Documentary looks at democracy of slave trade

HOLLYWOOD -- The horror of the African slave trade, particularly the experience of African-American slaves, has been documented by so many historians, novelists, playwrights and poets that it is tempting to view the PBS documentary "Prince Among Slaves" as just another way to celebrate Black History Month. This would be a mistake.

Not only is the story of Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a well-educated African prince who was captured and sold into slavery, a fascinating study of a man who became, at the end of his life, a cause celebre, it also illuminates the terrible democracy of slavery: To European slave traders and American slave holders, all black Africans were created equal -- without status, rights or humanity.

Just before his capture, Abdul-Rahman was a 26-year-old Muslim Fulbe prince, married with a son, who had recently taken command of his father's army. Returning from battle, he and a group of soldiers were ambushed, captured and sold to slave traders for muskets, whiskey and eight twists of tobacco. Eight terrible months later, he was set down with other chattel on the docks of the Natchez district of Mississippi. Purchased by a small-time planter named Thomas Foster, Abdul-Rahman tried to explain who he was; Foster laughed at the idea of African royalty and promptly named his new slave Prince.

It is difficult to imagine the hopeless plight of Abdul-Rahman and the many millions like him. His first desire was, of course, escape. But in 1788, alone in a strange land, with no resources, no friends, not even the assumption of humanity to protect him, escape was impossible. Instead, he was forced to draw upon his faith in God and submit to the life that was now set before him, a life unimaginable just one year before.

Narrated by Mos Def and directed by Andrea Kalin and Bill Duke, "Prince Among Slaves" is a riveting reminder that this country has as much to answer for morally as any other and that the outlawing of slavery, upon which so many economies were dependent for so long, is perhaps the greatest revolution the world has known.

For Abdul-Rahman, submission did not mean humiliation; he remains a prince even in slavery, radiating dignity and influence, raising a family and impressing those around him with his leadership and knowledge. Ironically, it was Abdul-Rahman's understanding of cotton that allowed Foster to become one of the richest men, and the largest slave holder, in the district. When an American doctor Abdul-Rahman had known in Africa discovered Prince, Foster was pleased to learn that he did indeed own African royalty, but he refused to sell at any price.

Eventually, Abdul-Rahman's cause was taken up by a local editor and brought to the attention of the U.S. government; President John Quincy Adams met twice with "The Moor" and approved his return to Africa, mostly as a publicity stunt.