Price Among Slaves: An 18th-century slave story still relevant for Malaysia

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In the middle of his Malaysian tour, Michael Wolfe, executive producer at Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), writer, lecturer and long-time advocate for human rights speaks to Penang Monthly about producing the documentary, Prince Among Slaves, a onehour documentary about a West African Muslim prince who was captured and sold into slavery in 1788.

Abdul Rahman Ibrahim Sori was one of millions of Africans captured, transported across the sea to America, and sold into slavery.

Michael Wolfe.

Abdul’s owner, Thomas Foster, refused to entertain the idea that Abdul was indeed a prince back home in Western Africa. In 1794, Abdul married Isabella, another slave on the plantation where he worked, and had five sons and four daughters. Abdul used his knowledge of growing cotton to rise to a position of authority in the plantation. This gave him the privilege of having his own garden to grow and sell vegetables at the local market, where he happened to meet an old acquaintance, Dr John Cox, who was the first white man to reach Abdul’s hometown of Timbo after he fell sick and was abandoned by his ship. It was Abdul and his family who took care of Cox back then, and Cox wanted to return the favour by helping Abdul out of slavery in any way he could. Cox appealed to Foster to release Abdul, and even offered a high price to buy Abdul from Foster. Cox continued to fight for Abdul’s freedom until his death in 1829.

In 1826, Abdul managed to send a letter to his relatives in Africa. It ended up at the US Consulate in Morocco – because it was written in Arabic, it was presumed that Abdul was a Moor. The Sultan of Morocco, Abderrahmane, read the letter and asked President Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay to release Abdul. In 1829, Foster agreed to this without payment, with the stipulation that Abdul returned to Africa and not live as a free man in America.

Thus, after 40 years of enslavement, Abdul regained his freedom. He then tried to raise money to free his wife and children by speaking to the press and soliciting donations, but Foster considered this a breach of agreement when he found out.

It took 10 months for Abdul and Isabella to raise enough funds to buy the freedom of their two sons and their families, while the others were left behind when the couple travelled back to Africa to raise more money. Shortly after Abdul died, however, Isabella was reunited with her children in Monrovia, Liberia. In 2006, Abdul’s descendants from both the US and West Africa gathered for a family reunion at Foster's Field, the site of the former plantation. A scene showing this meeting was in the documentary.

On the surface, the story appears to be unique to just one man and his family, but underneath the surface, the film is, at its core, essentially one of familiarity and difference. “In a country (like Malaysia) that has a Muslim majority and is multicultural, it will be interesting to see what kind of conversations come up,” says Michael Wolfe, executive producer of many of UPF’s films.

Prince Among Slaves has been shown across the US, in auditoriums that took up to 800 people from community organisations, in schools and in ghettos. The UFP has produced a string of documentaries such as Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think and Allah Made Me Funny, all of which have an Islamic theme. Wolfe himself has co-produced nine award-winning documentaries.

When Prince Among Slaves was made, it carried the hope that it would speak to the two to three million African- American Muslims. About one-third of Muslims in the US today are African- American, the majority of whose history lies in slavery.

Indeed, these roots go back to a Muslim history that has, in recent years, been erased in the US. “The tendency of non-Muslim citizens in the US is to think that Islam arrived yesterday, that it is a foreign and questionable culture,” says Wolfe. Thus, the documentary presents an opportunity to remind the majority that Islam has been around for a long time. “We often use our films as social catalysts and dialogue catalysts, and it seems that Penang would be an interesting place to try that out. That’s the main idea,” he continues.

We discussed the parallels between the story and Malaysia today. “The film had a lot to do with Muslims working with people and relating to people of other faiths,” explains Wolfe. “To look at another culture grappling with these same terms, the problem is essentially one of difference – race, language, history, culture, politics, economics, pressures of housing and pressures of modern life.”

Wolfe himself has been a Muslim for over three decades. Growing up, he told me, he didn’t have the impression that Islam was something you wore on your sleeve or made you different – he is not a fan of identity politics or identity religion.

I asked Wolfe about his experience as a Muslim and an American, and he describes it as “a very free associative society made up of every kind of person you can imagine – racially, linguistically and culturally – one which is becoming more varied as people migrate and form families.” Having taken part in the civil rights movement in the US, Wolfe has a long-time interest in social justice. Muslims are indeed a minority in the US, and Wolfe is passionate about protecting minority rights.

“I’m not a social purist, and I am very comfortable with this. I’ve never seen social purism work. Life is short. If we are to operate in a society, it’s better to have one that works. But no country is perfect – they’re all flawed attempts at living together.”

For more information on UPF, visit http://upf.tv/



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