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Contributed Scholarly Introduction: al-Sadiqa, Abu Bakr, Scherife of Timbuctoo (1835)

al-Sadiqa, Abu Bakr, Scherife of Timbuctoo (1835)

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The Narrative of the Scherife of Timbuctoo was published as a letter in Volume II (pp. 126-30) of R. R. Madden's, "A Twelvemonths Residence in the West Indies" (1835). Madden notes al-Sadiqa's account was first written in Arabic and, then, translated by al-Sadiqa into English. The letter is dated as September 20, 1834.


The narrative of Abu Bakr al-Sadiqa (also known as Edward Donlan), came into being after British magistrate, Robert Madden, saw al-Sadiqa write his name in elegant Arabic while at a Jamaica market. After talking with him, Madden asked al-Sadiqa to write a narrative of his history. al-Sadiqa’s narrative, which appears on page 126 of Madden’s travel journal, A Narrative of Twelvemonths Residence in the West Indies (1835), continues for four and a half pages. And though physically bound to Madden’s text, it is written in a very different voice. The difference is also partially due to the fact that al-Sadiqa wrote the narrative in Arabic, and then translated it into English while he read it aloud to Madden. In a note Madden explains that “the [narrative] was written in Arabic. The man speaks English well and correctly for a negro, but does not read or write it. I caused him to read the original and translate it word by word; and from the little knowledge I have of the spoken language, I can safely present you with this version of it as a literal translation” (130).

Abu Bakr al-Sadiqa made at least three copies of his narrative. In addition to the version in Madden’s text, al-Sadiqa also wrote his narrative in Arabic while on board a ship to London after his manumission (Wilks 156). A third version, again written in Arabic, was translated, this time into French and English by G.C. Renouard, a French cleric. The second version, which Renouard saw, has been lost (Wilks 156). The two versions seen and written by Renouard were almost identical, and were slightly more detailed than Madden’s version—on the order of adding names of individuals and towns (Wilks 156).

Rather than provide narration of his experiences as a slave—the details of which he had discussed with Madden at their first meeting—al-Sadiqa chooses instead to describe his training as a scholar of the Koran; his home culture, capture and eventual enslavement in Africa; and his understanding of the tenets of Islam. Unlike other narratives, “al-Sadiqa’s was not directly linked to proselytizing sympathizers to wide political issues such as the abolition of the slave trade or emancipation of the slaves” (Handler 29). Although his narrative shares certain features with abolitionist discourse—such as drawing on the rhetoric human rights—it foregrounds its connections to other discourses, namely that of Africa and Islam. Furthermore, in describing his travels, al-Sadiqa presents an image of an urbane, cosmopolitan Africa, one that challenges the prevailing image of Africa as a collection of ‘uncivilized’ tribal villages. He also details the social and political complexity of African societies, documenting the dissolution of complex societies engendered by the slave trade.

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Works Cited 

Handler, Jerome. “Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in Barbados.” Slavery and Abolition. 19.1. (1998): 129-140.

---. “Survivors of the Middle Passage: Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in British America.” Slavery and Abolition. 23.1 (April 2002):25-56.

Wilks, Ivor. “Abu Bakr al-Siddiq of Timbuktu.” African Remembered: Narratives of West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade. Ed. Philip D. Curtin. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967: 152-169.

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