"To advance through research, education and symposia, an increased public awareness of the Cape Fear region's unique history."
Uncle Moreau of the Cape Fear
Cape Fear Historical Institute Papers
(Also spelled Moro, Omoro, and Morrow)
One of Wilmington's and the Cape Fear region's most unual inhabitants
was "Moreau." An African teacher and trader who was born in eastern Africa near the Senegal River, he lived in Wilmington and Bladen County
as a slave of Governor John Owen. It is said his bearing was regal,
and because of his "manly and open-hearted character was treated with
the courtesy and honor he deserved by those who were his legal masters."
The Moreau we know of was born about 1770, his Muslim name was Omar ibn Said, and lived most of his adult life in Wilmington and declining years in Bladen County. Moreau was a familiar figure walking
the streets of Wilmington between 1800 and 1859.
Moreau's family resided in the city of Foutah (or Futa Toro), which was also the name of his tribe. According to the North Carolina magazine of 1854, "The story that he was by birth a prince of his tribe, is unfounded," though his father was in fact quite wealthy and owned at least seventy slaves. When Moreau was five years old (about 1775) his father was
killed in the predatory warfare that plagued eastern Africa, and his entire family was taken in by an uncle who was in the employ of the ruler of Foutah. Under his care Moreau was educated as a devotee of the Koran, and learned so well and quickly that he was promoted to a mastership
and taught the youth of his people for ten years.
Sold Into Slavery
Tiring of his teaching vocation, Moreau became a trader of cotton cloths and salt, and somehow ended up being sold into slavery and put on a slaver bound for America. In his autobiography, Moreau relates that "Wicked men took me by violence and sold me to the Christians" (pg. 794).
Though the slave trade was being outlawed by Western countries at that time, New England and other slavers were still operating between Africa, North America and the Caribbean. African slave labor was needed for
the expansion of cotton production in the South that fed the cotton
mills of New England.
The slaver Moreau was aboard made landfall at Charleston in 1807 where he was again sold, this time to a kindly man who treated him well, though he died shortly after. Moreau's second owner was cruel and put him to very hard tasks, forcing him to make an escape---and ended up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. There he was captured after entering a church to pray and placed in the Cumberland County jail where his unique Arabic writing ability was noticed by Sheriff Robert Montford (or Mumford), who
advised John Owen of Bladen County of his unusual guest. Owen, being much impressed by Moreau, contacted his master in Charleston and purchased the intelligent writer of Arabic for $1000.
While in the Fayetteville jail, the Negroes around Moreau called him "Omoro." This may be the genesis of the name we know this man by,
as he is known commonly in local history as Moreau, "Moro," "Uncle Moro," and "Prince Moro." The latter may be a liberty he took when writing his 1831 autobiography and claimed royal birth and lineage, and sifting fact from myth about this man is difficult today.
The editor of Omar ibn Said's (Moreau) autobiography in 1925, John Franklin Jameson, writes that "The numerous sketches of Said's life contradict each other on various issues, and his autobiography raises
more questions than it answers."
Enslaved Arab Slave Traders
Several historical sources reveal that some Arab slave traders in Africa were enslaved by competing New England slavers, often in retaliation for a slight or bad business deal. North Carolinian Robert McDowell bought a slave off a slaver in Charleston, describing him as "a commanding figure... [and his] clear-cut, aquiline features were extremely dark, like a Moor,
and his straight black hair and beard, matted from neglect, were not kinky. He was obviously not a Negro. "I will take him," said Mr. McDowell, "What is his nationality?" "To tell the truth, I don't know," answered the captain..."But I've always thought some slave dealer was settling an
The potential truth of this statement has been borne out by history. With
the approaching close of the slave trade [in 1808], far more ships
appeared on the Guinea Coast than could possibly be provided with
cargo; so the [English or New England] slave traders made raids upon
the slave barracks or barracoons. In doing so, they got a number of
Arabs, themselves slave traders, and their wives, concubines, and children.
Mr. McDowell's new slave was called "S'Quash," a phonetic effort at his real name, and he was familiar with Roman numerals and arithmetic, plus could read both Greek and Arabic. Holding himself aloof from black slaves, he would neither live or mate with them. He later discovered that
a Dinka Negress was a slave at a nearby plantation, and asked Mr. McDowell's permission to marry her. The famous Dinka tribe was
located in the old Anglo-Egyptian Soudan, and "in heir subtle Arabic
caste system she was eligible as a wife and was purchased" by
McDowell for $3000, a top price for a slave in those times (The Natural Bent, Memoirs of Dr. Paul R. Barringer, pp. 10-15).
In another case, a slave named Nero was purchased in Charleston by Wilmington Dr. John D. Bellamy and claimed to be an Arab prince kidnapped on the African coast and sold into slavery. He spoke Arabic and understood astromomy, though he was "the most unmerciful slave foreman I ever knew. He would whip the slaves with cowhides and they would complain to my father of cruelty. When my father learned of Nero's acts, he always sent for him and disapproved and condemned him. Nero was allowed to make money by odd jobs, which he hoarded and buried (Memoirs of an Octogenarian, Bellamy, page 18).
Learning English and Christianity
Owen taught Moreau to read and write the English language, and while
still a devout Mohammedan, explained Mohammedism to Owen and the lessons to be drawn from Christianity, and that he had a desire to
learn more about the teachings of Christ. Moreau converted to
Christianity between 1825 and 1830, becoming somewhat a
celebrity member of First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Third
and Orange Streets.
It was said that Moreau became a familiar face in that church,
and wearing his usual long coat and skull cap would "always bring
a small chair and place it for himself in the center aisle directly in front of the pulpit" to better hear and understand the service. From this vantage point "he riveted his attention upon the divine as the [minister] spoke words of admonition and guidance."
The Sessional Records of the First Presbyterian Church in
Wilmington contains the accounts of Moreau's regular participation
in the congregation.
John Owen was able to locate a Bible written in Arabic to help Moreau
in his conversion and understanding of Christianity while he performed
the household tasks of a butler and caretaker of Owen's stately plantation in Bladen County, Owen Hill. He served the family in Wilmington as well when Owen purchased a home there in 1836. An article published about Moreau in the 1825 "Christian Advocate" states that after he had received the Arabic Bible, Said "now reads the scriptures in his native language, and blesses Him who causes good to come out of evil by making his a slave."
Tradition has it that Moreau's Arabic-language Bible is in the possession
of Davidson College.
Governor John Owen
Moreau Offered Emancipation
Wilmington historian Louis T. Moore writes that "The Arabian Prince to
the day of his death was a straight, upstanding man of splendid physique and bearing. He was courteous and always deeply appreciative of the kindnesses shown him by Governor Owen. Moreau was twice offered
his freedom from Governor Owen, though he "was so satisfied and so devoted to his Master that he refused the chance and opportunity to leave."
After the death of Governor Owen on October 9, 1841 in Pittsboro, Moreau would claim as his master John's brother General Thomas Owen.
Moreau assisted Governor Owen in the education of his children at Owen Hill Plantation, and would gather them for a story session each evening at dusk. "Before the went to bed he would entertain them with strange, wierd and fanciful narratives of his native Arabia. These story-telling times were always regarded as the most eventful period of he day by the young people who called him "Uncle Moro." The Arabian Prince, with far distant look in his eye, would tell them in grave an sonorous tones the traditinos and fanciful imaginings of happenings in his far distant land." (Moore)
Moreau was described by those of his day as "an Arabic scholar, reading the language with great facility, and translating it with ease. His pronunciation of the Arabic is remarkably fine. An eminent Virginia scholar said, not long since, that he read it more beautifully than any one he ever heard, save a distinguished savant of the University of Halle."
Moreau's Christian Legacy
There is a story about Moreau's influence in introducing Christianity to his native land. Before his death in 1859 he contacted the American Bible Society through Governor Owen, and left orders at Liberia that whenever traders appeared from his people along the African coast that "they should be told to carry the message home that the words of Moses and Jesus would be sent to them [Arabic-language Bibles] if they wished it."
Later came the message [through missionaries] "We want that book
you promised us."
Prince Moreau lived his final years at Owen Hill Plantation near Elizabethtown in Bladen County, died in 1859, and is buried on the plantation grounds.
The family home of John & Eliza M. Owen in Wilmington was a
three-story brick residence located on North Front Street, a very unique structure with long windows on the ground floor with
exterior iron balconies attached. John Owen was born in Bladen County in August, 1787, the son of Thomas and Eleanor Porterfield Owen. John was elected to the North Carolina House of Commons in 1812, and to the State Senate in 1819, and again in 1827. He was elected governor upon the resignation of Governor James Iredell, Jr. who was appointed to the United States Senate.
About the Author
Bernhard Thuersam is the Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington. A native of the Niagara Falls,
New York area, he has ben a devoted student of world history since 1958, and is a former Chairman of the Cape Fear Museum Board
of Trustees. Contact him at email@example.com.
Early Wilmington Block by Block, Elizabeth McKoy, 1967
Stories Old and New of the Cape Fear Region, Louis T. Moore, 1956
North Carolina Governors, 1585-1968, Beth G. Crabtree, 1958
Memoirs of an Octogenarian, John D. Bellamy, Observer Press, 1941
The Natural Bent, Memoirs of Dr. Paul Barringer, UNC Press, 1949
North Carolina University Magazine, September 1854
Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, American Historical Review, 1925
©2006 Cape Fear Historical Institute