Monday, July 12, 2010

Nicholas Said, first African-American Orthodox Christian?

In June of 1863, a 29 year old free black by the name of Nicholas Said enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry. The military service documents record that he was born in Detroit, Michigan and that his occupation was "servant." But Nicholas was not born in Detroit, Michigan, nor had he always been a servant. In fact, Nicholas was born in the Kingdom of Bornou in Central Africa, the ninth of 19 children, and originally named Mohammed Ali Ben Said. Nicholas was not only the son of a powerful African Muslim military leader, he is also the first known African baptized as an Orthodox Christian to come to the United States.

The Bornou Empire, which was centered in West Central Africa around Lake Chad, rose to prominence ca. 1600 through military conquest. Using techniques learned from Ottoman military advisors, Bornou subjugated its neighbors and carried on a lucrative trade in slaves. By the time of Muhammad Ali Ben Said's birth ca. 1836, Bornou had been in decline for decades and was beset from without by a Jihad launched by the Islamic reformer Usman Dan Fodio. Even though Bornou was itself an Islamic state, the Fulani Jihad was directed at surrounding Muslims who were seen as unorthodox.

Said's family was well-off within the Empire. His father was one of the trusted lieutenants of the king of Bornou and a member of the warrior class. His family held numerous slaves taken in warfare and received as gifts of the king. That Said neglects to mention this in his autobiographies is an interesting bit of political maneuvering in the wake of a Civil War between a slaveholding South and a free labor North.

Said was himself enslaved by a "marauding tribe" of African slavers around the time he was 15 years old and sold to an Arab merchant from Tripoli. He exchanged hands several times, passing through Turkey and wound up as a gift given to a Russian diplomat. He was then given over to Prince Nicholas Vassilievitch Troubetzkoy, a member of an eminent Russian family. Prince Troubetzkoy insisted that Mohammed Ali learn Russian and convert to Christianity, which he initially resisted, but eventually consented to. On November 12, 1855, at the age of 19 or 20, Said was baptized. He had some misgivings about this experience:

Hitherto, ever since my advent into Christendom, I had remained a consistent Islam (sic), repeating the requisite number of prayers daily, and at the time required, refraining from the use of pork, wine, etc., and rolling my eyes in holy horror at the frequent infractions of the law of the Koran that I constantly had occasion to witness. But His Excellency made up his mind to turn me from the error of my ways, and devoted himself assiduously to the accomplishment of his purpose.

Whenever he went to prayers, he made me stand before him, bon gré, mal gré, and imitate every action of his, such as kneeling, bowing, making the sign of the cross, etc., and I used to enjoy myself hugely, cutting capers and going through all sorts of pantomimic performances when he thought I was acting in a very devotional manner.
One day, as I was indulging extensively in my favorite amusement, the Prince happened to turn, and caught me in my most striking attitude, whereupon he gave me a striking reminder of what was decent and respectful on such solemn occasions, by administering to my ears a good boxing and depriving me of my dinner.

Finally, my prejudices gave way, however, and I consented to embrace the Greek faith, the State religion of Russia.
I was baptized in Riga on the 12th of November, 1855, leaving my Mohammedan name of Mohammed Ali Ben Said at the font, and bearing therefrom the Christian name of Nicholas. This performance ended, I thought the job was complete, but the next day the papa, or priest who had me baptized, sent for me, and on getting where he was, I found myself in a beautiful chapel, handsomely paved with marble of different colors. He caused me to kneel before an immense tableau of the Saviour for hours, asking pardons for my past sins. As the marble was harder than my knees, I was in perfect agony during the greater portion of the time, and became so enraged with the papa, that I fear I committed more sins during that space of time than I had done in days before. In fact, I am not sure but that a few ungainly Mohammedan asperities of language bubbled up to my lips. But I managed to get through without any overt act of rebellion.

When I had become a confirmed Christian, the Prince presented me with a solid gold cross, and a chain of the same metal to suspend it around my neck by, in the prevailing Russian fashion; and, as he had never allowed me to associate with the rest of his domestics, I began to consider myself quite a superior being.

Said's attitude with regard to Orthodoxy does not seem to be one of great devotion. For him, being in the position of a servant, it was a means to gain better treatment and the favor of his master. It was likely much the same for many first generation slaves brought to the New World; acceptance of Christianity held the promise of better treatment, and in rare cases manumission. An 1867 article in the Atlantic Monthly reveals Said was grateful to his master for the baptism, despite his lack of knowledge at the time:

I shall always feel grateful, so long as I live, for Prince Nicholas's kindness to me; but I cannot help thinking that the way I was baptized was not right, for I think that I ought to have known perfectly well the nature of the thing beforehand. Still, it was a good intention the Prince had toward my moral welfare.

Said would later become the first African-American apostate - if he can be called that. As early as 1863, one source records that Said "emphatically" proclaimed himself to be a Protestant. According to his autobiography, he abandoned his nominal faith for Swedenborgianism. But there is one other tantalizing tidbit. The 1867 Atlantic Monthly article refers to a clergyman he met in Constantinople while he was in the service of the Russian diplomat Mentchikoff. Years later, while working in Detroit, he met this same clergyman again. This was some time between 1861 and 1863. Neither the name nor the denomination of this particular clergyman is given by the editor of the article. Could this have been an Orthodox priest? Were there any Orthodox priests in Detroit around this time?

Some American Muslims have attempted to lay claim to Said by glossing over the fact that he was clearly a practicing Christian, and conveniently leaving out the fact that in his autobiography he decries the influence of Islam on his homeland, going so far as to criticize "Moslem fanaticism" and Sharia law's mistreatment of women. I doubt that we can consider Said the first black Orthodox Christian in the United States, but he is certainly the first that we know of who was baptized into the Church and was influenced by Orthodoxy. Neither Islam nor Orthodoxy can fully claim Said, but I feel there is something to be said for the influence of Russia and Orthodoxy on the man that he ultimately became. It was not until he came to Russia that he began to be treated humanely (not that his treatment was without cruelty). And the nagging regret Nicholas felt when he decided to leave Russia for the New World testifies to the fact that he developed a strong connection to the people there:
After he [the Prince] found that I was not to be persuaded [to remain], he got up with tears in his eyes, and said: "Said, I wish you good luck; you have served me honestly and faithfully, and if ever misfortune happens to you, remember I shall always be, as I always have been, interested in you." I, with many tears, replied that I was exceedingly thankful for all he had bestowed on me and done in my behalf, and that I should pray for him while I lived. I felt truly sorry to leave this most excellent Prince. . . . It was many days before I overcame my regret. Often I could hardly eat for grief (emphasis added).

Nicholas' promise to pray for his master may have come from his exposure to Orthodoxy. In the 1867 article, Nicholas relates that he was given "several very interesting" religious books by the Prince's brother, Vladimir, then dying of consumption in Dresden. We can only guess what those might have been, but they were probably Orthodox in nature.

We do have a fairly good picture of what Said did following the Civil War. A May 23rd, 1871 Freedman's Bank record indicates that Nicholas was in Tallahassee, Florida. The Freedman's Bank was established to help emancipated slaves and African-American veterans establish financial security. Said came to the Union Bank in Tallahassee, which still stands, to apply for an account with the Freedman's Bank. He described himself to the bank agent as a "traveler" and his occupation as "teacher." Nicholas was apparently rather well known to the record-taker, who added at the bottom, "This is the wonderful Nicholas Said, doubtless."

Nicholas's signature on the Freedman's Bank application

In the following years he traveled throughout the South and spoke about his experiences. First he settled in Alabama, where he worked as a teacher. He spoke positively of whites in Alabama, which stood in stark contrast to the scorn he heaped on the mulatto population of Haiti and the West Indies in his autobiography. Things in Alabama evidently did not work out, for he then reappears in Brownsville, Tennessee, working again as a school teacher. The 1880 census reveals that he was boarding with a family of ex-slaves and their children, the Jordans.

Towards the end of his autobiography, Said noted that a life of self-sacrifice and love for one’s fellow man led to happiness:

Self-denial is now-a-days so rare, that it is thought only individuals of insane mind can speak of it. A person who tries to live only for others, and puts himself in the second place, is hooted at, and considered a fit inmate for the asylum. The man who artfully extorts the earning of his fellow-man, and who seems to have no feeling for his daily wants, is, by a strange perversion, deemed the wise. To me, it is impossible to conceive how a human being can be happy through any other channel, than to do as much good as possible to his fellow-man in this world.

A scribbled note from Said's military records claims that he died in Brownsville Tennessee on August 6, 1882. He died relatively young, in his mid to late 40s. I am currently trying to get hold of Haywood County, Tennessee death records from that time period to find out where he is buried. If I can find out where his grave is, I intend to go visit and perhaps make a rubbing.


At 7:56 PM, Blogger Steve Hayes said...

It is interesting that there is now a growing community of Orthodox Christians among the Toubouri people of Chad.

At 8:13 AM, Anonymous RaDonna Smith said...

What a fascinating story!

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Dean Calbreath said...

I'm currently writing a book about this guy. If you're interested, I can tell you exactly what preacher he met in Constantinople/Detroit (unfortunately for your purposes, he was a Presbyterian), and I can tell you how he got to be a Swedenborgian (which was kinda like being a Unitarian, which I think may have been important to him, since he never completely severed his ties with Islam). Pop me an email and I can tell you more - if you're interested.


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