Born into royalty in the Futa Jallon region of West Africa (present-day Guinea) in 1762, Abdul-Rahman Ibrahima was educated in the Muslim cites of Jenne and Timbuktu. Following the completion of his education, Ibrahima served as an officer in the military and was given the rank of colonel at the age of twenty-six. In 1788 Ibrahima led a troop of two thousand men against the Hebohs, a group of non-Muslim Africans who were disrupting his father’s slave trade with Europeans. Ibrahima was captured and sold to British slavers for two bottles of rum, eight hands of tobacco, two flasks of powder, and a few muskets.
Ibrahima was transported nearly three thousand miles to the Caribbean island of Dominica; after a brief stay, he was shipped another sixteen hundred miles to New Orleans, at the time under Spanish control. From New Orleans, Ibrahima and other slaves were loaded onto a barge and sent upriver to Natchez, Mississippi, where a young planter, Thomas Foster, purchased Ibrahima and his friend, Samba, for around $950.
Foster greatly valued Ibrahima because of the respect other slaves accorded him, his loyalty and trustworthiness, his skill in tending cattle, and his managerial abilities in supervising slaves in the cultivation of cotton. Foster renamed his new slave Prince and occasionally allowed him to walk to a rural market a few miles north of Natchez to sell vegetables. In 1807, at a market crossroads, Prince asked a white man if he wanted to buy some vegetables and was surprised when the man responded by addressing the slave as Ibrahima. The man was Dr. John Coates Cox, and he had met Ibrahima in Africa. For the next twenty years, Cox, and his son, William, worked to obtain Ibrahima’s freedom.
In the 1820s William Cox and Natchez newspaper editor Andrew Marschalk joined forces to call national attention to Ibrahima’s plight. Marschalk’s articles drew the attention of leaders of the American Colonization Society, a group founded in 1816 that sought to send free American blacks to settle in West Africa. After the intervention of Henry Clay, secretary of state under Pres. John Quincy Adams, a leading opponent of slavery, Foster agreed to sell Ibrahima for two hundred dollars on the condition that he immediately leave for Liberia. After receiving his emancipation in 1827 or 1828, however, Ibrahima toured northern cities as part of a campaign to raise funds to buy his family’s freedom. Often dressed as a Muslim prince, Ibrahima thrilled audiences with his remarkable story, and he met many influential Americans, including Pres. Adams. His supporters included noted abolitionists, including some northern merchants who hoped to partner with him in trading ventures, as well as African Americans, among them John Russwurm, the editor of the nation’s first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal.
However, Ibrahima’s willingness to seek the support of abolitionists alienated his Natchez-based supporters, particularly Marschalk. In his opinion, Ibrahima had betrayed his promise to leave immediately for West Africa, and the editor published numerous articles both locally and in the national press attacking Ibrahima. This agitation became caught up in national politics when supporters of proslavery presidential candidate Andrew Jackson attacked the Adams administration for using Ibrahima to undermine the institution of slavery.
In the summer of 1829 Rahman and his wife, Isabella, whose freedom he had managed to secure, departed for Africa, leaving behind their children and grandchildren. He became seriously ill shortly after they arrived in Liberia and died on 6 July 1829. Ibrahima’s New York supporters purchased two of his sons and their families, who were reunited with Isabella in Liberia, but eight of their other children and their families remained enslaved in Mississippi.
- Terry Alford, Prince among Slaves: The True Story of an African Prince Sold into Slavery in the American South (1997)
- Allen D. Austin, African Muslim Slaves in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook (1984)
- Allen D. Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles (1997)
- Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (1998)
- “From African Prince to Mississippi Slave: Abdul Rahman Ibrahima,” Documenting the American South website, http://docsouth.unc.edu/highlights/ibrahima.html
- P. J. Staudenraus, The African Colonization Movement, 1816–1865 (1961)
- Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982)