The history of slavery in the United States is long and unsavory, starting with the arrival of the first black slaves in the 17th century and only ending with the emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Before the passing of the 1807 Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, most of America’s bonded workforce came through the trans-Atlantic slave trade that relied on capturing and transporting Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean. While slaves were rarely in a position to offer writings describing their experiences, there are still some primary sources that retell the stories of those captured and transported to the New World against their will. Moreover, these sources – usually published in English and in America – may also be useful for the information on the social and political realities of the United States itself. The concise auto-biography of Abdul Rahman, a Guinean prince-turned-slave, published in The African Repository in 1828, is an example of both. It demonstrates high slave prices characteristic for the period and reveals much about the American collective imagination of the time, from the fascination with Oriental exotics to the desire to resettle former slaves to Africa.
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As mentioned above, the primary source in question is a journal publication about Abdur Rahman titled “Abduhl Rahahman, the Unfortunate Moorish Prince” and comprised of several parts. The first part is an introductory note by Cyrus Griffin, which briefly covers the circumstances of Abdul Rahman after the latter’s manumission and his attempts to gather money to free his spouse and children. The second part is a concise excerpt from Abdul Rahman’s own account of his life, also edited by Grifin. This account briefly covers Abdul Rahman’s story from being born and raised in Timbuktu (contemporary Mali) through being captured in a skirmish to being sold to slave traders and transported to the United States. A special section is devoted to Abdul Rahman’s meeting with Dr. Cox, an Irish-American surgeon saved by Abdula Rahman’s family in Africa, who proved to be instrumental in the prince’s manumission. The source was published in the February issue of The African Repository, an American periodical predominantly concerned with African affairs, in 1828.
The first and foremost purpose of the document becomes evident from the very first section authored by Griffin. He recounts the story of Abdul Rahman’s manumission, telling how Cox, after recognizing his old acquaintance on the planation in Natchez, launched a successful fundraising campaign to free the prince. However, the source immediately informs the audience that Abdul Rahman seeks the means to purchase the children he has fathered during his four decades in slavery. It stresses that, due to the kindness that Abdul Rahman himself and his family showed to Cox in distress, the prince has “peculiar claims upon the assistance” of the surgeon’s fellow Americans. Considering this, the primary purpose of publishing the source becomes clear: it was meant to promote the second fundraising campaign to finance the purchase and manumission of Abdul Rahman’s children. With this in mind, any analysis of the source’s content should remember this principal purpose.
One thing that the source tells about the United States at the time is that, by 1828, slave prices were quite high. Specifically, the article mentions that the sum necessary to buy freedom for Abdul Rahman’s wife – a single elderly female slave not well-fit for active labor or childbearing anymore – amounted to as much as $200. As such, it demonstrates how the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves led to slaves becoming a precious commodity. While the trans-Atlantic slave trade was legal, the plentiful supply of the bonded workforce from Africa ensured that the prices for slaves would not grow particularly fast. However, after it was forbidden by an act of Congress, the only feasible way of getting new slaves was through natural reproduction, which hardly could match the volume of the previously existing trade. As a result, the supply shrunk, while the demand, encouraged by territorial expansion and the increasing value of cotton as a cash crop, grew quickly and reliably. Under these circumstances, the prices for slaves were bound to grow, and the necessity to pay $200 – a very respectable sum in 1828 money – for a single person confirms that.
Another important aspect of the document worth analyzing is how it utilizes and implicitly reinforces the image of a white savior. Abdul Rahman’s entire life in the course of six decades receives approximately as much space as the account of his acquaintance with Cox and the latter’s role in ensuring his manumission. In effect, almost one-0thirhd of the article is dedicated to the figure of Cox as a savior, coming to Abdul Rahman’s aid to repay the debt of honor he owes his family. As mentioned above, the primary purpose of the document was to encourage people to gather funds for the purchase and subsequent manumission of Abdul Rahman’s children, whom he fathered during his decades in slavery. With this in mind, it is only natural that Griffin, as an editor, would arrange the text in a way that would appeal to the audience’s feelings. Constructing the image of a white savior coming to an aid of a black person from the position of power and out of sheer nobility must have fluttered the white Americans’ sense of racial superiority.
Finally, one more thing that the source reveals about the period is the apparent Orientalist fascination of American audiences, eager to read about things exotic and foreign. Griffin notes that Abdul Rahman has written the account of his life not on his own initiative but at Griffin’s request. Given the aforementioned purpose of the document, Griffin most likely judged that an entertaining story of war, capture, and bondage in an exotic setting would appeal to the audience. Moreover, the source consistently refers to Abdul Rahman as a “prince” and a “Moor.” The first emphasizes his nobility, and the second serves to portray him as a representative of the Islamic civilization. Put together, this image is likely meant to invoke the stereotypical associations with the Islamic Orient and, by doing so, satisfy the audience’s craving for luxurious, mysterious, and exotic imagery. Raising money to save a random black slave would have hardly elicited any response, but doing the same for a “Moorish prince” from a faraway land was a different case altogether.
Interestingly enough, while the entire document is dedicated to the fate of a slave, there is only a single reference to slavery as an institution. The passage in the first section authored by Griffin and notes that Abdul Rahman is smart, articulate, and dignified despite having “been in slavery forty years.” While this passage may implicitly indicate that the author considers slavery to be a morally and intellectually degrading institution, the text drops this premise immediately and does not develop it at any length. There are probably at least two reasons why the question of the author’s position on slavery remains unanswered. Firstly, The African Repository focused on African matters, and discussing slavery, which was a matter of American internal politics, would probably be out of place. Apart from that, Griffin would have likely preferred to avoid the discussion of the potentially divisive topic when his goal was to raise money for Abdul Rahman’s family. This omission shows that, while American society of the time could look favorably on the manumission of a single slave, it would not take kindly to attacks on slavery itself.
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One more reason why Griffin did not address the issue of slavery per se was the fact that, as of early 1828, sectional tensions between the free states and the slave states were not particularly high. On the one hand, the Compromise of 1820 has been in force for years and has not been challenged so far. It could maintain an illusion that the issue of slavery was solved once and for all and, hence, there was no sense in discussing and promoting it further. On the other hand, the ill-fated Tariff of 1828 would only be passed in May – that is, more than two months after this issue of The African Repository was published. Nicknamed “Tariff of Abominations” in the South, due to the high customs rates it imposed upon many goods, it generated much ill will between the North and the South. As such, the time of the publication happened to be between the neighboring high points in the American sectional crisis over slavery. This context had likely impacted the author’s perspective and made him even more hesitant to take a stand on the issue of slavery.
Overall, the historical significance of the document is in the fact that it reveals much about the reality of slavery in the United States during the late 1820s and the American perceptions thereof. First and foremost, it demonstrates that, even when some Americans were ready and ailing to assist a particular black slave, they still focused their narratives on the heroic white savior figures, such as Cox. Moreover, even when struggling for the freedom of at least some of the black slaves, they only did so for their resettlement back to Africa. The document specifically stresses that Abdul Rahman and his family, should they be freed, are meant to “return… to the land of his nativity.” This perception is a clear example of the “Back to Africa” movement, which argued for the repatriation of freed blacks to Africa. Thus, even this short source may aid in painting a comprehensive picture of American abolitionism at the time – willing to take steps toward black freedom but not to live with them within the same country.
To summarize, the primary source analyzed in this paper offers a wealth of information on its period. Published to launch a fundraising campaign for the family of Guinean prince-turned-slave, it reveals much about the reality and perception of American slavery in the late 1820s. It demonstrates the high slave prices that resulted from stopping the importation of slaves and also highlights American preferences for Oriental exotics and white savior narratives. Although it does not make any particular statement on the issue of slavery, it still characterizes the perception thereof, and especially the prominence of the Back-to-Africa movement.
Griffin, Cyrus. “Abduhl Rahahman, the Unfortunate Moorish Prince.” African Repository (February 1828): 78-81.
Korn, David. “The Counterproductivity of Protectionist Tariffs.” Liberty University Journal of Statesmanship and Public Policy 1, no. 2 (2021): Article 8.