Muslim American slaves

Muslim African slaves in America

Here’s an angle on American slavery that I’d never considered. How did the treatment of African slaves who were Muslim differ from non-Muslim slaves?

I knew nothing about the role of Muslim African slaves in 18th and 19th century America until I read a fascinating book called A History of Islam in America published by the Cambridge University Press. The author is a professor of religion, Kambiz GhaneaBassiri.

Most white slave owners were ignorant of differences between people in Africa. To them, Africans were a commodity bought and sold for their labour and that was it. But a minority seem to have taken an interest, if only to find ways of exploiting those differences for their own advantage.

They noticed that some of their slaves knelt to pray five times during the day while working on the plantation. Many were literate as they been brought up writing and reading Arabic. And they didn’t identify with non-Muslim Africans who having not accepted the word of Allah were therefore unenlightened.

Some white American slave owners began to regard the Muslim slaves as a cut above the others – and these slaves encouraged this notion. After all, they wanted better treatment and held out the hope that it might be possible to find the means to be freed one day.

Professor GhaneaBassiri notes that some were even given supervisory roles over other slaves because they were seen as being brainier. He also notes that of course some Muslim Africans had been slaveowners back in their homeland or had engaged in wars of religion with pagan Africans in the decades before.

DISCOVER: The male model in the Abraham Lincoln plot

During the War of Independence against the British, some African Muslims fought with the colonists. Names on the military muster rolls include Bampett Muhamed, Yusuf ben Ali and Joseph Saba. It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an and opposed discrimination against Muslims and Jews.

In the years after independence, the new United States experienced years of conflict with the so-called “Barbary” states of north Africa. The US even suffered the indignity of its own sailors being captured off the African coast and sold into slavery – by Africans. Karma is the word that comes to mind.

Behind the scenes, a still miffed Britain encouraged the north African rulers to attack American shipping no longer protected by the Royal Navy after independence in 1783. In desperation, the US turned to Muslim African slaves in its diplomacy with the Barbary states to try and put a stop to the onslaught on its ships.

C’mon America – was King George really a tyrant?

It wasn’t just American colonists who though King George III of England was a tyrant. Many English radicals thought he was too. And that’s before we canvass the opinion of the French!

King George the tyrant – in American eyes!

I’ve now been to see the musical Hamilton twice and what’s not to like. Alexander Hamilton as a morally compromised hero. Thomas Jefferson as a vicious piece of work. And then there’s the hilarious figure of King George III – who prances on to the stage to rile the audience.

He loathes democracy. Thinks America won’t be able to handle everyday life once he’s forced from their stage. They’ll be crying to have him back soon – he jibes at the theatregoers. And we love it of course. Everybody adores a villain. Especially a villain with a big crown and velvet breeches.

DISCOVER: Top history movie turkeys!

King George – not such a tyrant

I appeared as a contributor on the TV series Private Lives of the Monarchs presented by the co-curator of the Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman. We did one programme looking at King George III and posing the question – was he really THAT bad?

He was certainly a lot more complex than he’s given credit for. His correspondence points to a man who took kingship terribly seriously. In fact, he was very keen to be seen as a “good king” and a constitutional monarch.

Compared to monarchs in continental Europe, he was fairly benign. He had to work with a democratically elected parliament (well, elected by property owners at that time) and couldn’t make arbitrary judgments in the way that kings were able to in France – or the Tsar in Russia.

His Prime Minister imposed a stamp tax on the American colonies. The reason was to pay for the war that had just been fought against France in the Americas. Not only the cost of that war but also the continued stationing of troops in the colonies had to be paid for. Not that the English expected to see all that tax revenue as America had a shaky record on actually coughing up its taxes due to the British crown.

Well, as we know, Americans of an independent spirit saw things differently. They rebelled and achieved their independence. So how did King George the tyrant react to the loss of the United States?

George wrote a long letter on the subject full of remorse and sadness. Interestingly, his main point was a warning to British politicians that no overseas possession could be retained if those living there didn’t support British rule.

Americans had clearly turned their back on the king and Mother Country. But George wrote that he hoped they could remain friends – if for no other reason than mutual trading benefits.

I’m not going to completely whitewash King George III here or let him off the tyrant hook completely. But we’re all grown ups here and capable of a bit of nuance and acceptance of shades of grey in history.

George III’s main claim to fame was the onset of madness. Now we wouldn’t mock the insane today. Yet George’s mental illness was treated with hilarity at the time in a way that would make most of you squirm. For example, he was referred to by one English satirist as “Your Mad-jesty”.

The tyrant King George did end up talking to plants and addressing Lords as peacocks. The man’s condition was made worse by being treated with toxic substances like arsenic. Still, he did have an unusually long reign from 1760 to 1820 and very much shaped the era in which he ruled.