Hidden Histories

Muslim Slaves: 19th-century Arabic signatures & Documents at HSP

Monday, 12/15/08

During the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of travelers would visit the United States from the Near or Middle East, such as "Sheick Shedid Allhazar," (usually referred to simply as 'Sheick Sidi'), said to have been an 'Emir' or Prince of Syria, who visited New York & Pennsylvania, and was said to have received from the Society of Friends, "one hundred pistoles," during his Philadelphia visit in 1739.

A strange undated, undeciphered document of unknown origin, is found within the papers of Samuel Clarke Perkins (1828-1903), written partially in the Farsi dialect of Persian or Iranian, and including selections as well from the Quran, written in Arabic.





(Samuel Clarke Perkins Collection: #494, 'Miscellaneous Undated File & Folder')








A number of slaves in bondage within the United States during the 19th-century, had originally been of the Islamic faith, and were literate. One such famous individual of which much has been written, was Abduhl Rahman, who was freed under the express directions of Pres. John Quincy Adams and his Secretary of State, Henry Clay, in 1828.

Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori had been taken in battle at the age of 26 and sold into slavery, eventually arriving in the Americas, where he served in bondage on a plantation at Natchez, Mississippi. Known by the honorific, 'Prince of Slaves,' Rahman had been educated in the famed city of Timbuctoo in Mali, West Africa.

After gaining his freedom, Rahman would make his way to Philadelphia on the way to Liberia, celebrating the New Year's celebration of 1829 in the city, as recorded by Henry Clay in his diary. A PBS documentary has been produced about the 'Prince,' as well as the biography published by Terry Alford entitled, 'Prince Among Slaves,' now available in paperback.

Two fascinating hand-written notes in Arabic, penned personally by the 'Prince of Slaves,' are found at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, within the Simon Gratz & John F. Watson collections of manuscripts, the latter giving significant biographical detail on Abduhl Rahman's life, who would later die in 1829 at Monrovia, in Liberia.




('Abduhl Rahhaman', 'Simon Gratz Collection, Alphabetical Series, September 1, 1828)






('Abduhl Rahahman', John F. Watson's 'Annals of Philadelphia,' Mss. Am .301, Vol.1 (1829): 130)




One "autograph of a slave of General Owen," of Wilmington, North Carolina, was the son of an Arabian merchant, sold into slavery. He later became a Christian while enslaved in the United States, and was known locally as "old Uncle Monroe" by many who came to know him. This is also a part of the Simon Gratz Collection at HSP.



('Arabian,' Simon Gratz Collection, Alphabetical Series)



The Arabic texts and accounts of the lives of the above individuals, are another example of the rich and diverse materials which may be found, within the manuscript collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.