African–American history month is being celebrated on this side of the Atlantic. On Friday night, I attended a screening of Prince Among Slaves. This 2007 film tells the extraordinary story of Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, son of a Fula king in the Fouta Djalon highlands (on the Guinean border with Senegal), who was captured during battle and sent to Mississippi as a slave. The Centre de Recherche Ouest African/West African Research Center (WARC) co-sponsored the event along with the Direction de l’Animation Culturelle et Sportive (DIACS)/Cultural and Sports Programming Bureau of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD). The event was also supported by the U.S. Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Office. (See this press release in French.) Just as fascinating was the debat or question and answer session that followed the movie.
So how many of you have read Professor Terry Alford’s 1977 book of the same name or seen this movie or somehow heard of this amazing piece of U.S. history? An African prince, fluent in Arabic from his studies in Timbuktu, is captured in battle by an enemy tribe and sold into slavery. He arrives on a Natchez, Mississippi plantation, where he’s named Prince after explaining to his legal master, Thomas Foster, that his father, a king, would gladly pay a ransom for his return. Prince goes on to use his knowledge of cotton cultivation to Foster’s financial gain. As the plantation thrives, Prince marries and has a family. But one day, while selling vegetables at a village market, he sees a familiar face: an Irish ship surgeon who had lived with Prince and his family when he fell ill during a voyage in the Fouta Djalon. Dr. Fox tries to free Prince from slavery. When Foster refuses to sell at any price, the surgeon continued his campaign publicly. After his friend’s death, Prince takes it on himself, writing a letter to his family and using a local printer/newspaperman, Andrew Marschalk, to send it. Marschalk sent a copy to a senator, who then sent it on to the U.S. Consulate in Morocco. (Because the letter was written in Arabic, everyone assumed that Prince was a Moor.)
The Sultan of Morocco asked President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay to release the slave. In 1828, under pressure (and arguably, when Prince’s economic value had diminished due to old age), Foster agrees, as long as Prince returns to Africa and is not considered to be a free man in the United States. Prince has enough money to buy his wife’s freedom but not that of his children, so he and his wife leave them in Mississippi, vowing to reunite in Africa. After almost a year traveling in the north, lecturing and raising funds, he and is wife depart for Monrovia, Liberia, where Prince dies of a fever four months later. Although insufficient to buy the freedom of all of his children and grandchildren, the funds freed two of his sons and their families, who then joined Prince’s widow in Liberia. The movie ends with a 2006 reunion of the American and African descendents of Prince on the old Foster plantation.
The post-screening discussion proved just as revelatory. First, a delegation from Elizabeth City State University, a North Carolina historically black college founded in 1891 to train teachers, spoke about its service work in Senegal. Several people in the audience commented on the need to strengthen ties between Senegal and the African Diaspora in the U.S., to remedy the deleterious impact that the slave trade had on west African populations.
The second came in the form of a no-nonsense reply by well-known UCAD history professor, Dr. Ibrahima Seck (scroll down this BBC page and see his short bio and picture), to several audience members who contended that Africa did not know slavery before the Europeans arrived. “Know your history,” he said, while lamenting the gap between well-published research on the issue and people’s common knowledge. Slavery was a normal incident of war, with those captured in battle enslaved to the victors. While this form of slavery is seen as qualitatively different than the human-as-chattel form it took in North and South America, it is well documented that various west African tribes sold their slaves for gunpowder and arms to European slave traders who plied the coast.
All told, a fascinating evening witnessing this U.S.-created commemoration from a west African point of view. (And more to come throughout February, as this WARC schedule shows.) Professor Alford would have been delighted. From his preface, “[Ibrahima] required a nearly unique synthesis of Africa and America. . . . In bringing him back, I not only learned a great deal about him, but a great deal from him, too. And I hope that this book, like a stone thrown in still water, can send out that knowledge in ever-widening circles of understanding.”