Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Nicholas Said, 1836-1882
The Autobiography of Nicholas Said, A Native of Bournou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa
Memphis: Shotwell & Co., Publishers, 1873.


Despite being enslaved or indentured for much of his life, Mohammed Ali ben Said (later renamed Nicholas Said) traveled to five continents, learned to speak seven languages, served princes and diplomats, fought in the Union Army, and recorded the story of his life in his own words. Said was born in northern Africa, the thirteenth of his mother's nineteen children, and the son of a general in the Bornou army. When he was 12 or 13 years old, Said's father and three of his brothers were killed by an invading army from Bagirmey, and he went to live with Malam Katory, who taught him to write and speak Arabic. Approximately two years later, Said was enslaved by a "marauding tribe" and transported by horseback across the desert. From that day on, he served a series of masters, including Arabs, Turks, Russians, and a married couple from Dutch Guiana (now Suriname). After traveling the world for over twenty years, Said settled in St. Stephens, Alabama, where his narrative ends. His Autobiography was published in 1873, and according to one scholar, he died in 1882.

At 224 pages, Said's Autobiography is the longest extant slave narrative by an enslaved African Muslim. It is also the only North American slave narrative to describe travels on five continents. However, certain facts about Said's birth and childhood have been contested by scholars. Although he claims he was born in "about the year 1836" (p. 9), historians Allan D. Austin and Tabish Khair estimate Said's actual birth date as 1831 or 1833. Said also states that he was born in "Kouka, the capital of the Kingdom of Bornou, in Soudan" (p. 9), but contemporary maps suggest that the capital city he describes as being "30 miles southward of the great lake Tzad" was probably located up to 1800 miles northeast of present-day Lake Chad, within what is now southeastern Libya (p. 26). An 1867 Atlantic Monthly article (cited by Allan Austin) claimed that Said served in a "colored [Union Army] regiment" from 1863-1865 and that he later "fell captive to woman [and] married at the South," although the version of Said's autobiography reproduced here omits those events. Indeed, for much of Said's life story we must rely solely on his account. This text clearly reflects a voracious intellect, a passion for travel and cultural interchange, and a dedication, as Said concludes his final chapter, to "do as much good as possible to [one's] fellow-man in this world" (p. 213).

Though some historians believe Said remained a practicing Muslim for most of his life, he begins his narrative by bemoaning the influence of "Mohammedanism," as well as the "desolation and ruin" he says it brought to Africa (p. 15). Said describes his childhood as being adversely influenced by a number of Muslim-led invasions and political intrigues. After his father and brothers' deaths, Said is captured by a group of Kindills (also known as Tuaregs), who sell him to an African Arab named Abd-El-Kader. He describes the torturous journey across the Sahara, during which he "suffered very much from heat and thirst" (p. 46). The "Sahara must be seen and felt to be realized," writes Said (p. 52).

After learning that Said is the son of a general, Abd-El-Kader treats him well, and at Said's request, he is sold to Abdy-Aga, a young officer in the Turkish "Pacha's army" (p. 55). The Turkish officer is a kind master, as is his father, Hadji Daoud, whom Said accompanies on his fourth pilgrimage to Mecca. Together they journey from Tripoli to Alexandria, to Cairo, to Khartoum, across Abysinnia (Ethiopia) to port cities in modern-day Eritrea and Somalia, and finally to (Saudi) Arabia. Observing railroads for the first time in Egypt, Said recalls, "I had seen so many wonderful and unexpected sights within the few previous years, that I think my organ of marvellousness had gone to sleep from sheer surfeit and exhaustion" (p. 78).

Unfortunately, when they return from Mecca, Daoud's store has burned to the ground, and he is forced to sell Said, who is purchased by Fuad Pacha, then Minister of the Interior for the Ottoman Empire. He is taken to Constantinople, where Pacha presents Said to his brother-in-law, Reschid, as a gift. "I began . . . to think that it was my fate to pass from hand to hand, with never a sure and definite resting place," writes Said (pp. 121-122). Said's fears are realized when he changes hands again, after a Russian diplomat, Prince Anatole Mentchikoff, "would not allow Reschid Pacha any rest until I was transferred to his possession" (p. 124). Mentchikoff brings Said back to Odessa, a Russian city on the Black Sea (now part of the Ukraine) and procures a tutor to teach Said Russian, which he describes as "the most difficult [language] I ever undertook" (pp. 128). After finding the treatment by Mentchikoff's other servants intolerable, he "enters the service" of Prince Nicholas Vassilievitch Troubetzkoy, a member of an eminent Russian family. One day as he is walking in St. Petersburg, Said observes "a distinguished looking individual, in full Russian uniform, approaching me" (p. 140). When Said removes his fez and stands "in the attitude of a soldier," the individual—who turns out to be Czar Nicholas I—claps him on the shoulder and comments "Malodetz," which Said translates as "smart boy" (p. 140).

Prince Troubetzkoy proves to be a demanding master, requiring Said to learn French and to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Though he initially resists "that vivacious tongue" and "the Greek faith," at length Said succumbs and is baptized in November 1855. On this momentous occasion, Said leaves his "Mohammedan name of Mohammed Ali Ben Said at the font, and [adopts] the Christian name of Nicholas" (pp. 142-145). The following year, Said sets out with the prince to tour Europe's great cities, including Vienna, Dresden, Munich, Heidelburg, Rome, Paris, and London. Said's travel notes regarding European politics, crime in Italian culture, comparative architectural styles, and potential successors to the papacy indicate the breadth and depth of his curiosity.

In exchange for his services, Prince Troubetzkoy grants Said permission to visit his native land for a year and gives him 300 pounds sterling. However, another traveler prevails upon Said to accompany him to the Americas, and, Said explains, "my fondness for travel asserted its supremacy" (p. 187). Therefore, he sets sail with De Sanddrost I.J. Rochussen of Dutch Guiana and his new wife, landing in the United States a few weeks later. (Said claims they arrived in 1867, but his military records and other evidence suggests the date was much earlier—possibly 1857.) After sailing to and around the Caribbean, Said and the Rochussens sail north to New York and proceed into Canada. In a small town north of Ottawa, Rochussen asks Said for a loan, claiming that his "remittance" is behind schedule. Rochussen promptly disappears with Said's 300 pounds, leaving him penniless. A local pastor loans him ten dollars and advises him to seek help in Detroit or Buffalo, where "there were a great number of colored people" (p. 200).

For a time, Said supports himself as a teacher in Detroit before moving to the South, "where I could be of great use to my benighted people" (p. 202). He lives in Charleston for a brief period, travels around the South teaching and speaking, and finally settles in St. Stephens, Alabama. "I felt an insurmountable desire to put an end to my peregrinations," Said writes (p. 209). Said concludes his biography with a tribute to the importance of education and self-denial, and restates his desire "to render myself useful to my race" (p. 212). His Autobiography also includes a "Supplementary Chapter" vaunting the effectiveness of Bladen Spring waters for treating "derangement of the liver" and other ailments, including "all Female Diseases" (p. 218). This addendum is included "at the request of several gentlemen"—perhaps as a precondition for publication (p. 214). As he recorded the story of his life, Said lamented that "Africa has been, through prejudice and ignorance, so sadly misrepresented, that anything like intelligence, industry, etc. is believed not to exist among its natives" (p. 14). His Autobiography and other texts like it attempt to rectify this misconception.

Works Consulted: Al-Ahari, Muhammad A., ed., Five Classic Muslim Slave Narratives, Chicago: Magribine Press, 2006; Austin, Allan D., African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984; "Evolution of the Map of Africa," Princeton University Library Digital Collections; Khair, Tabish, Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005; McQueen, James, A Geographical Survey of Africa: Its Rivers, Lakes, Mountains, Productions, States, Populations, &c., London: Frank Cass and Company, 1840 (reprinted 1969).

Patrick E. Horn

Document menu