After a shackled journey across the Atlantic, Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori was desperate to make the man about to purchase him, Thomas Foster, understand his terrible mistake: he wasn’t supposed to be enslaved, the 26-year-old was the heir to one of Africa’s most influential kingdoms.
Instead of freedom, his protestations earned him the derisive nickname “Prince,” which he’d carry for his next 40 years of enslavement.
Sori had arrived in Natchez, Mississippi after being kidnapped by enemy troops in 1788 in his native Fouta Djallon in what is now Guinea. The powerful royal was sold to slave traders for a few muskets and rum at the height of the global slave trade, when an estimated 80,000 Africans were being captured, chained, and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean every year.
Despite the scale of the slave trade—Sori was one of 12.5 million Africans forced from their homes and sold to the New World between 1525 and 1866—detailed narratives of individuals forced into bondage are limited, particularly of Muslim slaves like Sori. He is an exception; a highly educated aristocrat, his dramatic quest for freedom would eventually catapult him to national celebrity which means his remarkable life is more documented than most.
Sori’s story is an insight not only into the brutalities of slavery, which undergirded the global economy for generations, but on the way some enslaved people managed to manipulate dire circumstances. In his decades-long battle for liberty, Sori would weave a web of duplicity so dramatic that it would ensnare not just American president John Quincy Adams but the Sultan of Morocco.
The prince arrives in Mississippi
Ignoring Sori’s protestations, Foster marched him to his frontier homestead in Natchez, Mississippi, which was still Spanish territory at the time.
It was a far cry from Timbo, the trading hub where Sori’s father had consolidated power in Fouta Djallon. Sori had been educated in Islam and politics in neighboring Timbuktu and by the time he was captured he spoke at least five languages and was the head of a 2,000 person army. Sori was horrified by how primitive and undeveloped Natchez was.
The Kingdom of Fouta Djallon was “a very sophisticated society,” said Hamza Yusuf Hanson, an Islamic scholar, in the documentary Prince Among Slaves.“This was a period of real intellectual expansion, they had a constitution, they had laws.”
Foster made haste with shearing Sori’s long hair, a sign of nobility in Fouta Djallon, and forcing him into vicious manual labor. Refusing to stomach the humiliation, Sori ran. For weeks, he survived in dense, unfamiliar terrain. Wanted posters sprung up and slave hunters pursued him to no avail. But eventually, he realized there was no escape.
“During the isolation of being alone in the wilderness it dawned on him that he is no longer a prince, he’s no longer a warrior,” said Zaid Shakir Imam, a Muslim scholar, in the same documentary. “From that point onwards his dignity was based on his ability to master the circumstances that he was in.”
It was also when he realized a return to Fouta Djallon would not be possible, perhaps ever.
Faced with no good options, Sori returned to Foster and set about making himself indispensable.
An uneducated man who grew tobacco and herded cattle, Foster knew little about cotton—a crop of growing consequence in North America. Sori did though, as cotton was grown in Fouta Jallon.
With Sori’s help, Foster became one of the region’s leading cotton producers. As his plantation swelled, so too did Sori’s influence. He became a foreman and met 25-year-old Isabella, a midwife also enslaved by Foster that Sori would go on to marry.
The two had five sons and four daughters and Sori’s relative freedom meant he could grow vegetables and sell them at a local market. One market day, in 1807, a chance encounter would, once again, radically alter his life.
Sori is recognized as royalty by a visiting traveler
Decades earlier, a shipwreck had left a British surgeon named John Cox marooned on the West African shore. He only survived because he was rescued by a group of Fulanis who brought him to Timbo. There, he met Sori and his royal family who offered him medical care and friendship over a six-month stay.
In a remarkable twist of kismet, Sori ran into Cox at the market where he was hawking vegetables. Cox saw an opportunity not only to right a grave injustice but to repay his debt to Sori’s family. He set about trying to buy his freedom. Foster refused at any cost—Sori had been with him for nearly two decades at that point, and his knowledge was too valuable to lose.
Cox would spend the rest of his life trying to purchase his one-time host’s liberty. While his efforts were ultimately fruitless, they did get Sori another form of currency––local celebrity.
Word of the fantastical story of chance meetings on either side of the Atlantic spread quickly around town and when Andrew Marschalk, a local newspaperman, heard about it, his interest was piqued. After Marschalk found out Sori spoke Arabic, he leapt to the conclusion that Sori was Moroccan.
Not wanting to slow his enthusiasm, and probably also understanding the American racial hierarchy that placed Moors well above West Africans, Sori chose not to correct him. It would be the first of many strategic evasions Sori would make in the years to come.
Sori asked Marschalk to help him get a letter to Africa and Marschalk agreed. Sori took several years but eventually produced what was likely copied Quranic verses. Marschalk used them to “authenticate” Sori’s Moorish origins and attached his own letter expressing Sori’s desire to join his relatives in Morocco, which he sent to the United States consul in Tangier, Morocco. Word of Sori’s predicament eventually got to the Sultan of Morocco and from there, the news of a captive royal wound its way to the United States government. Worried about diplomatic relations, Secretary of State Henry Clay arranged for Sori’s release on February 22, 1828.
Foster agreed to Sori’s release, with compensation, under one condition: that he be transported directly back to Africa without ever enjoying “the privileges of a free man within the United States of America.”
Sori is released from bondage after 40 years
Sori’s freedom was imminent but Isabella’s and his children were not. His determination to return to Fouta Djallon was matched by his refusal not to do so without his family.
As he prepared to travel to Washington, D.C. from which he would set sail to Africa, word of his epic grew. Newspapers covered his odyssey and events along his route were planned in his honor. Everywhere he went, word of an enslaved man who could not only read and write but was a skilled orator and claimed to be a Muslim prince drew crowds of shocked and gawking onlookers.
Before he left Natchez, Marschalk gifted him a traditional “Moorish costume” for the trip, upping the absurdity of his deception. Sori was a showman and planned to use the trip as an opportunity to fundraise for his children’s freedom—a costume could only help.
He was quickly able to buy Isabella’s freedom, but he had to continue soliciting donations for his children, asking even President John Quincy Adams for funding, which Adams refused.
His story once again caught the attention of an influential figure, this time Thomas H. Gallaudet, one of the founders of the American School for the Deaf. He was part of the American Colonization Society who saw Sori as an opportunity to spread Christianity across Africa. Sori also saw an opportunity, the chance to rub shoulders with men with deep pockets.
To prove his commitment to Christianity, Gallaudet asked him to write the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic for use in missionary work; Sori complied. By the late 1820s, the abolitionist movement was picking up steam and Sori, whose tale was a powerful indictment of slavery, was beginning to stoke resentment among southerners fighting to retain the practice.
At the time, Andrew Jackson was preparing for a presidential bid against Adams and used Sori as a campaign tool, ridiculing Adams for his support. Foster caught wind of Sori’s efforts to free his enslaved children, and threatened to revoke Sori’s freedom. Marschalk, not wanting to come down on the wrong side of power, turned his back on Sori.
Sori’s tale of Moroccan descent unravelled when he explained to Adams that it wasn’t exactly where he wanted to return to. Public support began to dry up and after almost a year, Sori had only half the funds needed to free his children.
Once again, Sori set sail across the Atlantic––this time joined by his wife and with the U.S. government footing the bill––desperately hoping their children would be able to follow. When he arrived in Monrovia, Liberia in March of 1829 the first thing he did was unroll his prayer mat and bow to the earth.
Sick and weakened by the journey, Sori would contract a fever just four months later and die at age 67. He would never return to Fouta Djallon or see his children again.
Years later, Gallaudet would find out that Sori had not, in fact, written the Lord’s Prayer when proving his commitment to Christianity. He had instead copied the first chapter of the Quran—sometimes, history isn’t written by the victors.