...Redifining Journalism for Development

Nicholas Sa'id, the Kanuri who was a slave in America


Although Said suspected that he was doomed to be a slave or a servant after his kidnapping by Tuaregs (Berbers) – he calls them Bedouins (Arabs) – and was fatalistic with regard to that general status, he was aggressive about how he was treated within those variably elastic bounds. He appears to have impressed his owners with his dignified bearing and obvious intelligence. He naturally sought out rich and educated masters from whom he might learn and whose books he might read. This man of the book was an acute observer of both “upstairs” and “downstairs” worlds. Said has several remarks to make on the socio-political and personal circumstances of various Tuareg, Arab, Turk, and Russian masters – the Westernizers among the latter, especially. He also coolly compares the conditions of servants in some of the thirty-three nations he visited or lived in. He noted that, under certain circumstances, a servant might experience better times than a master. He also remarked upon subtler hardships which servants suffered from some masters, from the mockery of white children, or from confusion caused by alcohol.
Said’s autobiography includes all these matters. It is essentially trustworthy, as most of its geographical and historical references may be found elsewhere. His country, Bornu, was made the headquarters for two very productive British exploratory expeditions in the 1820s and the 1850s, respectively, and the accounts of these square with Said’s pictures of his homeland, while other works corroborate much of the rest of his story. That Nicholas Said was not prevailed upon to produce a full-length book is a serious loss to mid-19th-century comparative history. With genuine moral and fiscal encouragement, he might well have produced a multi-volume “Travels on Five Continents” to balance a bookshelf and a point of view otherwise burdened only with volumes of “Travels” by Europeans. What we have must do – Said’s autobiography follows his editor’s comments below.
Nicholas Said, at the time of his enlistment in the army of the Union, during the third year of the great Rebellion, was about twenty-eight years of age, of medium height, somewhat slenderly built, with pleasing features, not of the extreme negro type, complexion perfectly black, and quiet and unassuming address.
He became known to the writer while serving in one of our colored regiments; and attention was first directed to his case by the tattooing on his face, and by the entry in the company descriptive book, which gave “Africa” as his birthplace.
Inquiry showed that he was more or less acquainted with seven different languages, in addition to his native tongue; that he had travelled extensively in Africa and Europe, and that his life had been one of such varied experience as to render it interesting both on that account and also on account of the mystery which surrounds, notwithstanding recent explorations, the country of his birth.
At the request of those who had been from time to time entertained by the recital of portions of his history, he was induced to put it in writing. The narrative which follows is condensed from his manuscript, and his own language has been retained as far as possible.
Nicholas Sai’d’s Manuscript
Reader, you must excuse me for the mistakes which this article will contain, as you will bear in mind that this language in which I am now trying to write is not my mother tongue; on the other hand, I never had a teacher, nor ever was at school for the purpose of acquiring the English. The only way I learned what little of the language I know was through French books.
I was born in the kingdom of Bornoo, in Soodan, in the problematic central part of Africa, so imperfectly known to the civilized nations of Europe and America.
Soodan has several kingdoms, the country of the Fellatahs and Bornoo being the most powerful, – the territorial extent of the latter being some 810,000 square miles.
These nations are strict Mohammedans, having been converted some two or three centuries ago by the Bedouin Arabs and those from Morocco, who, pushed by want of riches, came to Soodan to acquire them. Different languages are found in each nation, some written and some not; but the Arabic is very much in use among the higher class of people, as the Latin is used by the Catholic priests. Especially the Koran is written in Arabic, and in my country no one is allowed to handle the Sacred Book unless he can read it and explain its contents.
Bornoo, my native country, is the most civilized part of Soodan, on account of the great commerce carried on between it and the Barbary States of Fezzan, Tunis, and Tripoli. They export all kinds of European articles to Central Africa, and take gold-dust, ivory, etc., in return.
Bornoo has had a romantic history for the last one hundred years. The whole of Soodan, more than two thousand miles in extent, had been since the 11th century under the Mais of Bornoo; but by dissensions and civil wars nearly all the tributaries north of Lake Tchad were lost. In 1809 a shepherd arose from the country of the Fellatahs and assumed the title of Prophet. He said to the ignorant portion of his countrymen, that Allah had given him orders to make war with the whole of Soodan, and had promised him victory. They believed his story, and the legitimate king was dethroned and the false prophet, Otman Dan Fodio, was proclaimed Emperor of the Fellatahs. The impostor went at once to work, and in less than two years conquered almost the whole of Soodan, excepting Kanem, a tributary to my country. Bornoo, after a manly effort, was compelled by force of arms to submit to the yoke of the Fellatahs.
In 1815 Bornoo arose from its humiliating position, to shake off the yoke of
Dan Fodio. Mohammed el Amin El Kanemy was the man who undertook to liberate his country and restore her former prestige. This immortal hero could collect from the villages of Bornoo but a few hundreds of horsemen; but in Kanem he got eight hundred men, and accepted an engagement with the enemy. He gained the first victory, and took such good advantage of his success, that in the space of two months he won forty battles, drove the enemy entirely out of Bornoo, and captured a great many places belonging to the Fellatahs.
At the close of the war, El Kanemy found himself at the head of twenty-eight thousand horsemen, and the real ruler of Bornoo. Like all great men, he refused the sceptre, and, going to the legitimate heir of the throne, Mai Barnoma, told him he was at his disposal. Barnoma, notwithstanding the noble actions of El Kanemy, was jealous of his fame; he tried a plan to dispose of El Kanemy which he believed would not cast public suspicion on himself. Accordingly, he wrote to the king of Begharmi, promising to pay the expenses of his troops and some extra compensation besides, if he would make as though he were really at war with Bornoo.
The king agreed to the proposal, and crossed with his army the great river Shary, the natural frontier of the two kingdoms. El Kanemy was then in the city of Kooka, which he had built for himself. He heard finally of the war between Bornoo and Begharmi, and, hastily calling out his ancient veterans, he reported to Engornoo, where the king resided. The combined forces numbered some forty thousand men. El Kanemy knew nothing of the infamous act of the king; but Allah, who protects the innocent and punishes the guilty, was smiling over him. The armies pitched their camps opposite to each other; and the king of Begharmi sent a messenger with a letter to Mai Barnoma, informing him that the heaviest assault would be made upon the left, and that, if he would give El Kanemy command there, the bravest of the assailants would surround and kill him at once. This letter the messenger carried to El Kanemy instead of the king, who, at once seeing the plot immediately answered the important document, signing the name of Barnoma, and loading the messenger with presents of all descriptions for his master.
The next morning El Kanemy went to the king and told him that the heaviest assault would be made on the right, and that he should not expose his precious life there. As Barnoma got no letter from the king of Begharmi, he thought El Kanemy was right, and acted accordingly.
The battle finally began, and the Sycaries of Begharmi, attacking the left where they thought El Kanemy was, surrounded Mai Barnoma and killed him, supposing him to be EI Kanemy. The battle, however, went on, and the king of Begharmi found out before long that he had killed the wrong lion. His army, in spite of their usual courage, were beaten, and obliged to re-cross the river Shary, at that place more than two miles wide, with a loss of half their number. The victorious army of El Kanemy also crossed the river, and, pursuing the retreating forces, captured Mesna, the capital of Begharmi, and drove the king into the country of Waday.
El Kanemy now found himself the absolute ruler of Bornoo, nor had that kingdom ever any greater ruler. Under his reign the nation prospered finely. He encouraged commerce with Northern and Eastern Africa, and, building a fleet of small vessels, sailed with a strong force against a tribe who inhabited the main islands of Lake Tchad, and who used to commit depredations upon the neighboring sections of Bornoo, and chastised them severely. These islanders are the finest type of the African race, possessing regular features, and large, expressive eyes, though they are the darkest of all Africans. El Kanemy also subdued many of the surrounding tribes and nations, until the population of Bornoo and its provinces amounted to nearly fifteen millions.

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