How Muslim slaves rose up against slavery in the 19th century

Marines landed in Africa to suppress the slave trade. Here they protect Captain M C Perry in parley with hostile tribesmen in 1843. (AP)

In 1835, a young Muslim slave participated in a revolt in the Brazilian city of Bahia. Their group was led by Ahuna, an elderly religious leader who organised the rebellion hoping to free them from bondage. The young man, a devout follower of Ahuna, didn’t survive the rebellion, but his body was found with a folio around his neck. It contained an inscription and prayer from the Quran which said,

“Our Lord, and make us Muslims [in submission] to You and from our descendants a Muslim nation [in submission] to You.”

Almost a century and a half later, Margarita Rosa’s research led her to the struggles of this community, and the price they were willing to pay to live free. Though that community eventually withered away, Rosa believes that today’s large African-American Muslim community is “Allah’s response” to that prayer.

Fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic, Rosa is a PhD candidate in the Comparative Literature department at Princeton University, studying and exploring the forgotten history and experiences of enslaved Muslims during and after the transatlantic slave trade.

She was born in the Dominican Republic, so speaking about the transatlantic slave trade for Rosa isn’t a detached exploration of history, but is a personal attempt to reclaim a lost and forgotten story, drawing from its spiritual resources and “its legacy of resistance”.

When Christopher Columbus first docked in the New World, he arrived on the shores of the Dominican Republic establishing it as the first colony. But the Americas more generally have “always been a site of colonisation.”

“Our entire race exists because of colonisation,” she says. “Our entire existence has been under a framework of colonisation, so naturally the study of colonisation appealed to me”.

Her Dominican background has influenced her academic interests in another way too. The Dominican Republic was “also where the first slave rebellion took place in 1521 by Wolof people from the Sene-Gambian region,” Muslims, who were kidnapped from their homes in West Africa and had to live in bondage in the New World.

This is an undated photo of an etching depicting the claustrophobic living conditions aboard slave ships. This etching set guidelines to slavers that say “Stowage of the British Slave Ship ‘Brooks’ Under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788.” (AP)

According to David Eltis and David Richardson’s comprehensive study of the transatlantic slave trade, roughly 12.5 million Africans were abducted between 1501 and 1867, in an enterprise that involved almost every country with an Atlantic coastline. Estimates according to Rosa’s research would indicate that between 10–30 percent of that population was Muslim. (That would put the number between 1.25–3.75 million people). The majority of those ended up in Brazil, the country which received the most slaves.

Not only was the voyage perilous, carrying a serious risk of death, disease or at the very least extreme discomfort, abductees would have no hope of seeing their homes or families again.

Recreating a community, with the institutions needed to support that community is difficult enough in a foreign country, but according to Rosa, the chips were stacked against enslaved African Muslims in ways we can’t imagine.

“The enslaved Muslims”, much like other enslaved people in the Americas, “were under the most oppressive conditions possible,” she said. “They literally had no dominance over their will, their lives, over their material conditions or even over their geographical location.”

You could be excused for assuming that despair might have crept in, but the abductees demonstrated an incredible ingenuity, initiative and cunning to protect themselves and practice their faith in the New World.

Muslims, Rosa said, “were naturally the most visible population of religious observers in the enslaved period.” According to some accounts she unearthed, there were records of slaves praying and observing Ramadan, as well as giving Zakah (mandatory alms) to poorer slaves to offer relief and sometimes freeing each other.

This greater visibility, a direct result of the large role that Islam plays in the public lives of Muslims, meant slaves in Bahia would have to meet at night following the completion of their days work to avoid arousing suspicion. This is when their religious classes would often take place.

“It is extremely difficult to imagine this situation — in which in order to take classes, in order to learn Quran, and this is well explicated in the 1865 manuscript that I mention — you would have to finish all your days’ work, escape from your plantation, get to the teacher who is also likely enslaved and may not have finished his duties, then you might have a lesson between those very few hours that you had to sleep.”

The plantation economy in the Americas was largely based on the slave labour throughout the 19th century. (Courtesy of: Marc Ferrez Moreira Salles Institute Archive)

To practice their faith, secrecy was crucial among the Muslim slaves. In Brazil, Rosa said, “there was a special consideration for clothing,” as the slaves donned their traditional tunics and white robes during their revolts to reclaim their freedom. The connection between the revolt and those items of clothing led to a total ban of any attire associated with Islam in the public space.

There was an interesting case of an Iraqi man, whose Turkish fleet arrived into Rio De Janeiro after sailing around Africa in 1865. The slaves, second generation by now, requested that he re-teach them Quran which he accepted, but they insisted he change his garments to avoid drawing undesirable attention.

It was during these clandestine meetings that Muslims who often shared ethno-linguistic ties organised their revolts. “The Muslim slave revolts were different because they were born out of these spaces of Islamic education”, Rosa told me. This was also a demonstration of the continued importance of religion in the lives of Muslim slaves. These classes kindled a revolutionary fire, and religion was one of the driving forces spurring them on.

The history of Africans, including Muslims, who were brought to the American continent, is a strong reminder of a struggle to be free, a journey that offers significant lessons Rosa explained, which can offer lessons to America’s contemporary Muslim community.

“That is the legacy we’re inheriting whether one is Bangladeshi, Chinese or Dominican like me.”

“A legacy of resistance.”

A manuscript written by a Brazilian slave in an Arabic script. (Arquivo Publicodo Estadoda Bahia)

Originally published at

Journalist. Writer. Producer. Politics. Culture. History. East Africa. Muslims. Art. Wields a dangerous Muslamic ray gun at all times | Istanbul | @fromadic92

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