Salih Bilali, African Muslim

This is a brief account of the life of Salih Bilali who was born in 1765, southwest of Timbuktu in what would today be Mali. The account was written by James Hamilton Couper, the owner of the plantation on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia where Salih Bilali served from 1816-1846. It refers to the Muslim practices of Salih Bilali. The bracketed additions were probably made by William Brown Hodgson.

There are about a dozen negroes on this plantation, who speak and understand the Foulah language; but with one exception, they appear not to have been native born Foulahs; and to have acquired the language, by having been for sometime in servitude among that nation.

The exception I mention, is a remarkable man for his opportunities; and as his history, country, and the information he possesses, are interesting, I will give you, in detail, the results of the conversations I have had with him; feeling that every thing coming from a person, to whom Timbucto, Jenne and Sego, are familiar as household words, cannot fail to be gratifying to one, who has made Soudan a subject of research.

Tom, whose African name was SalibulAli, was purchased about the year 1800, by my father, from the Bahama islands, to which he had been brought from Anamaboo. His industry, intelligence, and honesty, soon brought him into notice, and he was successively advanced, until he was made head driver of this plantation, in 1816. He has continued in that station ever since, having under him a gang of about four hundred and fifty negroes, which number, he has shown himself fully competent to manage with advantage. I have several times left him for months, in charge of the plantation, without an overseer; and on each occasion, he has conducted the place to my entire satisfaction. He has quickness of apprehension, strong powers of combination and calculation, a sound judgment, a singularly tenacious memory, and what is more rare in a slave, the faculty of forethought. He possesses great veracity and honesty. He is a strict Mahometan; abstains from spirituous liquors, and keeps the various fasts, particularly that of the Rhamadan. He is singularly exempt from all feeling of superstition; and holds in great contempt, the African belief in fetishes and evil spirits. He reads Arabic, and has a Koran (which however, I have not seen) in that language, but does not write it.

So much for his character and history, since his arrival in this country. I will now give you his African reminiscences; and in doing so, I will put down all names as nearly in accordance with his pronunciation, as the difficulty of seizing upon, and expressing the peculiarities of a foreign language, will admit of. You will perceive, that the proper names differ slightly from the received spelling; and that the vocabulary varies somewhat from those given by you, in the Encyclopaedia Americana, and by Pritchard in his Physical Researches. You will, however, readily identify the words as belonging to the Foulah and Fellatah language. You will notice that in the numerals, a part are Foulah and a part Fellatah; and some common to both. A few, such as child, differ from both. He considers himself, as his language proves, a Foulah, and converses freely with the Foulahs, from Timboo and Foulah.

His native town is Kianah, in the district of Temourah, and in the Kingdom of Massina. Kianah is a considerable town, within half a mile of a great river, nearly a mile wide, which is called Maylo [Mayo]; and which runs from the setting to the rising sun, and this, to the north of the town. To the east of Kianah, this river unites with another large river which flows into it from the south. On this southern river, the large towns of Kounah and Jennay [Jenne], are situated; and he believes that the two unite beyond the latter town.

Kounah is situated on the north side of the southern river, immediately on its banks; and is two days’ journey, in a southwest direction, from Kianah. It is a very large town; and an extensive market is held, on stated days, on the opposite bank of the river. Beyond Kianah [Kouna], up the same river, but on the south side of it, is Jennay. It lies southwest from Kianah, and is also about two days’ walk from it. It is a very large town, being a day’s ride in circuit, for a man on horseback. The head priest resides at Jennay, and is called Almami. He has been frequently at Kounah and Jennay; and has heard of a large town on the great river, higher up than Jennay, which is west southwest from Kianah, and which is called Sego, and is the principal town of the Kingdom of Bambara. Another great town, the largest in the country, also lies on the great river, on the north side of it. It lies northeast from Kianah, and is called Tumbootu [Timbuktu]. It is a great distance from Kianah, more than two hundred miles.

Arab traders, who are nearly white, Mahometans in religion, and who speak the languages both of the Koran and the country, trade between Tumbootu, Kounah, Jennay and Sego. They travel in large boats, covered with awnings, and propelled by poles. They are armed, wear turbans, and travel in large parties, having frequently thirty or forty boats together. They bring for sale, salt in large thick slabs, blankets, guns, pistols, cotton cloth, beads, shell money, and sometimes horses. These traders differ from the natives in color, hair and dress, and come from a distant country beyond Tumbootu.

He has never been at Tumbootu. The natives he has seen, from that town and Jennay, speak a different language from his own, which is that of the Kingdom of Massina; but the traders understand both. Mahometanism is the religion of all. . . .

His father and mother, were persons of considerable property. When about twelve years old, as he was returning from Jennay to Ki[a]nah, alone, on horseback, he was seized by a predatory party and carried to Sego, and was transferred from master to master, until he reached the coast, at Anamaboo. During his journey, he passed a high range of mountains, on the slopes of which, he met with a nation of cannibals. After leaving Bambara, to use his own expression, the people had no religion, until he came to this country.

[From William Brown Hodgson, Notes on Northern Africa, the Sahara and Soudan. (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1844), 68-74.]