Rare memoir gives a glimpse into life as an African slave in pre-Civil War America

Rare memoir gives a glimpse into life as an African slave in pre-Civil War America
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According to CNN , the memoir belongs to Omar Ibn Said, a slave who lived in North and South Carolina from 1807 until his death in 1864 . Said was also Muslim and a prominent scholar in modern-day Senegal before being captured when he was 37.

“The significance of this lies in the fact that such a biography was not edited by Said’s owner, as those of other slaves written in English were, and is therefore more candid and more authentic,” said Mary-Jane Deeb

. Deeb is the chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The library has a digitized version of the English translation of Said’s  memoir  on its website for anyone to read.

According to the library’s website, the memoir is the only surviving slave narrative written in Arabic. The memoir’s documents were organized in the 1860s by abolitionist  Theodore Dwight .

An excerpt from the first page of Omar Ibn Said memoirs. Originally written in Arabic, the Library of Congress has a digitized version of the English translation available for anyone to read on their website. Library of Congress

Said writes about his experiences before and after being enslaved.

He writes: “Then there came to our places a large army, who killed many men and took me and brought me to the great sea and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language.”

In 1831, Omar Ibn Said, a wealthy and highly educated man who was captured in West Africa and brought to the United States as a slave, wrote a 15-page autobiography describing his experiences, .

In the memoir, Said describes how his distaste for manual labour led him to escape a cruel owner and eventually end up in jail. He writes that he was happy to go to jail or as he described it: “a great house from which I could not go out.” While in jail, he wrote Arabic prayers on the wall of his cell.

Said’s life changed when he was sold to Jim Owen and his family. Throughout his memoir, Said writes warmly about them and describes a life of comfort where he never went hungry and always had proper clothes.

He writes: “I am not able to do hard work for I am a small man and feeble. During the last twenty years I have known no want in the hand of Jim Owen.”

Owen eventually bought Said a Bible in Arabic as well as an English translation of the Quran to help him learn English. He purchased the Bible with the help of Francis Scott Key — the writer of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Said’s handwritten notations can be found in the margins of the Bible. Davidson College acquired the Bible in 1871 from Jim Owen’s daughter Ellen Guion. It is still in the Archives and Special Collections at the college today.

Who is Omar Ibn Said? Today, the Library announced the acquisition of the only known surviving slave narrative written in Arabic in the US.

Read about him. Learn about why his manuscript is so important to #AmericanHistory ,

One thing historians aren’t sure about is whether or not Said’s conversion to Christianity was authentic. According to CNN , some historical texts say he converted in 1820 because he described Jesus as the messiah in his memoir. However, Jesus is referred to as a messiah in some parts of the Quran.

Said lived with the Owen family until his death. He was never freed.

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