“Prince Among Slaves” airs at 10 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4 on PBS stations nationwide. Check local listings at www.pbs.org and visit www.princeamongslaves.tv
Ayesha Ahmad is a freelance writer working with the Unity Productions Foundation
In an effort to gain support for his children’s freedom from slavery, the newly freed American slave Abdul Rahman once wrote out what was supposed to be the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic.
Years later, it was discovered that he had actually written out Surah Al-Fatihah, the opening chapter of the Qur’an.
After forty years of crushing servitude in a strongly Christian land, this former African prince still remained faithful to Allah, with the memory of His words still in his heart and mind.
That incredible fortitude, enduring belief and nobility of character infuses the remarkable story of Abdul Rahman’s life, now brought to public television in a new documentary, “Prince Among Slaves,” by Unity Productions Foundation, producers of Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet and Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain.
“The theme is , the oppressor can never rob you of your dignity so long as you show forbearance,” said Co-Executive Producer Alex Kronemer of the film. “Remember this man, and remember your dignity: which is the message I would like people to come away with.”
Born in 1762, Abdul Rahman lived his first 26 years as royalty in the kingdom of Futa Jallon, in western Africa, where he served as a military commander in his father’s army. His extraordinary journey, which would test his character in the most surprising and often brutal ways, began when he was captured by rival warriors and sold to English slavers in 1788.
After surviving the harrowing 3,000-mile Middle Passage in chains on a slave ship, and several hundred more miles through the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi river, Abdul Rahman began his life as the slave of a young planter named Thomas Foster by running away. But after weeks of wandering in the wilderness -and after the search for him had been abandoned -he returned to his new master and pledged his loyalty.
“Someone brought up in Futa Jallon believes that… God knows and numbers every day of your life,” said historian Terry Alford, author of the 1977 book, “Prince Among Slaves,” upon which the documentary is based. “This fate, however cruel it seemed to him, was part of a divine plan. His resignation to the will of God was demanded.”
Over the next twenty years, the prince used his knowledge, skill and integrity to build the best life for himself possible in his situation, marrying an American-born slave, Isabella, raising nine children, and winning his master’s trust by his own loyalty and hard work. He helped to greatly increase Foster’s wealth and success as a farmer, and became known as the “African Prince” in the environs around Natchez, where he lived.
An astonishing chance meeting in 1807 showed once again the power of the will of God in Abdul Rahman’s life. At a Sunday market where the prince was allowed to sell a few of his own vegetables for his own money, a passerby recognized him as the son of the African chief who had saved his life over twenty years earlier. Dr. John Cox, an Irish ship’s surgeon, had been stranded sick in Africa in the late 1780’s and nursed back to health by Abdul Rahman’s family.
Cox immediately tried to secure the prince’s freedom, and continued to try until his death in 1816, after which his son took over his efforts. But Foster would not sell his loyal, hardworking slave for any price. Still, rising anti-slavery sentiment across the country made it possible for Abdul Rahman’s supporters to bolster his efforts. Cox had partnered with a local Natchez journalist to draw national attention to his story, which eventually led to the involvement of President John Quincy Adams and his Secretary of State Henry Clay. Because of the prince’s Arabic knowledge, the government believed he was Moroccan, and agreed to support his cause only to boost America’s relations with Morocco.
In 1828 Foster finally agreed to free only Abdul Rahman, with the stipulation that he return to Africa immediately and alone. But white supporters helped purchase Isabella’s freedom, and then Abdul Rahman defied Foster’s orders and set off on a tour across the northern United States, giving speeches and collecting donations to help free his
children and grandchildren.
On his return trip to the White House, President Adams declined to aid Abdul Rahman after discovering he was not in fact Moroccan. That was when the prince turned to the American Colonization Society, a powerful group working to free slaves, resettle them in Africa and spread Christianity there.
Abdul Rahman sought the help of Thomas Gallaudet, head of the ACS’s Connecticut office. It was Gallaudet who, in his mistaken belief that the prince was a Christian, gave him an Arabic Bible and asked him to write the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic.
Although Abdul Rahman’s story did not end quite as he hoped, it still stands as a testament to his incredible resilience of spirit and commitment to his own values, as the documentary illustrates.
“Abdul Rahman survived the harsh ordeals of slavery through his love of family and his deep abiding faith,” said Co-Executive Producer Michael Wolfe. “The film depicts a universal story of perseverance and hope. Abdul [Rahman] endured unimaginable indignities and faced immeasurable odds, yet managed to survive his long fall from royalty with character and integrity intact.”