Omar ibn Said was born around 1770 in an African region then called Futa Toro, near the Senegal River, which now forms Senegal’s northern border with Mauritania. After receiving 25 years of schooling in Africa, he was enslaved and transported to Charleston, South Carolina. Not long after his arrival and sale to a local planter, Said escaped and made his way to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was imprisoned after entering a Christian church to pray. After garnering attention for writing on the walls of his prison cell in Arabic, Said became the legal property of General James Owen of Bladen County, who allegedly recognized Said to be an educated man and treated him well. Said’s later conversion to Christianity rendered him a celebrity of sorts, and his story—with an emphasis on his conversion—was recounted in several magazines and historical pamphlets. Said moved with the Owen family in 1836 to Wilmington, North Carolina, and again to a farm on the Cape Fear River during the Civil War. He is believed to have died at the age of 94, but the exact circumstances of his death are unknown.
Since 1831, when Said first recorded his autobiography as a 15-page manuscript in Arabic, it has undergone multiple translations, and the original manuscript was unlocated for many years. In 1995, the manuscript was found in an old trunk in Virginia and purchased by a private collector, who has since displayed it at Harvard’s Houghton Library and the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Mississippi. The translation reproduced here was originally published in a 1925 issue of The American Historical Review. A lengthy introduction by the journal’s editor, John Franklin Jameson, describes the history of Said’s text and its various translators, compares his account to those of other “literate Mohammedans,” and gives an overview of several biographical accounts of “Omar” (also named by various commentators as Moro, Morro, Meroh, Moreau, Monroe, Omeroh, and Umeroh). The numerous sketches of Said’s life contradict each other on various issues, and his very short autobiography raises more questions than it answers. For example, the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1996) notes that General Owen came to own Said “[w]hen efforts to find his legal owner proved unavailing,” but an 1854 article in The North Carolina University Magazine claims that his original master had sold Said to another man, who attempted to reclaim him from Owen until the General “was able to obtain legal possession of him” (p. 308). Said’s autobiography does not address the arrangements by which General Owen came to own him, but he does report that on one occasion a Charleston man named Mitchell tried to purchase him from Owen. “I said ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no,'” Said recalled, “‘I not willing to go to Charleston. I stay in the hand of Jim Owen'” (p. 793).
The existing translation of Said’s text begins with recollected passages from the Koran. Said starts his account with his birth in Futa Toro but quickly transitions to the time of his enslavement. The description of his capture by “a large army, who killed many men” and his crossing of “the great sea” for a month and a half testifies to the raw violence of the slave trade and the terrors of the middle passage (p. 793). Said’s account of the so-called “Christians” who bind, transport, sell and buy him links Said to other slave narrators who question the validity of Christians’ participation in and justifications for slavery. In fact, he sets true Christianity in opposition to slavery by describing his first “master” in Charleston, South Carolina, as “a small, weak, and wicked man called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all” (p. 793).
By the time he recorded this autobiography in 1831, however, Said had become a Christian, at least in his choice of words: “When I was a Mohammedan I prayed thus . . . But now I pray ‘Our Father,’ etc., in the words of our Lord Jesus the Messiah” (p. 794). The tension between Said’s critique of Christian slaveholders and his alleged conversion to Christianity runs throughout his autobiography, reflecting a critical dissonance that is missing from the celebratory tone of his (white Christian) biographers. For example, an 1825 article published in The Christian Advocate notes that after receiving a Bible translated into Arabic, Said “now reads the scriptures in his native language, and blesses Him who causes good to come out of evil by making him a slave” (p. 307). However, Said’s own account stops short of explicitly professing faith in a Christian God or explaining the reason(s) for his conversion. Instead, he emphasizes the linguistic differences between his old and new prayers.
Said’s account does not follow a strictly chronological order, but he does relate several key events in his life: his forced passage to America, his escape and recapture, his time in prison, and his journey to the home of Jim Owen. Said references these events repeatedly, almost like a chorus, as in his summary conclusion that “I reside in this our country by reason of great necessity. Wicked men took me by violence and sold me to the Christians” (p.794). These recollections are interspersed with praise for the Owens: “This is an excellent family . . . I have known no want in the hand of Jim Owen” (pp. 794-795). Said also credits the Owens for his conversion to Christianity: “Jim Owen and his wife . . . read [the gospel] to me very much” (p. 794).
Two surviving artifacts of Said’s Arabic writing provide insight into the complicated interplay between Christianity and Islam in his life. The first is a transcription of the 23rd Psalm, which Said had recorded in Arabic and which was later translated back into English by Professor R.D. Wilson of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The translation reveals that Said prefaced the psalm with the invocation, “In the name of God, the merciful and gracious. May God have mercy on the prophet Mohammed.” (Foard “True”). The second artifact is a card bearing Said’s Arabic script. Inscribed on the back is the following explanation in English: “The Lord’s Prayer written in Arabic by Uncle Moreau (Omar) a native African, now owned by General Owen of Wilmington N. C. He is 88 years of age & a devoted Christian.” The Arabic text, however, is not the Lord’s Prayer, but actually a Koranic passage from Surat 110 (“The Help”), which predicts a mass conversion of unbelievers to Islam in which men will “[enter] the religion of Allah in companies” (University).
It is unclear how the writer of this English inscription came to believe that a passage from the Koran represented the Christian “Lord’s Prayer,” but this misapprehension of Said’s Arabic text should serve as a caveat about his statement in the Autobiography that “now I pray ‘Our Father,’ etc” (p. 794). It is impossible to know which religion, or combination of religions—if any at all—Said embraced in his heart of hearts. But it is clear that his “conversion” to Christianity, undertaken, as he put it, “according to power” after his capture by “wicked men,” represented a conflicted product of epistemological and physical violence. The contradictory accounts of the life of Omar ibn Said, including his own extant writings, reflect an identity that was always in danger of appropriation by dubious friends and that may forever be lost in translation.
Works Consulted: African Online Digital Library, “The History and Culture of Futa Toro, Senegal and Mauritania”, referenced 5 Oct 2007; Barry, Ellen, “Owning Omar,” The Boston Phoenix online, 6 Jul 1998, 22 Feb 2008, http://weeklywire.com/ww/07-06-98/boston_feature_1.html; Foard, John Frederick, “A True Story of an African Prince in a Southern Home,” North America and Africa: Their Past, Present and Future, and Key to The Negro Problem, Statesville, NC: Brady, 1904; Foard, John Frederick, “Scrapbook of John Frederick Foard,” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Library, North Carolina Collection; Harris, Carrie A., “Omeroh,” The South-Atlantic: A Monthly Magazine of Literature, Science and Art, Vol. VI, No. 2 (Sept 1880): 97-100; Powell, William S., ed., “Omar ibn Said, b. 1770?” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996, referenced 26 Oct 2007; “Prince Moro,” The Christian Advocate, Philadelphia: July 1825, 306-307; Said, Omar ibn, “Surat al-Nasr,” ; Said, Omar ibn, “Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina, 1831,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Jul., 1925), pp. 787-795; “Uncle Moreau,” The North Carolina University Magazine, Vol. III, No. 7 (Sept 1854): referenced 26 Oct 2007; University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service, The Koran, M.H. Shakir, transl., The Online Book Initiative, Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., 1983, referenced 12 Oct 07.