During the transatlantic slaving era, the religious encounters and conflicts within African societies reveal something about the workings of those societies. Captured and transported by horseback across the Sahara Desert, Mohammed Ali ben Said (1836 – 1882) was an African Muslim enslaved in Africa and across several continents, a polyglot, a Union Army veteran, and a servant to aristocrats and diplomats. He would serve several owners, while traveling five continents over two decades, before settling in Alabama and presumably narrating his journey.
An African Muslim from Bornu who would later convert to orthodox Christianity in Czarist Russia, and renamed Nicholas Said, Mohammed spent much of his captivity in Africa, not the Americas. In a significant proportion of his account, Mohammed focused on the encounters between Islam and indigenous spiritualities in Bornu as well as the wider Sudanic region of Africa. In the selection below, Mohammed provides his own view of the Sudan before Islam and the destruction left in the wake of its encounter with indigenous cultures. It is possible Mohammed’s perspectives on the encounters between Islam and non-Muslim peoples in Sudanic Africa was shaped by his later conversion to Christianity, which he initially resisted at the demand of his holder, though this seems less likely for someone so learned and well traveled. Viewed from the perspective of Mohammed’s experiences, the number of enslaved African Muslims who crossed the Atlantic or the Sahara and converted to Christianity should not be surprising at all. They were, after all, domiciled in Christian societies as enslaved or indentured individuals, and they were likely exported from their homelands at the hands of other Muslims.
Goulagou is a country lying eastward of Mandra, and its inhabitants are renowned in our country for their courage. They had, up to the time I was captured, defeated all their enemies. Mandra, Bornou [Bornu], Waday, Fellatah [Fulbe, Fula(ni)], and Bagirmy, had successively tried to conquer this country, but they had in every attempt been signally defeated. This country abounds in several minerals: as gold, iron, and copper, and which they work very skillfully. They manufacture beautiful gold and copper ear-rings, bracelets, anklets, etc., with which they ornament themselves profusely, especially the females. Africa has been, through prejudice and ignorance, so sadly misrepresented, that anything like intelligence, industry, etc., is believed not to exist among its natives.
But allow me to remark in the outset reader, that in our markets you may find beautiful silk and cotton goods manufactured by the more intelligent and ingenious among our people, we make our own saddles, cutlery, sword blades, javelins, and lances.
It cannot be disputed that glass is manufactured in Nouffi.
That previous to the introduction of Islamism in Soudan arts and sciences had reached a respectable attitude is attested by the ruins of several towns in Bornou, Mariadi, Nouffi and other countries. The ruins of Gambarou, the Bisnia of geographers, covers an immense area, the walls of which were built of burnt clay, extensive palaces, gardens, and other works of art flourished.
I am unable to give the slightest idea as to the time when Mohammedanism [i.e. Islam] was introduced into Central Africa. But be it as it may, it brought with it desolation and ruin.
Anything like enterprise was rendered impossible, fanaticism and bigotry overruled everything, and the Mohammed proselytes at once arrayed themselves against every non-follower of the Prophet as his implacable enemies. Crusade after crusade was made against the pagan tribes [i.e. non-Islamic societies], who, if they had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Moslems, were either massacred or reduced into slavery. Cities after cities were razed to the ground.
The last thing of the kind took place toward the first part of this [nineteenth] century, when Othman Danfodio [Usman dan Fodio], a Fellatah Chief, arrogated to himself the title of a prophet, saying that Allah (God) prescribed him to make war on all the Pagan nations of Central Africa, and promised him victory. The Fellatahs, who were then dispersed over the whole of Soudan, and who led a pastoral and nomadic life, under petty Chiefs, were collected by him under his sway. After several years of preparation, Danfodio, who had by this time a complete control over his countrymen, raised a formidable army of one hundred and eighty thousand warriors, and immediately assailed Houssa [Hausa], which was readily subjugated. Kano, the capital of Houssa, was consumed into ashes, thousands of its male population were put to the sword, and the women and children were carried into slavery. After committing other unheard of cruelties, Danfodio invaded successively and successfully, Gouber, Mariadi, Zeg-Zeg, Kârè Kârè, lastly Bornou which was then the preponderating power in Soudan. After two years of manly resistance, Bornou was compelled by force of arms to submit to the yoke of the Fellatahs. Our cities were destroyed, thousands upon thousands were sold to the coast into bondage, and many more were sold to the Barbary States. After two more years of humiliation the inhabitants of Bornou, under El Kanemy [Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi], revolted against our oppressors, and, in less time than a year, the Fellatahs were completely driven out of our country.
Source: Nicholas Said, The Autobiography of Nicholas Said, A Native of Bournou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa (Memphis: Shotwell & Co., Publishers, 1873), 13-17.