Slave, Muslim. A Pullo (plural: Fulbe) from Futa Toro in the Senegambia region of West Africa, Omar was taken into slavery in the late eighteenth century and forced across the Atlantic to the Americas. Records of his life in America indicate that he lived in North and South Carolina.
Omar’s ancestors received Islam in the eleventh century. The Fulbe not only championed the religion of Islam but also built the Islamic kingdoms of Futa Toro and Futa Jalon in what became Senegal and Guinea, respectively, and carried out jihad activities in West Africa during the eighteenth century. Omar was taken into slavery during a series of wars in the region.
Having lost his father at the age of five, Omar was raised by his uncle. During his stay with his uncle, he came in contact with some Muslim clerics and became a pious Muslim. It is reported that he prayed five times a day and tried to fulfill all the other four major requirements of Islam, including a pilgrimage to Mecca on foot. He was also married and had a son before his capture.
Omar was one of many African Muslims who were captured and taken to the Americas but whom have not been adequately studied. Unfortunately, there are no details on his capture; many Muslim Fulbe believe that you do not retell the story of difficult times if you want Allah (God) to give you blessings for that suffering.
Omar’s American saga unfolded while he was enslaved in Charleston, South Carolina. He arrived in Charleston in 1807 after a voyage of six weeks and was immediately sold to a Mr. Johnson, who proved to be a brutal master and prevented him from performing his daily Islamic prayers. In response, Omar ran away. He spent a month traveling to North Carolina, reaching Fayetteville, where he was arrested while performing his prayers in a church. Omar’s imprisonment generated tremendous curiosity because of his ability to read and write. He used the charcoal in his jail cell to write Muslim prayers and appeals in Arabic to the authorities not to return him to Charleston. His former owner was finally paid off by Jim Owen, who took him to his Milton plantation. Omar was happy with his new master to the point that he accepted conversion to Christianity. He remained with Owen until the late antebellum period, serving Owen in many capacities including, in his last position, as a butler at the plantation of his master’s brother, Governor John Owen. Despite his conversion to Christianity, “Uncle Moreau” (as Omar was popularly known), who was familiar with both the Holy Bible and the Qur’an, continued to live as a Muslim.
The story of Omar’s conversion remains controversial. Many scholars doubt his willingness to convert to Christianity and his sincerity in doing so. Nonetheless, his love and dedication to the Owen brothers, who were both religious, contributed to Omar’s acceptance of Christianity. Omar, like numerous other enslaved West African Muslims, retained Islam or some major aspects of the religion while in the New World. Omar Ibn Said died in Fayetteville in 1859 at the age of eighty-nine and was buried at Owen Hill Plantation.
Austin, Allan. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Callcott, George. “Omar Ibn Seid, A Slave Who Wrote an Autobiography in Arabic.” Journal of Negro History 39 (January 1954): 58–63.
Diouf, Sylviane. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.