This book tells the astonishing true story of Abdul Rahman who was born in West Africa as a royal prince, but was sold into slavery, shipped to the U.S.A. and endured forty years of slavery before finally being released. Alford does not really put forward an argument in his book: Prince Among Slaves is a narrative account of Abdul Rahman’s life. However, records were not especially accurate two hundred or more years ago and Alford has done his research painstakingly so that he is able to write a fluent narrative account of the man’s life drawn from scanty historical documents and records and from first- hand accounts of those Americans who knew Abdul Rahman. The narrative pace of the book never flags. In his Afterword, Alford points out that Abdul Rahman or Ibrahima, as he is sometimes refered to, was only one example of an aristocratic and educated African prince or nobleman being shipped to America to spend their lives in the servitude of slavery – there were several others that we know about, which suggest that there may be many more of whom we simply have no knowledge. Alford’s achievement lies not only in writing a pacey, interesting narrative, but in the thoroughness of his research: his problem was not merely that he was investigating events and people form over two hundred years ago; it was also that the records of individual slaves are in many cases virtually non-existent because the system of slavery treated then as commodities, not human beings, and so very often individual slaves simply disappear from the records and we do not know whether they died, managed to escape or were sold to another farm or plantation.
Apart from telling the amazing story of Abdul Rahman and the lucky encounter that lead eventually to his freedom, Alford’s book is doubly critical of slavery. On the one hand, the traders who transported Africans across the Atlantic did not distinguish between educated, well-to-do slaves like Abdul Rahman and uneducated savages – but there was no reason for them to do so. Additionally, the system of slavery itself was pernicious and evil: Abdul Rahman was relatively lucky because his intelligence and his knowledge of growing cotton enabled him to act as a foreman over the other slaves on the farm where he was kept. This position gave him certain advantages – but not his freedom. It probably did mean, however, that he was not split up from his family.
In his opening chapter Alford takes great pains to describe the west African culture that produced Abdul Rahman and I found this part of the book the most revelatory. Abdul Rahman could read and write in Arabic, and his Islamic faith gave him, Alford argues, a fortitude and strength in adversity. I found the maps printed at the end of the text and the family trees very helpful in understanding the details of the text. Alford makes it clear that west Africa had a thriving Islamic culture of education and literacy – a long way, perhaps, from European stereotypes of African barbarism.
At the start of the book Alford sums up the story thus: “This tale of an American slave called ‘Prince’ is an extraordinary story of an intelligent and courageous human being, who, born a prince, lived his life as a slave and died in freedom.” (3).
What is almost as extraordinary is the fact that after becoming a slave at the age of 26, many years later, by sheer coincidence, Abdul Rahman should be recognized in America by an Irish doctor who knew his father and recognized him. Then the long, but ultimately successful, struggle to free him begins. He dies in freedom. However, the book ends on a somber note. His grandchildren are sold and Alford writes, “...began new lives as slaves.... They would know little of Africa, of holy war, of slave ships, tobacco and kindly eccentric doctors. Only the grinding poverty was theirs. (187). Despite the celebratory nature of Abdul Rahman’s eventual freedom, his grandchildren were victims of the system of slavery.
Alford, Terry. A Prince Among Slaves. 1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press.