Omar ibn Said (Source: Wikipedia)
Friday, March 13, 2020 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Yamboo was a stoic African man whose Muslim faith helped him endure a life of servitude in eighteenth-century South Carolina. His brief autobiography, published in Charleston in 1790, provides valuable evidence of the presence of Islam among this region’s enslaved population. On a more personal level, the story of Yamboo also represents a rare first-person narrative of the journey from Africa to America and the struggle for survival and dignity in the face of physical and spiritual oppression.

Last night I was honored to participate in a panel discussion that attracted a large audience eager to hear about the presence of the Islamic religion among the enslaved Africans of early Charleston. In conjunction with Dr. Hussein Rashid of the New School and Brenda Tindal of the International African American Museum, we gathered at CCPL to discuss the cultural landscape that forms a background to a powerful American story. Omar ibn Said (ca. 1770–1864) was an African Muslim who was brought from Senegal to Charleston in 1807 and sold into slavery on Gadsden’s Wharf. He later ended up in North Carolina, where he wrote a short autobiography in Arabic that survived to the present time. Mr. Said’s autobiography has been the subject of several scholarly articles and is now available in an English translation. The timing of last evening’s discussion was prompted by the upcoming Charleston production of an opera based on his life. Omar, commissioned and presented by the Spoleto Festival USA, will see its world premiere here in Charleston in late May 2020.

While browsing through my own research notes this week in search of historical anecdotes relating to the presence of Muslims among the enslaved population of early South Carolina, I was reminded of a story printed in one of the local newspapers in the late eighteenth century. On the 12th of August 1790, the Columbian Herald, a short-lived Charleston paper, devoted an entire page to a lengthy letter submitted by a local correspondent. The author, identified as one “T. D.” of King Street, informed the editor of the Herald that he had recently acquired a brief autobiography written by an enslaved African named Yamboo. The text of T. D.’s letter, which contains just over 2,000 words, provides a valuable illustration of the presence of the Islamic religion among the enslaved population in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. To facilitate a greater understanding of this topic, and of this specific historical resource, I’ve transcribed the entire text below. I'm also appending a bibliography at the bottom of this page, in case you want to read more about Islam in the early history of the United States. 

Before we get to the story of Yamboo, I’ll mention a few contextual points. In recent years, historians of Islam in the Americas have concluded that approximately twelve to fifteen percent of the enslaved Africans who came to North America were followers of Islam, and that percentage was even higher in the larger enslaved population found among the Caribbean Islands. Since Charleston was the principal port of entry for enslaved Africans brought to North America, we can conclude that Charleston must have been, at least in the eighteenth century, the epicenter of African Muslims entering this continent. As such, the topic of Islamic traditions, practices, and culture among the enslaved population of the South Carolina Lowcountry is an important topic worthy of our attention. Whether or not Yamboo of Santee was a real person, or an amalgam of anonymous individuals, or the fictional creation of a white author, I really can’t say. I’m going to present the text for your consideration, and let the conversation unfold among the community.

Yamboo’s story was published during an era when corsairs or pirates on the northern coast of Africa were actively attacking foreign merchant ships in the Mediterranean Sea, including those sailing from the nascent United States. Europeans and Americans reviled and feared such raids not simply because they disrupted civilian trade, but because these Barbary pirates, as they were generally known here, frequently enslaved the white, Christian sailors and passengers they captured. English-language newspapers and magazines throughout the Atlantic world printed harrowing stories of European and American travelers falling prey to Islamic Berbers during the 1780s and 1790s. Such tales formed part of the motivation behind the creation of the United States Marine Corps, who won enduring fame by fighting on “the shores of Tripoli” during the First Barbary War.

Among the stories in circulation at this time was the translation of a French narrative written by Pierre-Raymond de Brisson, published in London in early 1790 as An Account of the Shipwreck and Captivity of Mr. de Brisson, With A Description of the Deserts of Africa, from Senegal to Morocco. This book, which was available in Charleston from the bookshop of Markland and McIver on East Bay Street in 1790, was apparently the talk of the town that summer, as the following extract from the local newspaper demonstrates.[1]

Contemporary with the literary fame of Monsieur de Brisson, one of Charleston’s newspapers, the Columbian Herald, published a series of excerpts from another travel adventure during the summer of 1790. Nathaniel Portlock’s Voyage Round the World, But More Particularly to the North-West Coast of America, described a three-year trek across the Pacific Ocean, from South America to Hawaii, Alaska, and China. Captain Portlock’s adventure was romantic and exotic, to be sure, but the following excerpt from the local newspaper tells us that at least a portion of the Charleston audience grew weary of reading the serialized excerpts.[2]

In the original newspaper, the text of Yamboo’s story is preceded by a quotation from a satirical poem written by the early Roman poet, Horace: “Mutato nomine de te.” This ominous phase is a truncation of a longer verse that translates roughly as “change the name and the story is about you.”[3] And now, without further ado, here’s the 1790 story of Yamboo:

 

Mr. Printer,

Being in a large company the other evening, where the conversation turned upon the shipwreck of M. de Brisson, & the distressing situation he was afterwards reduced to amongst the Arabs of the desert, a young lawyer who was present took occasion to be very eloquent upon it, and drew such a picture as melted the ladies, and excited sentiments of compassion in us all, except one old gentlemen, who remained unmoved in a corner of the room with an air of disapprobation in his countenance, which gave great offence. Walking with him some few days afterwards under the exchange, and finding him in very good humour, I made bold to request that he would explain to me the meaning of it.

Young man, replied the old gentleman, I excuse your surprize, and am not sorry at having it in my power to open your eyes to the character of the times you live in. You know me too well to suppose, that I did not feel for the distresses of the unfortunate person, who was the subject of conversation, but the truth is, that I know some anecdotes of a part of the company, and particularly of the young man who was so very eloquent, that are not in unison with the humane sentiments they made such a parade of. What right has a man to expect that I should believe his pity for M. de Brisson in Africa, who has himself at this moment an African starving in the workhouse?

But I will say no more—I hate scandal as I hate affectation; only take this paper home with you, and read it—it contains an account of the sufferings of Yamboo, a negro man I bought at vendue about five years ago, with the character of a sulky fellow, and a run-away. The poor creature had been much reduced by ill usage and bad fare; but I soon put him in heart, and he went to work with a great deal of spirit, in a short time I found him so experienced in planting, and so faithful in every trust reposed, that he is now, and has been for some time, the only overseer I have at Santee, and I can truly say that my negroes are happier than ever, whilst my plantation prospers and is as much distinguished for the great crops made there, as it used to be for the crops we lost.

With this my old gentleman put the paper into my hands, bidding me make what use I pleased of it, and we took leave of each other. I have, since that [conversation], read it over with great attention, have abridged it considerably, and altered the stile throughout. Such as it now is, Mr. Printer, it may serve, I should think, to fill a column in your paper, and would be no bad substitute perhaps for one day to the voyage of Captain Portlock, which, you may rely upon it, a number of your readers are heartily sick of.

The Sufferings of YAMBOO, an African, in South-Carolina.

My father was a principal man in the Nandinga nation [either meaning Mandinka; a largely Islamic group; or the West African surname “Nandinga”], and lived by the side of a small stream, which fell into the great river Gambia [somewhere in the large historical region of Senegambia]. I shall never forget the blessed hours I used to pass, stretched at my ease under the shade of the spreading palm tree; and how we used to meet on an evening, and dance to the lively sound of the barafow [balafon]. In the space of one moon, I was to have been the husband of Adeen, whose skin was as soft as down, and whose teeth yielded not in whiteness to those of the elephant. Our parents had already allotted us a portion of their cattle, and a spot was fixed on where our cottage was to be erected.

We thought ourselves on the brink of happiness, Adeen and I, but the great spirit had decreed otherwise. A band of thieves crossed the mountains in the night, and came upon us by surprise—they killed my father, and one of my brothers, who was younger than I, but who had refused to escape into the woods with the women on the first alarm. My lot was harder—I fell into their hands alive, and was carried off with several of the neighbours. Great God! How did I endure the cruel change, when I found myself fastened like a beast, and goaded on towards the sea coast.

After a long march of many weeks, we got there, and were carried on board a vessel commanded by white people, who had employed the thieves to take us. Being chained down to a [iron] staple in the hold of the ship, I was confined to a space hardly long enough for me to lay at full length in, and heard, day and night, the cries of three hundred of my fellow creatures. Often have I envied the fate of those who sunk under the horrors of our situation, and were thrown overboard a prey to the ravenous fish that followed the vessel. I envied them, and yet I knew not what awaited us on this cruel coast.

Having acquired a few English words on the passage, I perfectly understood what was going on when upon our arrival we were drawn out to public view, and offered to the person who should give most. Being stout and young, I was soon bought, and with six others, was put on board a small vessel to be carried up one of the rivers, but four of the six took the first opportunity of jumping overboard, and sunk to the bottom in spight of every effort that could be made to save them. They were from the country of Benin, and indulged the fond hope of returning home to their own country after death. My master being a very passionate man, took vengeance upon us that remained, and seemed determined, that we should make up to him the labour of those who had fled from his power.

We soon got to the plantation, and the driver [a sort of foreman of the laborers] shewed me a place made of rails and old boards, and covered with dirt, which he told me, was my house. They gave me a jacket too, and a pair of shoes, and I was made to understand that they were to last me a whole year. I kept a good heart, however, and was determined to do my best, though the labour we had to undergo was greatly superior to our strength. About two hours before day we were called up by the driver, and made to pound [that is, pound rice with a mortar and pestle] till it was light enough to go into the field; and after a hard day’s work, we were shut up in the barn, and had to pound till the night was far advanced. Being at last dismissed, our wretched allowance of a quart of corn was still to be ground at a hand-mill, and some of it cooked for present use. I have more than once fainted with hunger and fatigue at the mortar; and when the driver had kicked me two or three times, and laid me on with a stick to no purpose, he has poured a little rum down my throat, and I have started up and pounded again.

If, as you Christians say, there is a place of punishment in the other world for the bad men of this, what had not my master to expect? I have seen a servant of his, for breaking a plate or giving a sulky answer, punished with a cow-skin [whip] till I thought he would have bled to death, or fastened behind the door and burned with red hot tongs. I have seen some of the slaves—Nay, I have been myself so loaded with chains, that my flesh has been corroded by the rust of the iron, and an ox cart has been necessary to carry us to work of a morning, and bring us back again at night. If any one attempted to make his escape, and was caught, he was sure, after being severely whipped, to be fastened by the neck to an iron bar every night for a week. If he stole a handful of rice, there was no punishment thought bad enough which was short of death, and my master’s avarice alone prevented him from inflicting it; for had he murdered one of us, nothing would have been said about it; and I can prove it by relating a horrid circumstance that happened in the neighbourhood; but the man is now dead, and God, I hope, has forgiven him.

Amongst the negroes who belonged to my master were some who seemed born for nothing better, but others were men of high spirit, and superior to the generality of mankind. I have known one of these persecuted by an overseer till he has been driven into the woods and shot as an outlaw; and I have known others whose gallant souls enabled them to suffer the cruelest torture rather than betray their knowledge of some action committed on the plantation—sometimes, indeed they were as ignorant of the guilty person as they were innocent of the fact; but it was a maxim with my master (and a diabolical maxim it was) when he could not readily find out a thing, to whip all round, and to begin with those whom he called the fine fellows.

I had endured all this for some time, and was sinking fast into the grave, when I was sold to a neighbouring gentleman with the character of an excellent worker, though then a little indisposed. I was delighted at the change, and going to take my leave of the house servants, [when] I heard my master tell his wife with a laugh, how he had imposed upon his neighbour’s simplicity, and that he was certain, from the work he had out of me, that I could not live long. The person I now belonged to, treated me much better, in return for which, I was not only faithful to him during the war [that is, the American Revolutionary War], but prevailed upon the other slaves to be so also, and to pay no attention to the offers the British made us.

The war was at last over, and we expected the reward of our fidelity, but my master had been so uneasy about his negro property that he determined to get rid of it now, and to put his money into trade. In consequence of this we were put up to public sale, and knocked off to the highest bidder. It was my unhappy lot on this occasion to be bought by a man who had been long famous for his cruelty, to whom the noise of whips was music, and whose soul was soothed with the groans of tortured human creatures. I offended in something one day, and having borne with a great deal of resolution the whipping that was inflicted, he thought I braved [defied] him, and was determined, he swore, to break my spirit. I was then chained down naked to the floor of an old out-house, where I suffered all the bitterness of death a hundred times over, and where hunger and thirst were amongst the least of my complaints, as you will judge, when I assure you that the persons who have accidentally come in, have driven the rats from my sides, as you have seen dogs driven from a carcass they were devouring.

It has pleased God that I should live through all, that a few years of happiness should cheer my latter end, as I have seen the rays of the sun after a long and gloomy day, break out of a sudden and gild the tops of the mountains in my native country. Let us be slaves, but do not let the lowest wretches trifle with our very being—do not leave us to the mercy of overseers, whom you would not trust with a favorite horse—whose delight it is to treat us like brutes, to take from us the time of our natural rest, to cheat us of the poor pittance allowed, to suppress, as an attrocious crime, every instance of sensibility which our wrongs give rise to, and to destroy by a thousand insults, the last remains of human pride.

Such, Mr. Printer, with many abbreviations, is the substance of the paper put into my hand. It would be no difficult thing, perhaps, to get it translated into Arabick, by one of the Moors we have amongst us. Let us suppose for a moment that the Talbe [wise men] of a savage hord was reading it to a large circle, and let any one assert, if he dare, that they would not have as much cause to pity Yamboo amongst us, as we have to pity M. de Brisson when he fell into their hands.

T. D.

King-Street.[4]

 

Immediately after the publication of Yamboo’s story, which purported to be an abbreviated version of a longer document, a number of Charlestonians sent angry letters to the newspaper condemning the story. Apparently, the tone of the African’s narrative disturbed some readers who interpreted its humane portrayal of the enslaved man as an attack on the practice of slavery in general. On August 14th, the printer of the Columbian Herald, Thomas B. Bowen, penned an editorial defending his decision to publish the piece. He stated that the manuscript containing Yamboo’s narrative was handed to him by “a gentleman of the first rank and fortune, and possessed of as large a share of negro property as most others in the state.” The editor did not intend to insult his audience, but neither did he wish to offend the contributor, “who by his great virtues, as well as wealth, is of considerable weight and popular influence in the community.”[5]

A handful of scholars studying the subject of Islam in the early United States have mentioned Yamboo’s story, but I believe it is still generally pretty obscure.[6] Perhaps my transcription will facilitate further scholarly attention, and perhaps Yamboo will be the subject of another dramatization to debut at a future Spoleto festival. In the meantime, I’ll see you at the opera.

 

 

[1] Pierre-Raymond de Brisson, An Account of the Shipwreck and Captivity of Mr. de Brisson, With A Description of the Deserts of Africa, from Senegal to Morocco (London: Robert Barker, 1790). This book was available in Charleston at the bookshop of Markland & McIver at No. 47 East Bay Street; see [Charleston] City Gazette, 20 July 1790.

[2] Nathaniel Portlock, A Voyage Round the World, But More Particularly to the North-West Coast of America: Performed in 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, in the King George and Queen Charlotte, Captains Portlock and Dixon (London: John Stockdale, 1789). Read the entire book online at Google Books.

[3] A reference to Horace, Satires, I, 1, 69: “Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur.”

[4] [Charleston, S.C.] Columbian Herald, 12 August 1790, page 2. For ease of reading, I have divided the original flowing text into a number of paragraphs. I have also retained the original spelling throughout the transcription.

[5] Columbian Herald, 14 August 1790, page 2.

[6] See, for example, Richard S. Newman, “Prelude to Gag Rule: Southern Reaction to Antislavery Petitions in the First Federal Congress,” Journal of the Early Republic 16 (Winter 1996): 592 (of 571–99); and Lawrence A. Peskin, Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785–1816 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009): 87–88. In an unrelated article, Kenneth E. Marshall, “Powerful and Righteous: The Transatlantic Survival and Cultural Resistance of an Enslaved African Family in Eighteenth-Century New Jersey,” Journal of American Ethnic History 23 (Winter, 2004): 30 (of 23–49), states that the personal name “Yamboo” has been identified among the Mende, Bobangi, and Hausa peoples of West Africa.

 

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