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The terrible democracy of the slave trade

PBS' 'Prince Among Slaves' tells the story of an African royal's U.S. bondage.

February 04, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

The horror of the African slave trade, particularly the experience of African American slaves, has been documented by so many historians, novelists, playwrights and poets that it is tempting to view the PBS documentary "Prince Among Slaves" as just another way to celebrate Black History Month. This would be a grave mistake.

Not only is the story of Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a well-educated African prince who was captured and sold into slavery, a fascinating study of a man who became, at the end of his life, a cause celebre, but it also illuminates the terrible democracy of slavery: To European slave traders and American slave holders, all black Africans were created equal -- without status, rights or humanity.

Just before his capture, Abdul-Rahman was a 26-year-old Muslim Fulbe prince, married with a son, who had recently taken command of his father's army. Returning from battle, he and a group of soldiers were ambushed, captured and sold to slave traders for muskets, whiskey and eight twists of tobacco. Eight terrible months later, he was set down with other chattel on the docks of the Natchez district of Mississippi. Purchased by a small-time planter named Thomas Foster, Abdul-Rahman tried to explain who he was; Foster laughed at the idea of African royalty and promptly named his new slave Prince.

It is difficult to imagine, in this world of mostly modern thinking where technology creates at least a geographic intimacy, the hopeless plight of Abdul-Rahman and the many millions like him. His first desire was, of course, escape. But in 1788, alone in a strange land, with no resources, no friends, not even the assumption of humanity to protect him, escape was impossible. Instead, he was forced to draw upon his faith in God and submit to the life that was now set before him, a life unimaginable just one short year before.

Narrated by Mos Def, with context and insight provided by experts as diverse as popular historian Adam Hochschild, the late novelist Bebe Moore Campbell and Terry Alford, whose historical biography inspired the film by directors Andrea Kalin and Bill Duke, "Prince Among Slaves" is a riveting reminder that this country has as much to answer for morally as any other and that the outlawing of slavery, upon which so many economies were dependent for so long, is perhaps the greatest revolution the world has ever known.

For Abdul-Rahman, submission did not mean humiliation; he remains a prince even in slavery, radiating dignity and influence, raising a family and impressing those around him with his leadership and knowledge. Ironically, it was Abdul-Rahman's understanding of cotton that allowed Foster to become one of the richest men, and the largest slave holder, in the district. When an American doctor Abdul-Rahman had known in Africa discovered Prince, Foster was pleased to learn that he did indeed own African royalty, but he refused to sell at any price.

Eventually, Abdul-Rahman's cause was taken up by a local editor and brought to the attention of the U.S. government; President John Quincy Adams met twice with "The Moor" and approved his return to Africa, mostly as a publicity stunt.

In their final years, Abdul-Rahman and his wife were freed. They traveled the country, speaking against slavery and attempting to raise funds to buy their family. Forty years after he was abducted, Abdul-Rahman returned to Africa, a bittersweet ending to an extraordinary life.

Yet what makes this life extraordinary is the simple fact that it isn't. Abdul-Rahman's status, his education and his brief fame make it a bit easier to tell his story, to know the sequence of certain events, the thoughts in his mind. But every African abducted and sold had a similar story. Every African had a family left behind, a job, a past, a world in which he or she belonged. Every slave had to come to their own terms of submission or die.

In the 400 years of the African slave trade, 16 million people were kidnapped, tortured, sold, killed. Sixteen million. The number is too huge to contemplate, and even the gruesome images of the slave ships, the ledgers in which the sales were tallied, the slave quarters in which the people were crammed, are often too overwhelming to help us understand.

Which is why stories like "Prince Among Slaves" are so important: to show, as one descendant says when he organizes the reunion that ends the film, that these lives "did not begin in slavery. They began in freedom."



'Prince Among Slaves'

Where: KCET

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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