Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Every now and then I come across some unexpected gems in the collection that pull me aside from the task at hand. A few weeks ago, I happened to be perusing some files in our archives repository when I came across a folded note on some blued paper which read, "This is supposed to be 'Arabic' and was written by 'Uncle Moreau,' a slave of Gen. James Owen, and given to me by him. H. T. Tennant"

So I opened it up and here's what I found:

Needless to say I was pretty excited to find what to my untrained eyes looked like an authentic Arabic document written by a slave.

So, I did what I usually do in these circumstances, I decided to start digging. The first stop was to check our files to see what information may have been included when we first acquired the
artifact. Fortunately, our files held a good bit of information and included a letter written to the 1982 owner of the document translating the document and offering up a few other clues. In this case, it wasn't so much the translation that was interesting, but rather some of the other details. But, lest I let you down, here's the loose translation anyway:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate - in the name of God and the Prophet Mohammad, the Goodness is dependent on God only, thanks to God who created the people to worship him and who look after their actions and deeds.

I am writing this letter on October 1, 1853. I am sending this letter with a fine man called Tilly, and with Kitty Tilly, and John Tilly, and Harriett Tilly.

All types of perfect praise belong to God alone, the Lord of all Worlds, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful, Master of the day of Judgment, Thee alone do we worship and Thee alone do we implore for help. Guide us along the straight path - the path of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy favours, those who have not incurred Thy displeasure, and those who have not gone astray. Amen.

I lift my eyes to you O Lord, you who are in heaven, help your servants to the hands of their masters, and guide the Nation behind her Ruler. We also lift our eyes to you O Lord, have mercy on us. Bless us O Lord bless us and forgive us as we have suffered a lot and our souls have been filled with much suffering.

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

Surely, we sent down the Quran during the Night of Decrees. How shouldst thou know what is the Night of Decrees. The Night of Decrees is better than a thousand months. Therein descent angels and the spirit by the command of their Lord with their Lord's decrees concerning every matter. It is all peace, till the break of dawn - Surat Al-Kafirun

We must believe in the Night of Decrees for Goodness, and happiness and in all that the power of God, our Creator, our owner, and Thee alone look after us.
Whew! Ok. So, a few things of note here. The translator's note tells us that the grammar and spelling are rather loose, which could reflect the writer's non-Arab ethnicity, education, age, or a dialect unfamiliar to the translator. Also of interest is the fact that although the Quran is loosely quoted, the verse is incorrectly cited, which could suggest several things. It is possible that the writer quoted this verse from memory or that he was not a very serious Muslim. It is unlikely that a slave in the Southern US would have had access to a Quran, so my suspicion is that this was quoted from memory... quite a feat con
sidering this slave probably hadn't seen a Quran in 50 years. Remember that it was illegal to import slaves into the US after 1808. Finally, the writer ends a verse with "Amen," which is not typically Muslim, so it may be that the writer had been Christianized. The last note written by the translator was that the back of the document notes that the letter was sent by a man named Omar (presumably the author of the letter).

With these details in hand, I decided to check out a few other sources. The first was to Google some of the names in the English portion of the document. The first name I tried was "General James Owen." And I got lucky and found this on the NC Museum of History website:

1831 - Omar ibn Said, a enslaved African and Arabic scholar, writes his autobiography in Arabic. Intrigued by his slave’s abilities, Said’s owner, General James Owen, gives him little work and permits him to study an Arabic translation of the Bible. Said had learned English and converted to Christianity, becoming a member of First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville in 1820. He will die in 1864 at the age of 94.
Then I found this on another site:
Among the noteworthy residents of Fayetteville in the early 1800’s was Omar ibn Said, a native of Senegal who had been a scholar before being captured, enslaved, and transported to the US at age 40. He escaped from a plantation and fled to Fayetteville where General James Owen befriended him. Ibn Said’s knowledge of Arabic language and literature and his extensive writings brought fame to him and his adopted hometown. One of his best-known scholarly manuscripts went missing early in the 19th Century but was rediscovered in 1995 and is now on public display.
So it looks like I may have made quite a find and discovered a remarkable individual along the way. Further Google searches on the name Omar ibn Said turned up quite a few hits and if you're interested in learning more about this man's fascinating story, I suggest you check them out.

UNC Article

Wikipedia Article

NPR Article

Google Books Page


sara said...

wow, that's fascinating brad. thanks for sharing!

patriotic american said...

Brad, that was a gem! I have something that may interest you: a stock certificate from The Inter-State Farmers' Encampment Association. I have not ben able to find anything out about it, but perhaps you may. The certificate is dated 1888. If you are interested, I'll send you a scan.