Mohammed Ali ben Said

A Short Biography

below is an excerpt of an observation taken from the exhibit on display:

Mohammed Ali ben Said (Nicholas Said) 1836-1882

The Autobiography of Nicholas Said, A Native of Bournou, Eastern Soudan, Central Africa

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", 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", 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. 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" .



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