Omar Ibn Said & American Slavey in Arabic

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The recorded history of American slavery is complex, and greatly unrepresentative of the diversity of migration to the region, where the histories of thousands was ignored. Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography sheds light on the history of one of these sub-segments, which to this day remains greatly understudied.

Omar Ibn Said was born in modern-day Senegal in 1770, to a wealthy Arab family. He studied with prominent Muslim scholars, learning Arabic, math, and how to interpret the Quran. Highly educated, he grew up to be known as an extraordinary Islamic scholar himself, and a writer, for much of his life in Africa.

His TCK story, however, started at 37. Omar Ibn Said was captured, enslaved and shipped off to America. It is devastating to think that West Africa lost a highly-regarded member of their community, famous for his literacy in Arabic, to North Carolina, where it was illegal for a slave to even be literate in English. In his autobiography, he describes the large army that carried out this traumatic transition, 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 onboard a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half,”. One year before the Atlantic Slave Trade would be made illegal, he was sold to an individual he described in his manuscript as a “wicked man”.

He escaped from Charleston and was recaptured and imprisoned in Fayetteville, North Carolina, for a few weeks. Said wrote in Arabic on his cell wall to pass the time and his writing fascinated locals. Eventually, he attracted the attention of John Owen, who would later become the governor of North Carolina. Owen recognized Said was an educated man, purchased him, and gave him to his brother James. He remained enslaved, but was no longer subject to physical abuse and general neglect. At Owen’s estate, Omar Ibn Said was allowed to write and teach Arabic to visitors. He was given an English Qu’ran, “in the hope that he might pick up the language,” and even received a Bible, written in Arabic. 

The story of Omar Ibn Said ends with him living out his last days in Bladen County, North Carolina, with the Owens. Sadly, he died at 94, a year before slavery was abolished in the US, never to be a free man. Some of his last written words were that he had “much forgotten” his mother tongue, and Arabic too.

He did not, however, forget the ills of slavery, and reflects back on his experiences in his autobiography, where, notably, he challenges the idea of ownership over another human being, a right he believed only exists, “within God”. It is a fundamental criticism of the institution of slavery. Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography, "The Life of Omar Ibn Said," is now the centerpiece of a unique collection of 42 digitized documents in both English and Arabic, housed at the Library of Congress, Washington, after only recently being discovered in 2017. 

This unique collection is a watershed moment for multiple reasons. Firstly, his autobiography is the only known surviving autobiography of a slave written in Arabic in America. Secondly, the autobiography was not edited by Omar Ibn Said's owner, as those of other slaves written in English were, and is therefore considered more authentic. Lastly, it is an important document that attests to the high level of education and the long tradition of a written culture that existed in Africa at the time. It also reveals that many Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves were of Arabic heritage, and therefore this region has a long and rich history in America, which to this day remains gravely underreported.

Omar Ibn Said’s story shows us how important it is that the rich and diverse history of the migrant slaves is reported, discussed, and learnt from in order for us to heal from the wounds of global slavery and colonialism. We need to understand the historical roots of our countries to better combat prejudice and racism. Omar Ibn Said’s story sheds light on a group of such people, underrepresented and gravely misunderstood. 

How has your TCK background helped you better understand migration, slavery and colonialism? How well do you think we should know our histories to form stronger communities? Comment below and share your ideas!

Learn more:

Learn more about Omar Ibn Said’s story here

Check out the Omar Ibn Said collection at the Library of Congress.

Watch a mini-documentary on Omar Ibn Said.