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African Muslims and the Slave Trade

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

In just under a week on Saturday, June 22 at 10am, London Town will welcome Dr. Herbert Brewer to speak on the slave ship Margaret and its journey from London, England to Sierra Leone, West Africa, to the Chesapeake (including London Town) and back to England. Please join us. After the lecture at 1pm, the Conversation Starters will lead a discussion about Dr. Brewer’s talk, moderating a conversation on the legacy of slavery. Both the lecture and the discussion are free for members and included with general admission.

However, the Margaret is far from the only ship carrying enslaved people to dock at London Town. In this following article, Sylviane A. Diouf, PhD, shares the remarkable story Ayuba Suleyman Diallo, a Muslim man from Senegal, who was forcibly sold to Stephen Pike in 1730. Pike was the captain of the Arabella, a slave ship that came to London Town.

Sylviane A. Diouf, PhD is an award-winning historian, notably, of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York University Press 2013). She is Visiting Professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

Image: Portrait of Ayuba Suleyman Diallo and a page of the Qur'an that he wrote

“Allah. Muhammad.” With these words a runaway found wandering in Kent County, Pennsylvania, introduced himself to the men who interrogated him in June 1731. He did not speak English and could not say where he came from or to whom he “belonged.” He had been renamed Simon; and was later known as Job ben Solomon. But he was Ayuba Suleyman Diallo and when confronted with a dangerous situation over which he had no control, he had placed his faith in Allah and his Prophet Muhammad.

Diallo’s ordeal had started in late February 1730. A trader and Qur’anic teacher who lived in the Islamic State of Bundu in Senegal, he was abducted in Gambia and sold to Stephen Pike, the captain of the Arabella. Diallo told him that his father would pay for his freedom and was allowed to dispatch an acquaintance to his hometown. But the Arabella left for Maryland before the thirty-year-old husband and father of four could be redeemed. Upon arrival in Annapolis Diallo and the 149 people who had survived the journey –nineteen had died—were sold. The Arabella then sailed to London Town on the South River where, with the proceeds of the sale, he purchased tobacco before returning to London on the third leg of the trip.

Bought by a Mr. Tolsey of Kent Island, Diallo worked in the tobacco fields and later tended cattle. As the devout Senegalese secretely prayed in the woods, a white boy entertained himself by throwing dirt in his face. In the end, Diallo ran away and walked fifty miles before being captured and thrown in jail. There he acquired some notoriety because it was discovered that he could write Arabic. He was eventually returned to his owner who gave him a place to pray and a lightened workload. Diallo was still determined to recover his freedom and, as his biographer Thomas Bluett explained, “he therefore wrote a letter in Arabick to his father, acquainting him with his Misfortunes, hoping he might yet find Means to redeem him.” Diallo arranged for his letter to return to his homeland along the same route he had taken to Maryland: from a factor for slave dealers to the slave captain who had brought him to Annapolis. The letter ultimately arrived in London and ended up in the hands of the deputy governor of the Royal African Company, James Oglethorpe, the future founder of the colony of Georgia. His curiosity piqued, Oglethorpe forwarded the letter to Oxford University to be translated and then decided buy Diallo’s freedom.

In June 1732, after eighteen months of servitude, Diallo left for Senegal which he reached in August 1734 after a stay in London where he had his portrait made by William Howe. It shows a handsome man with long hair and wearing a white turban and a white robe, the West Africans’ distinctive Islamic dress. He was actually wearing European clothes but had insisted on being represented “in his own country dress” which he had to describe, as the artist stated he could not draw something he had not seen. The young Senegalese’s insistence at being immortalized the way he wanted to is a testament to his pride in his country and religion. By so doing he strongly affirmed his belonging to the larger Islamic world that at some point extended from Portugal to East Asia.

The peoples of Senegal and the western Sahel—the savannah belt south of the Sahara—had been in contact with the North African Islamic world since the eighth century. Islam had spread not through conquest but through contact—first with Arab and Berber traders and Sufi clerics—then through local traders and clerics. When the transatlantic slave trade started in the early 1500s, Islam had already been flourishing in some parts of West Africa for half a millennium. The religion had brought literacy in Arabic (and ajami, any foreign language written in the Arabic script) with the opening of countless schools for boys and girls; generated the production of books and manuscripts; stimulated the creation of specific Islamic attires; and encouraged long-distance travel for education, trade, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

It is estimated that at least 10 percent of the 12.5 million Africans who endured the horrendous Middle Passage—10.7 millions survived it—were Muslims. Among them were teachers, students, clerics, musicians, memorizers of the Qur’an, long-distance traders, pilgrims, soldiers, farmers, and herders. They landed in every country of the Americas where their trace can be found in accounts by missionaries, planters and travelers; runaway notices; newspaper articles; court and police records; and in the Muslims’ own manuscripts.

Muslims were of varied ethnic and geographic origins and spoke different languages, but they were linked, in the Americas as they were in West Africa, by their common faith as well as Arabic that the most educated could speak, write, and read.

In the Western Hemisphere, their “rebelliousness” was well-known—Islam forbids the enslavement of free Muslims—and Spain, which had just freed itself of seven centuries of Muslim rule and was concerned that enslaved Muslims could convert Native Americans, enacted five bans against their introduction in the first 50 years of its colonization of the continents.

Muslims from Senegal organized the first uprising of enslaved Africans in 1522 on the estate of Christopher Columbus’ son in what is now the Dominican Republic. In December 1804 they staged an uprising—Herman Melville turned the episode into the novel Benito Cerreno—on the ship that was taking them from Santiago, Chile to Lima, Peru. They planned to sail back to Senegal and had the captain sign a “contract” to that effect. He testified, “they knew how to write in their language.” The ship was eventually overtaken after a fierce battle. One successful shipboard revolt organized by Muslims occurred in 1800. The captives forced the first officer to take the ship from Montevideo, Uruguay to Saint Louis, Senegal where they arrived several months later. Muslims were involved in the 1791 revolution in Saint Domingue that led to the independence of Haiti in 1804. A French colonel mentioned that the French soldiers found papers written in Arabic in the bags of the few Africans they killed. Starting in 1807 Muslims organized conspiracies and uprisings in Bahia, which culminated, in 1835, in the largest slave revolt in the country.

Image: Portrait of Yarrow Mamout by Charles Wilson Peale, 1819, Philadelphia Museum of Art

However, remaining faithful to their religion in the most oppressive circumstances, even when forced to convert was the Muslims’ most prevalent form of resistance. Just as Diallo did, Muslims continued to pray. Most probably did it in secret, but some were open about it. In the 1930s the children of some Sea Islands Muslims described how their relatives prayed several times a day. The painter Charles Willson Peale wrote that in Maryland Yarrow Mamout, “is often seen & heard in the streets singing Praises to God—and conversing with him.” Georgian Joseph Le Conte, later a professor at Berkeley recalled how “An old native African named Philip, who was a very intelligent man, . . . not a pagan but a Mohammedan … greatly interested us by going through all the prayers and prostrations of his native country.” One man mentioned that his grandfather had slaves, “devout Mussulmans, who prayed to Allah . . . morning, noon and evening,” and that Bilali Mohamed—from the Islamic State of Futa Jallon in Guinea—enslaved on Sapelo Island faced east to “call upon Allah.”

When Diallo pressed Howe to represent him in his West African Muslim dress, his concern was far from unique. On the Sea Islands, some women wore white veils as their descendants attested in the 1930s. Bilali Mohamed sported a fez and other men wore white turbans. Omar ibn Said-- from the Islamic state of Futa Toro in Senegal—was photographed with a piece of cloth around his head or a hat and was also known to wear a white turban. Yarrow Mamout was painted in 1819, very much covered and donning a woolen hat. A British lawyer who visited Trinidad wrote the “African negro Mohammedans” wore “large sleeved white surplices, made very nearly like ours, broad-brimmed straw hats, bare legs, and coolie sandals.” The Muslims who rose in Bahia in 1835 all wore white turbans and white tunics. The Islamic attire represented a refusal of the abjection of the slaves’ material life. It was furthermore a rejection of acculturation, an affirmation of their dignity as Africans and Muslims.

While they had no say about their diet, it has been recorded that, following Islamic interdiction, some Muslims refused alcohol, pork, and fasted during Ramadan. When Diallo was interrogated after his capture, he declined the wine offered to him. Neron in South Carolina earned the right to get beef instead of pork. In contrast, a Muslim from Mali enslaved in Mississippi lamented the fact that he had to eat the forbidden meat but stressed he had never drunk alcohol. Ibrahima abd al Rahman—enslaved 39 years in Mississippi before being freed—did not drink alcohol either. Yarrow Mamout—who freed himself—used to say, “it is not good to eat Hog--& drink whiskey is very bad.” To retain a particular dress and to continue to adhere to a specific diet may appear trivial but those were difficult religious principles to uphold precisely because they were visible and were the domains of the slaveholders who distributed clothes and rations.

While in London Diallo wrote three copies of the Qur’an—one was sold at auction in 2013-- which he knew by rote as students are required to do. He was far from being the only literate Muslim in the Americas. In 1871, Theodore Dwight, the secretary of the American Ethnological Society, observed, several other Africans have been known at different periods, in different parts of America, somewhat resembling Job-ben-Solomon [Diallo] in acquirements; but, unfortunately, no full account of any of them has ever been published. The writer has made many efforts to remedy this defect and has obtained some information from a few individuals. But there are insuperable difficulties in the way in slave countries, arising from the jealousy of masters, and other causes.

Bilali Mohamed of Sapelo wrote a 13-page document in Arabic, an excerpt of a 10th century text that is part of the curriculum of higher studies in West Africa. Ibrahima abd al Rahman penned a letter in Arabic that was sent to the sultan of Morocco who inquired about the fate of his coreligionist, who was subsequently released. Omar ibn Said wrote several manuscripts, but his main work was his 1831 autobiography in which he subtly denounced his continued enslavement. It was recently acquired by the Library of Congress. Several manuscripts in Arabic and ajami have been recovered in Brazil—where Muslims operated secret Qur’anic schools-- Jamaica, Trinidad, Panama, the Bahamas; and have been documented in Haiti and Guyana.

Although less numerous than men, Muslim women too left their mark. In the Sea Islands they made rice cakes for the children on important occasions. The word associated with them was saraka and the children grew up thinking that saraka was the “African” word for rice cakes. The same rice cakes are a charity traditionally offered by West African Muslim women on Fridays. It is a sadaqa a freewill offering. It is recommended that the gift be accompanied by a supplication to God, therefore in West Africa—and on the Sea Islands—as women handed out the cakes, they said it was a sadaqa. In Brazil, Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, and Carriacou offerings, to this day, are called saraka.

For centuries, in a brutal environment, African Muslims kept their faith alive. They prayed and fasted, wrote and read, and retained what they could of their “country dress.” From the first years of the 1500s, the second monotheistic religion brought to the New World, was very much a part of the Americas’ fabric. Given their circumstances, most of these Muslims were unable to pass on their religion to the next generations, but their legacy nevertheless lives on as several manifestations of Islamic practices and Arabic terminology subsist in the cultures of the African Diaspora.

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