leader) of the northern region of Futa Toro. Like other rulers, scholars—a number of whom were later enslaved in the Americas—and 19th century combatants against French colonization, Kane had studied at Pir.

The first and most reputed school of Islamic higher learning in Senegambia, Pir was founded by Khaly Amar Fall (1555-1638), a prince and scholar who had studied in Futa Toro—Omar's birthplace and the cradle of Islam in Senegambia—and in Mauritania. The school Fall (pronounced Faal) established in 1611 played a major role in the religious, cultural, and political life of the region; so much so that the French burnt it down in 1869.

I am a descendant of Khaly Amar Fall, and I am thus particularly delighted that this year marks not only the publication of A Muslim American Slave, but also the 180th anniversary of Omar’s autobiography, and the fourth centennial of Pir, which was widely commemorated in Senegal where the rebuilt school is still thriving and Fall’s 1611 mosque and simple grave are National Historic Landmarks. 

For more on African Muslims in the Americas:

To see portraits of African Muslims enslaved in the United States, visit In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience.

To read biographies of African Muslims, visit The Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: The Forgotten Story.