About this Collection
The Omar Ibn Said Collection consists of 42 digitized documents in both English and Arabic, including an 1831 manuscript in Arabic on "The Life of Omar Ibn Said," a West African slave in America, which is the centerpiece of this unique collection of texts. Some of the manuscripts in this collection include texts in Arabic by another West African slave in Panama, and others from individuals located in West Africa.
Who was Omar Ibn Sa'id? According to his autobiography, and to articles written about him in the American press while he was still alive,1 he was a member of the Fula ethnic group of West Africa who today number over 40 million people in the region extending from Senegal to Nigeria. In the interviews he gave during his lifetime he stated that he was born in a place called Futa Toro "between the two rivers" referring to the Senegal and the Gambia rivers that separate those two countries. His father, who was a wealthy man, was killed in an inter-tribal war when he was five, and Omar and his family had to move away to another town. In his autobiography, Omar Ibn Said writes that as he grew older he sought knowledge in Bundu, an area in Senegal today that had historically been controlled by another ethnic group, the Mande people, until the Muslim Fulas conquered the region in the second half of the 17th century. Omar ibn Said writes that in Bundu he studied under his own brother Sheikh Muhammad Said, as well as two other religious leaders and "continued seeking knowledge for twenty five years."2 He then returned to his own town and lived there for another six years, until a "big army" came "that killed many people," captured him and sold him to a man who took him "to the big Ship in the big Sea."3 After sailing for a month he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was bought by a man called Johnson, who apparently was cruel to him. So he escaped, was captured and landed in jail in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he spent 16 days. That is where he began writing in Arabic on the walls of his jail, and where he was discovered and eventually taken into the household of Jim Owen and his brother John Owen, the Governor of North Carolina (1828-1830) with whom he remained until his death in his late eighties. He converted to Christianity.
The collection was put together by Theodore Dwight (1796-1866), an abolitionist and founding member of the American Ethnological Society, in the early 1860s. Dwight was interested in Islamic and West African culture and wished to disseminate these texts in America in order to promote a better understanding of the people and culture of that region. In order to do so, Dwight commissioned translations of the Arabic texts, engaging some of the top American scholars in Arabic to do the work. It is these attempts at translations, discussions about the translations, discussions about the importance of the original work between various parties, which constitutes a part of the documents included in the collection.
This unique collection is very important for several reasons: first because Omar ibn Said's autobiography is the only known extant autobiography of a slave written in Arabic in America. The importance of this lies in the fact that such a biography was not edited by Omar ibn Said's owner, as those of other slaves written in English were, and is therefore surmised to be more authentic. Second, 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 followers of Islam, an Abrahamic and monotheistic faith. Such documentation counteracts prior assumptions of African life and culture. Finally, although it is a very well-known collection, it appears to have moved from owner to owner, and even to have disappeared for almost half a century before having been re-discovered by the last private owner Derrick J. Beard. He was a well-known collector of African-American memorabilia and wanted to have this collection at the Library of Congress and make it available to researchers world-wide. This collection is a tremendous tool for research on Africa in the 18th and 19th century, and will shed light on the complex history of American slavery.
- '"Uncle Moreau'" in North Carolina University Magazine, Vol. II, September 1854, pp. 307-309. [Return to text]
- Ala Alryyes, A Muslim American Slave – The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 2011, p. 61. [Return to text]
- Ibid. [Return to text]