Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan and Other Famous Early American Literary Mahometans

  • Philip D. Beidler
Part of the Signs of Race book series (SOR)


One of the most widely told anecdotes about the tragic destruction of the University of Alabama by Union raiders in April 1865 concerns the unusual identity of the single book saved from the burning library. It was a copy of the Koran. A strange fact, you might say; but perhaps not too strange, in a war in which troops fought on both sides uniformed as French-Algerian Zouaves—complete with Fez, sashes, brocaded cutaway jackets, scarlet pantaloons. Scimitars seem to have been optional; but dress wear in some cases did require a turban. Nor was it too great a literary irony especially for the region whose favorite imported reading included Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman, with its romantic bookending of Richard Lion Heart with his noble adversary Saladin, or a wildly popular pseudo-oriental verse romance by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, set in Kashmir and detailing the courtship of a Moghul princess by the King of Bokhara, entitled Lallah Rookh. Probably one should also note in this connection that Mark Twain, in Huckleberry Finn, attempting to put a period on his absolute contempt for antebellum Southern romanticism, sends two steamboats to the bottom of the Mississippi. The first is named the Walter Scott. The second, rendered in the parlance of the region, is the “Lally Rook.”


Slave System African Slave Atlantic World Black Slave Early Republic 
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  1. 1.
    In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court, Hank Morgan, newly arrived in medieval England, is being carried captive by a knight who has claimed him by right of conquest. He sees a glistening edifice of towers and turrets in the distance. “Bridgeport?” he asks his captor. “Camelot,” is the answer.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    To use Said’s exact formulation, “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological epistemological distinction made between the “Orient” and (most of the time) the “Occident.” As a cultural discourse, it constructs “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 2–3.Google Scholar
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    These are current dictionary etymologies, appearing in Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary. Since the age of Johnson in England and Webster in America, they have passed in and out of lexicographical currency, often with no discernible historical logic. Mahomet, for instance, seems to have been the preferred reference to the Prophet in a number of major early American writers, although Mohammed and Muhammed were equally well known in standard usage.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Among canonical writers of the American Renaissance, Egyptological references form their own vast web of discourse. In “The Prairie” chapter of Melville’s Moby-Dick, contemplating the enigmatic visage of the great sperm whale, Ishmael famously concludes, “Champollion deciphered the wrinkled granite hieroglyphics. But there is no Champollion to decipher the Egypt of every man’s and every other being’s face” (380). (New York: Penguin, 1992.) Of his celebrated foleaceous railroad bank in spring thaw, Thoreau similarly asks in Walden “What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last?” (203). Owen Thomas, ed. Walden and Civil Disobedience (New York: Norton, 1966). “What is the grass,” Whitman similarly inquires, answering “…I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,/And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,/Growing among black folks as among white,/Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same” (34) Leaves of Grass, ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York: Norton, 1965). One could extend the string of citations through Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and a host of lesser literary devotees of what Schueller calls Egyptomania.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    This gathering of titles appears in Malini Johar Schueller’s U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790–1890 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), to which much of my subsequent discussion of “Barbary” orientalism is deeply indebted. Further page references are parenthetical in the text.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Numerous personal narratives of the Barbary slave experience, further revealing the ubiquitousness of the genre in early American writing, have recently been collected by Paul Baepler in White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).Google Scholar
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    Royall Tyler, The Algerine Captive, ed. Jack B. Moore (Gainesville, FL: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1967), 169–170. Further page references are parenthetical in the text.Google Scholar
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    The intention is noted in Rowson’s preface to the print text. The version cited here appears in Plays by Early American Women, 1775–1850, ed. Amelia Howe Kritzer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 55–95. For details on Reinagle, see Jenny Franchot, “Susanna Haswell Rowson,” American Writers of the Early Republic, ed. Emory Elliott (Detroit: Gale, 1985), 257.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    The publication dates of the three editions published during Tyler’s lifetime actually parallel crucial stages in what were called the “Barbary wars.” The 1797 first edition appeared, as Jack Moore points out, in the same year Joel Barlow negotiated the release of captured Americans in Algeria (xvi–xvii). The 1802 London edition appeared in the midst of the 1801–1805 war; and the 1817 edition followed opportunely upon the victorious punitive expedition by naval forces under Captain Stephen Decatur whereby a peace treaty favorable to U. S. interests was finally secured.Google Scholar
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    Autobiography, ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 176. In “A Dialogue Between Two Presbyterians,” Franklin used the same figure to defend a minister fallen afoul of local orthodoxy. “I would only infer,” says one of the speakers, “that if it would be thought reasonable to suffer a Turk to preach among us a Doctrine diametrically opposed to Christianity, it cannot be reasonable to silence one of our own Preachers, for preaching a Doctrine exactly agreeable to Christianity, only because he does not perhaps zealously propagate all the Doctrines of an Old Confession” [Papers of Benjamin Franklin, II, 32, ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960)].Google Scholar
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    William Byrd, “History of the Dividing Line,” The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover, ed. Louis B. Wright (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 248.Google Scholar
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    Cotton Mather: Selections, ed. Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Hafner, 1965), 292.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Robert C. Davis, “Counting European Slaves on the Barbary Coast,” January 5, 2001 paper, American Historical Association, Boston, MA. Cited by David Brion Davis, “Slavery—White, Black, Muslim, Christian,” New York Review of Books, July 5, 2001, 51.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Indeed, as early as 869 CE, Davis reminds us, “the Arabs had transported enough black slaves from East Africa to the Persian Gulf to ignite an extensive revolt in the Tigris-Euphrates delta in what is now Iraq.” Before they were defeated in 883, the insurrectionists themselves “killed thousands of Arab men, enslaved countless women and children, and even threatened Baghdad” (51). Davis’s summations derive from his own massive research in the field, forming the basis of his classic study The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966). Islamic slave practices are also treated in authoritative detail in Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). In the context of the present argument, it should be noted that both writers remark significantly on racist attitudes developed by Muslim slavers against subsaharan Africans.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    See Ronald Segal, Islams Black Slaves: The Other Diaspora (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). Following Bernard Lewis, Segal asserts that Islamic culture evolved from early attitudes with no particular negative associations attaching to blackness to distinctly negative ones attached to slavery. “Finally,” writes Segal, citing Lewis directly, “‘the large-scale importation of African slaves influenced Arab (and therefore Muslim) attitudes to the peoples of darker skin whom most Arabs and Muslims encountered only in this way’” (46).Google Scholar
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    To evidence the persistence of such attitudes of acceptance among Anglo-Europeans in their encounters with Islamic slavers, see Karl E. Meyer & Sharleen Blair Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999). An explorer in 1832 noted, for instance, “that it was common practice for Uzbek man-hunters to capture Russians for sale in Bokhara’s markets.” “The Mahometans are not sensible of any offense in enslaving the Russians,” he explained, “since they state that Russia herself exhibits the example of a whole country of slaves, especially in the despotic government of their soldiery” (81).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    A frequently adduced example of this is the interchangeability of the words “slave” and “servant” in early America when applied to both indentured whites and enslaved African Blacks. Orlando Patterson, for instance, notes this cultural practice (6–7), in turn citing Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), 45–48. One might also adduce, from major texts of antebellum American writing, the depiction of polite slaveowners’ preferences for the ongoing use of the euphemism “servant” in referring to their chattel. See, for instance, conversations between Mr. and Mrs. Shelby on their Kentucky plantation in Uncle Toms Cabin as they prepare to sell Tom and Eliza’s son Harry to a slave trader.Google Scholar
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    Mills M. Lord, Jr., David Levy Yulee: Statesman and Railroad Builder. Unpublished M. A. History thesis, University of Florida, 1940.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    For a succinct account of such tribal policies and practices during the early modern era, see Felipe Fernandez Armesto, Millennium (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 271–273.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Allen D. Austin, ed. African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook (New York: Garland, 1984).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Jane I. Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 51–53.Google Scholar

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© Philip D. Beidler and Gary Taylor 2005

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  • Philip D. Beidler

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