Toward the end of the seventeenth century, marabout Nasir al-Din launched a religious movement against transatlantic slaving but for the Islamization of the Senegal valley. French colonial official Louis Chambonneau, stationed at the French outpost of St. Louis at the mouth of the Senegal river, was an eyewitness whose reporting of the events to his superiors remains one of the best first-hand accounts Nasir al-Din’s movement. Nasir al-Din was born in the southern Sahara to an elite family of the Traza Moors (so-called “Berbers”). Chambonneau referred to the movement as Toubenan (from the Wolof tuub, “conversion”). Chambonneau and many after him agreed the success of the Toubenan religious movement, though Nasir al-Din was killed, was due to the negative effects wrought by transatlantic slaving.
Known as Siddis or Habshis in India, Africans have lived in South Asia for some two millennia. Over time, they played crucial roles in the politics, economies, religions, cultures, and arts of the region, especially in western parts of India. Though a large number came to the region as captive persons through Arab slavers across the Indian Ocean, numerous Siddis ascended to positions of power and authority in the military and government of various India rulers, and some even became rulers themselves between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two such persons were famed Siddi ruler Malik Ambar, who ruled Ahmednagar until his death in 1626, and his son Fateh Khan, who became governor of Janjira and its fort in 1655. Janjira was important for trade and Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca. Its importance is also supported by the failure of European naval powers to capture it and conquer the Siddis of Janjira, who continued to rule the fort.
An African Muslim from Bornu who would later convert to orthodox Christianity in Czarist Russia, and renamed Nicholas Said, Mohammed Ali ben Said 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.
The excerpt below chronicles his observations of the three belief systems that shaped African history, namely indigenous African spiritualities, Islam and Christianity, as they played out on Africa’s Gold Coast
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Mohammed Ali Ben Said settled in Alabama, where his narrative and the paper trail for his life ends, but where the research for my Transatlantic Africa book began. Transatlantic Africa: 1440-1888 retold the story of transatlantic slaving through the lived experiences and intellectual history of Africans who lived through it. In that way, uncovering Mohammed’s story was fortuitous because Mohammed was an African, a Muslim, and an enslaved or indentured person for most of his remarkable life. For all these insights Mohammed’s extraordinary story provided, it left an equal amount of questions. These questions became the legs of my research, conveying it along an exploratory journey.
Though I am aware of Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, released today, what follows is a condensed version of my views, stirred principally by BWM but also by the repurposed essays and anecdotes that form the contents of Eight Years in Power. More importantly, there has been insufficient consideration of what BWM’s argument portends for the fate of “black” people—a race identifier used grudgingly but in no way do I subscribe to it. My concern is the defective premise, a story if you will, anchoring Coates’s argument and its dead-end implication if we were to follow that argument to its logical conclusion. I offer another way to think about the fate of black people in the United States and in white societies more broadly.