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.

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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.

Christopher Columbus

Toppling statues and renaming streets – nothing new

Across the world – but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – we see the toppling of statues and a move towards the renaming of streets. Much of this a reaction to the association of people and names with historic racism.

Opinions are divided and I suspect will become even more so. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing very new in any of this. People have been tearing down statues for centuries. Names of streets and buildings have changed according to political fashion. What we’re witnessing is not something unprecedented.

Toppling statues and temples in Ancient Egypt

When I first toured the temples of ancient Egypt in 2009, I was really struck by the amount of early Christian defacing and destruction of the Pharaohs’ legacy. To make the point that the Christian God was better than Horus or Osiris, Christian zealots got to work with their chisels and hammers.

Byzantine crosses were etched deeply into the walls of temples that were already two thousand years old by that time. And an entire temple to the god Serapis was torn down by Christian monks. Goodness knows how many statues came toppling down.

Romans – big into toppling statues

The Romans were forever tearing down the statues and melting down the coinage of previous emperors no longer in favour. And then they became Christian and evolved into the Byzantine empire – with Constantinople as its capital – there were the endless iconoclastic disputes.

This is when some Christians believed all icons, statues and visual depictions of God were pagan graven images and had to be destroyed. A point of view revived centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. That saw English churches stripped of their ornate rood screens and effigies of the Virgin Mary and saints.

Walls with colourful images were similarly whitewashed. All of which left us with the simple village church that most people think is “traditional” in England. In fact, it was the product of an act of massive nationwide vandalism orchestrated by King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

Renaming entire cities – a long history!

Renaming streets and even whole cities has been a recurrent feature of history. New York was called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule. Toronto was originally called York before its incorporation in 1834. In Australia, Melbourne was called Bearbrass once upon a time.

In India, Kokata was formerly Calcutta and before that the very English, Fort William. Africa has renamed many cities to re-Africanise them. So in Zimbabwe, the city of Salisbury was renamed Harare in 1982. While Kenya removed the English colonial name Broderick Falls from one of its towns and chose instead Webuye.

It’s unsettling for many people to see statues toppling to the ground. But rest assured, that they were almost made to be toppled. Historically speaking, it’s amazing how long some of our statues have lasted.

As somebody who grew up in Britain, I was certainly shocked on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to see how the Confederacy is still very much in your face. Of course the historian inside me is interested. But I don’t need a boulevard full of slave owners memorialised in stone and bronze to remind me of the Civil War.

Top history movie turkeys

Hollywood has tackled many historical themes over the last hundred years with mixed results. From the Oscar laden 1959 classic Ben Hur to the almost unwatchable Enemy at the Gates. Let’s have a look at the movies that got it terribly wrong – the history movie turkeys!

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Alexander (2004)

Gosh, how can you make the story of a young Greek king who conquered the world utterly tedious? Well, take about US$155m and bore your audience to tears.

The worst thing about this movie was the total lack of empathy that Alexander exuded. I couldn’t give a damn about poor old Colin Farrell and his peroxide-blonde locks charging round the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, this turkey was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards in 2005. The notorious Razzies! Poor Oliver Stone set about a Director’s Cut and a “Final Unrated Cut”. But in the end of the day, when the source material is as unwatchable as this – just stop cutting.

One critic called it an “excruciating disaster for the ages”. Quite!

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Seriously, let the enemy in!

Anything to put this movie out of its misery. I remember going to see this at a west London cinema in 2001 and I was just so furious. The Battle of Stalingrad is truly one of the most gripping and appalling conflicts of World War Two. How can you wrong with this?

The casting for me was the big no-no. Jude Law as Soviet farm worker turned Red Army super-sniper Vasily Zaytsev – I didn’t buy it. And I like Jude Law normally. But this was not his part. Thankfully he went on to showcase his undoubted talent in better movies.

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Braveheart (1995)

OK – here’s the thing. I have to make a confession. When it came out, like most people, I enjoyed this movie. Unlike Alexander or Enemy at the Gates, which I detested from five minutes after the opening credits, Braveheart was a good romp.

But over the years, the varnish has worn off. The historical inaccuracies and the heavy-handed and cartoonish portrayal of the English. And I’m half-Irish (which is part of the reason I did like it to start with). It’s now completely unwatchable.

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: King Arthur (2004)

When I was a teenager, I saw the amazing John Boorman directed movie Excalibur – released in 1981. It was a slightly trippy, hallucinogenic take on the Arthurian legend. But then if you read the medieval tales, they are pretty out there.

Then along clunks this turkey proclaiming that it’s a “realistic” version of the story. I went with nothing except trepidation to view this movie. All my worst fears were realised in a film that plods drearily to a leaden conclusion.

DISCOVER: Movies that feature the Knights Templar

By the way – King Arthur was a Roman soldier. Yeah – it’s a fact apparently…

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Gone with the Wind (1939)

OK – I’m being a bit provocative now. 1939 has been called the greatest year in Hollywood history. The studios churned out some of the great movies ever that year. And Gone with the Wind was, for many decades, in real terms the biggest grossing movie of all time.

But – it’s overlong, ponderous and a bit racist. It’s based on a book that glorified the Confederacy presenting it as some kind of long lost chivalrous civilisation. And I’m afraid it’s symptomatic of a long Hollywood tradition of getting it wrong on race.

More than anything though – rather like Liz Taylor in the 1963 mega-turkey Cleopatra – it’s just too much and not satisfying enough. I know 99% of you will heartily disagree. But I’ve never been able to sit through this to the bitter end. And I’m a big fan of vintage movies.

Murder of Jewish exiles in London – 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

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They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response. He told them that they ought to “cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea”.

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

London hated the French long before Brexit

If you think Brexit is making Britain more xenophobic, then you need to get a time machine and go back to Georgian London. Because two hundred years ago, a French person walking around London might not only endure abuse but come to an unfortunate end!

Eighteenth century London was a dangerous place to walk around if you were French. As England was in an almost constant state of war with France, Londoners often sought out a Frenchman in the city to pick on or worse.

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London abuse against the French long before Brexit

There are several accounts of unpleasant abuse meted out by London folk against the French in the 1940 history book The Streets of London by Thomas Burke. He details one appalling incident where a French servant went to see a public hanging at Tyburn and nearly got executed himself!

British and French

The hanging of two criminals had just finished when three people in the crowd, realising the servant was French, began pulling at his coat-tails and powdered wig (this is the 18th century after all).

At which point the hangman was going past in the cart, in which he’d brought the condemned in to die, and began joining in the harassment by taking to the French servant with his whip.

He began to wonder if his time was up when three other Frenchmen came to his rescue. They beat the English thugs back and got him into a nearby tavern.

The narrator of this story then pointed out that should a Frenchman find himself in this predicament, he should single out one of his assailants and fight him with his fists.

If he wins, the typical English crowd would then declare him a good sport and parade him around in a chair!

Corporate racism in the 1920s

Companies today are at great pains to show they have diversity strategies in place. But not so long ago – corporate racism was rife. Let’s look at a truly appalling example I came across recently.

Corporate racism in the Roaring Twenties

It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!

Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. They may have thought they were benevolent to their staff but more often they were demeaning.

At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. It’s a truly dreadful example of corporate racism.

Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations.

Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.

LEARN MORE: What was the difference between American and Roman slavery?

With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation, supremacist racist attitudes and corporate racism did not.

This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.

Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.

A racist Christmas card from a British company in 1923