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The History of Muslim Resistance in the West Indies

The recent victory of the West Indies over England in the recent cricket World Cup reminded me of the great struggle that was faced by millions of Muslims, many of whom were likely to be the ancestors of those who heroically defeated this very nation. Their struggle contributed significantly to the introduction of Muslims in this part of the world (though it is accepted that Muslims were already present in these lands).

Even the very name “West Indies” reminds us of the fall of Andalusia in 1492 which sparked the age of “Discovery” by the European powers, led by Spain. Christopher Columbus’s so-called ‘discovery of America’ began a four century long wave of slave imports with the European colonisation. Columbus was pressured by Ferdinand and Isabella of Castille & Aragon to find a quicker route to India. The purpose of searching for a new route to India was to make possible a two-pronged attack against the Muslims from the east and west. When Christopher Columbus reached Cuba in 1493, he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, saying:

In seven years from today, I can provide your highness with five thousand foot soldiers for the war and conquest of Jerusalem, upon which this proposition enterprise [i.e. this voyage] was taken“.[1]

Columbus sailed west from Europe in the hope that he would find India without having to sail east. Sailing east took a very long time and was fraught with danger, particularly from the Muslims who controlled much of that route. However, he did not find India and instead found the islands of the Caribbean. Due to the fact that, while looking for a route to India by sailing west from Europe, he found the Caribbean, these islands were named the West Indies. 

There are many high points in the history of Islām, during the course of which Muslims have been kings and rulers of great and vast empires. However, there were also low points and there came a time when they were uprooted from their home, taken away from family, marched to the coast, branded, loaded aboard a slave ship, shackled naked to the floor, beaten, tortured, put to infernal work in degrading conditions in an unknown distressing world and turned into slaves. They were victims of one of the most brutal episodes which ever took place on this planet.

The first slaves were brought to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies around 1518. Later, the English, French and Dutch joined the trade. One in three, 30% of those transported to the Americas, were Muslims. Many, if not most, of the slaves were from West Africa from the Mandinka, Fula, Susu, Ashanti and Hausa tribes, most of whom were Muslims.

Few Africans have left personal testimonies of their life under slavery, but among those that did, there is a disproportionate number of Muslims. These slaves were generally literate in Arabic and many of them could write with great beauty and exactness the Arabic alphabet and passages from the Qur’an. It is through their writings and those of plantation historians and British travellers that we learn how these Muslims proudly and fiercely maintained their Islamic faith, identity and continued to embody the spirit of resistance. In fact, many of these Muslims who were from the Mandika people in Africa became leaders of revolts against slavery and against the slave masters as will be discussed in another article in this series.

Robert Madden, a settler magistrate in Jamaica, had a slave called Abū Bakr, a Mandinka slave who authored two autobiographical pieces written in Arabic, as the son of a learned family in Islamic Jurisprudence from the city of Timbuktu. We learn that he acquired advance Qur’anic learning.[2] So strong was Abū Bakr’s Islamic teaching that, even after thirty years of bondage in Jamaica, he still knew the Qur’ān ‘almost by heart’. Like hundreds of other African Muslim slaves, Abū Bakr had different masters and had been baptised as Edward Donellan but he remained faithful to Islām. He is perhaps one of the very few who returned to Africa upon his manumission in 1834.

Madden’s records further reveal how, even when Muslim slaves were forcibly converted to Christianity, they were actually crypto Muslims and maintained their beliefs:

I had a visit one Sunday morning very lately, from three Mandingo negroes, natives of Africa. They could all read and write Arabic; and one of them showed me a Koran written, from memory by himself—but written, he assured me, before he became a Christian; I had my doubts on this point  (i.e. that he had become a Christian). One of them, Benjamin Cockrane, a free negro was in the habit of coming to me on Sundays … His history is that of hundreds of others in Jamaica… Cockrane says his father was a chief in the Mandingo country … I (Madden) have not the time to give you an account of his religious opinions; but though very singular, they were expressed with infinitely more energy and eloquence than his sentiments on other subjects. He professed to be an occasional follower of one of the sectarian ministers here, and so did each of his two friends. I had my doubts thereupon. I expressed them to my wife … and told her to prepare for a demonstration of Mohometanism (i.e. being a Muslim). I took up a book, as if by accident, and commenced repeating the well-known Mussalman Salaam to Prophet Allah ( sic.) Illah Mohammed RasulAllah! In an instant, I had a Mussalman trio, long and loud: my Neophytes were chanting their names with irrepressible fervour, and Mr Benjamin Cockrane I thought, would have inflicted the whole of ‘the perspicuous book’ of Islam on me, if I had not taken advantage of the opportunity for giving him and his companions reproof for pretending to be that which they were not”.[3]

Bryan Edwards, a British government official in the West Indies noted how one slave maintained his religious practices, stating:

“An old and faithful Mandinka servant, who stands at my elbow while I write this, relates that the natives practice circumcision, and that he himself has undergone that operation; and he has not forgotten the morning and evening prayer which his father taught him. In proof of this assertion, he chants in an audible and shrill tone, a sentence that I conceive to be part of the Al-Koran, ‘La Illa ill illa’! (i.e.La Ilaha Illallah, there is no god but Allah)… (as well as) strict fasting (in Ramadan). It was almost a sin, he observes, on that day to swallow his spittle…”[4]

One particular name that appears in the chronicles from this period is a slave by the name of Mahomed Kaba who was captured and brought to Jamaica in the 1770s. According to the British Missionary, J.H Butcher, “in order to [perform the] Mahometan fasts. Kaba would pretend to be sick”. Butcher further sets out that he was alleged to have said to the British authority “Me say me believe in God but not in the son, for in me country we pray to god and his prophet Mahomet.”[5]

Many years later, Kaba was alleged to have formally converted to Christianity and been renamed Robert Tuffit but it is clear from his writings after he became a freedman that he retained his allegiance to Islām. One particular letter demonstrates this wherein he states:

“In the name of God, Merciful Omnificent [sic], the blessing of God, the peace of his prophet Mahomet. This is from the hand of Mahomed Kaba, unto Kekir Sadiki Scheriffe.. I am glad to hear that you are the master of yourself,, it is a heartfelt joy to me.. Salaam aleikoum…”[3]

Madden wrote that, in the course of his stay in Jamaica, he met scores more of such African slaves who had been forced to adopt Christian names but secretly remained true to Islām. He also discovered an Arabic document, Wathiqa, circulating among the slaves “exerting the followers of Mahomet to be true to their faith”.

Points to Note:

The above accounts shows that Islām was the religion of hundreds of African slaves who were brought to the West Indies and, in spite of the hostile Christian environment they found themselves in, they continued to live as Muslims.

With remarkable determination, they maintained an intellectual life in mentally sterile surroundings. We learn that many of the Muslims who were enslaved were highly literate after years of study in Qur’anic schools and centres of higher learning in their countries which gave them a disproportionate influence in the slave communities.

Above all, we see that in freedom just as in enslavement, Islām was the hope of the Muslims, their strength and their comfort. In Part 2 of this series, inshāAllāh, we shall explore how Islām played a role in galvanising an organised force, and was the catalyst of revolt and insubordination.

Whilst the Muslims were carted off in shackles and had their outer being enslaved, we see that their Christian masters were unable to enslave their mind and soul and they remained the servants of none other than Allāh jalla waʿāla.

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] Letter from Columbus to Catholic Monarchs trans. from Castilian by William Phillips, in Constable, ‘Medieval Iberia, p.373;

[2] Philip D. Curtin, ed., Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans From the Era of the Slave Trade, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968, p. 153;

[3] Robert R. Madden, A Twelve Months Residence in the West Indies during the Transition from Slavery to Apprenticeship, Vol. I, Philadelphia: Carey Lea and Blanchard, 1835, pp. 99–101

[4] Edwards, The History, op. cit., pp. 71–72

[5] J. H Butcher – The Moravians in Jamaica: History of the Mission of the United Brethren’s Church (London; Longman, Brown 1834 50-51

Other:

Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas

Maria del Mar Logroño Narbona, Paulo G. Pinto, John Tofik Karam, Crescent over Another Horizon: Islam in Latin America, the Caribbean

About Z A Rahman

Z.A Rahman is a community activist and a member of a large Mosque in the UK. He graduated in Law, specialising in discrimination law and now works for a leading national company. He has a keen interest in politics and history, particularly Islamic history. He also enjoys traveling and has visited numerous countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

24 comments

  1. Far more black Africans ended up as slaves of the Arabs , Ottomans or Persians tha were ever slaves in the New World. and we are talking millions more slaves. In fact,it was only the defeat of the Ottomans in WW1 which actually ended most of it. Maybe the author would care to write a piece about the millions of black men who were castrated and sent throughout the Ottoman Empire as slaves?

  2. ” A good read with many refernces to the Quran and Isalmic scholarship”
    …but no references to actual islamic history.

    • Please see the footnotes. As in (1) (2) the references are clear and given.
      Make points that at least sound relevant.

      • Take another look at the footnotes. They all refer to slavery in the West Indies and Americas and make no references to slavery as practised by muslims for much longer.

        • Again Hector you keep putting things into your tiny Troll anti semetic and islamophobic world view.

          Slavery has exsicted since the early days of mans existence! It’s nothing to do with being about Islam!

          Even your a slave but you don’t see it as you’ve been so beaten and downtrodden when the master says I you say ‘we’!
          Your the classic House Negro and it comes out in each of your comments.
          Just read them back and the answer is clear for you to see.
          Stop being the House Negro Hector.

          • So, the muslim belief that they are entitled to make slaves of nonmuslims has “nothing to do with being about Islam”? The instructions on slavery in the koran are an interpolation, are they?
            It’s curious how muslims have grabbed rhetoric from the US civil rights movement and try to portray themselves as somehow oppressed and down-trodden when their god-given right to oppress others is criticised. Try thinking for yourself, instead of misquoting chunks of irrelevant guff, Abu mustafa.

            • I wonder when you’ll get tired of the recurrent pattern. Poor Hector in his compounded ignorance recites verbatim the usual drivel he’s learned from islamophobic sources. We come along and knock him for six with references to peer reviewed research. He goes and starts again on a different article.

              It is like watching a car crash in slow motion, how embarrassed we feel for the poor lad who thinks that people are going to lap up such propaganda slogans* as easily as he lapped them up initially himself; only for it to dawn on everyone else that no one’s that thick on this website…poor fella

              *propaganda slogans such as the formidable mistranslation of riqāq into “slavery” (which, unlike riqāq is a unilateral bondage). It almost adds to the pity we feel for him that he is unable to look at enlightened cultures and civilisations except with the slime that sullies his own.

              • If riqāq – whatever it is – is not a unilateral bondage, no doubt you can give instances when it was rejected and say what the consequences of rejection were, Rich.
                What is the usual transliteration of “riqāq” anyway? It does not often turn up in search engines.

                • As I’ve said to you before. Arabic does not translate well into English.
                  Also if you are saying that Islam had the same system of slavery as the West practised prove it from text. Why should we take your House Negro word for it as you will say anything your master says.
                  Let’s see you show the text and prove it from the original texts?
                  I’m waiting. Plus non of this translation stuff. I want the original text as translation can be way out.

                  • “The West” practiised a gresat many systems of slavery. So did islam. However, until they were forced to abolish slavery – officially, at least – muslims justified it by quoting from the koran, hadith and precedent. Rich has produced the term ” riqāq” which he does not bother to translate or explain and which may well be a mistaken transcription. Perhaps you would like to try to explain what it means, Abu mustafa.

                    It’s amusing to see the borrowing of Malcolm X’s terms “house negro” nd “field negro” to distinguish different varieties of muslims and even nonmuslims. First of all, the history of muslims in Britain is very different to the history of black Americans. British muslims were never slaves, in fact their attitude – like that of nearly all muslims – is closer to that pf the Martians in Mars Attacks!: “Nice planet. We’ll take it.”
                    The other amusing thing about Malcolm X’s interpretation is that he got it completely the wrong way round. The house negro was the one who could compare his life with his master’s, who was educated, who thought he was unfairly treated, who thought he could run the estate better than the masters and who revolted. Whatever the society, it was the “house negros” that led the fight for independence. Jinnah, Vlad Tepescu, Mohammed Ali Pasha are obvious examples of trusted servants who became leaders of revolts.

                    • Your proving your the house Negro troll again as you can’t even think out of your limited understanding.
                      It just shows how lost you are.
                      Not one quote or reference from original source.
                      I’m increasingly feeling sorry for your pathetic and desperate attempts of your toilet drivel.

                    • Come on, Abu Mustafa: I ask Rich to justify his claims that there is a significant difference btween “riqāq” and slavery and you idemand that I provide a “quote or reference from original source.” Until we know what Rich meant, how can we discuss it, with or without quotes or references from original sources?
                      I gave three specific instances of “house negroes” who turned against the empires they were favoured by: what do you object to about that list? You have heard of the people I mention, haven’t you?

                    • Please, don’t act like the referenced proofs have not been established against your pathetic trollage.
                      Adam Watson ring a bell? Seems like your concentration span is conveniently escaped by this, too time after time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pR50Lw_16zo

                    • Adam Watson quotes selected excerpts from the koran. Nowhere does he examine the way muslims obtained and treated slaves. He disregards the gap between Actual Existing Historical Islam and the Future Glorious Ummah which always lies just round the corner.
                      Still waiting to hear what ” riqāq” is.

  3. SALAM TO YOU ALL

    Quite a lively debate I must add good things do come in stages. So let’s look at this for a moment it is islam that freed not just slavery but all things but that is a nother chapter. Need I say more slavery is still ripe this is fact how by the big names on our towns and city’s, And we all have some form of link with these big labels brands ps how owns the big brands let me guess Europe’s and the so called democracies around the world. You only have to look at the sugar plantations in Africa are same in every way working conditions and payment. Why have fare trade is it not simple concece they work hard so pay them simple as you would like to be payed. History is very vast so please do not pick and choose as those how do wrong will all ways do wrong this is fact. That is why wise people had sayings like a leopard never changes its spotes.

  4. Awesome article! Islam21c does it again. MashaAllah. Jazakhallah khair.

  5. wow you did your research..amazing history that i don’t think many West Indians know about….x

  6. Interesting although of course it neglects to mention that slavery in West Africa predates the Europeans and much of the slave trade in that part of the world was run by arabs.

    Muslims took over 10 million slaves from Africa and a further 1 million+ from Europe.

    Eventually of course Europe did much to stop the slave trade – against protests from muslims.

    • ha…ha…ha…you think there is no slavery in Europe or ‘the west’ today… It’s so easy to dupe someone like yourself…just play with words and voila—the kind white man abolished ‘slavery’ and the cherry on top is those mozlems (who obviously everyone would use as a moral compass) did ‘slavery’ too. Never mind that the ‘slavery’ of the mozlems was in fact a malicious slip of the pen when translating the institution of riqāq—something completely different to the white man’s *unilateral* bondage—UNTIL Europeans racialised it of course and hundreds of years later *some* (well integrated you’d be happy to know) Mozlems copied the superior white man. Read Adam Watson or watch this so that at least you don’t have an excuse that we didn’t direct you to where you could learn what these words actually meant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pR50Lw_16zo

    • Please, give some source to support your claims then we can check it. Do not expect anybody to believe in your words.

    • The Trolls don’t disappear for long do they!
      Islam came to free slaves as one the greatest rewards is feeing a slave as told to us by the prophet (sws)

      • One problem was that muslims’ enthusiasn for freeing slaves was so great that they had to make so many people slaves in order to free them.

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