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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · May 31, 2019

Origins of a collaboration

WMQ 7 min read

by Elizabeth A. Dolan and Ahmed Idrissi Alami

The authors of “Muhammad Kabā Saghanughu’s Arabic Address on the Occasion of Emancipation in Jamaica” (William and Mary Quarterly, April 2019) discuss how they came to collaborate on the piece.


Our collaborative journey began with an unexpected find. I’d traveled to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast to read Sir Lionel Smith’s family papers. The archive included personal items such as a clipping of his wife’s hair that his children had saved, and his daughter’s natural history sketchbook. It also contained a document identified by the archive as “Letter (in Arabic, with accompanying translation) from a grateful, 90-year-old, released slave to Sir Lionel Smith, Governor of Jamaica, 1838.” Although the archive identified the author as Robert Peart, we later learned that he was known to scholars as Muhammad Kabā Saganughu.

I wanted to know more about the author, but needed a collaborator who could read Arabic. I wanted to compare the translation taped to the document with the words written by Robert Peart. Luckily, a fellow Romanticist at Purdue recommended her colleague Ahmed, an expert in nineteenth-century Arabic travel literature. I sent him a scan of the document along with all I knew about it at that point.


When I received the document, I realized that everything about it was unique. Although written in Arabic script, the document did not make sense in Arabic language. Except for the first name of the author, Muhammad, the other words of the address seem to be renditions of English in Arabic script. As I embarked on comparing the English translation with the original, I realized that there were some inconstancies and differences between the two versions. Deciphering the inflections and cursive turns of the author’s handwriting made the reading of the Arabic address for a long time seem like cracking a secret code.


We began meeting by Skype to discuss the document. Our process was to record all the questions that it raised for us—Who was Robert Peart? What was his history? What were the circumstances in which he wrote the address? Where there other addresses? Does the printed translation affixed to the archival document match the actual text? Ahmed and I split up the questions and kept a record of the answers as we found them as well as additional questions that arose. I worked on historical context and Ahmed worked on translating the address.


The translation of this document was challenging yet exciting. The English version taped to the document was helpful but we realized that there were variations between the two versions and some words in the original document were missing from the English version. It took me several weeks before I was able to piece together these words by comparing the unique writing style of the author with the missing words. Words such as “Africa” and “chainhood” in the body and the reference to the “end of torture” at the end proved key for the interpretation of the document.


Before Ahmed translated the address, he found an article in the Boston-based abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator that described the event at which Peart/Kabā Saghanughu delivered the address—a celebration of emancipation in Manchester parish, Jamaica. We learned that other addresses were delivered at the event, leading to a new question—how did Kabā Saghanughu’s address compare to others from that historical moment in Jamaica? That lead me back to Smith’s letters to the Colonial Office at the National Archive, Kew, London, where I reread all of Smith’s letters from the period of emancipation, paying close attention to the other nine addresses that he sent back to England. Because it was in Arabic script, we knew the address was exceptional. The comparison to other addresses further emphasized its unusual character.


As we discovered more about the author, a portrait of a deeply intelligent and canny man emerged. Our different areas of expertise—mine in the literature and history of England and the West Indies, and Ahmed’s in Arabic literature and Islamic history—formed the bedrock of our collaboration. But our shared fascination with and admiration for Kabā Saghanughu was the true joy of the collaboration. Kabā Saghanughu was a remarkable man and it was an honor to spend time with his words.


This collaboration was an exciting journey in which we were on an amazing quest to recover the subtle voice and unique character of a resilient and intelligent person. Engaging with the document provided an opportunity to get to know Kabā Saghanughu and share his testimony.


A lovely piece, beautifully done and memorable. By such things we remember what we should.
Below  •  June 01, 2019

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