Robert Adams (sailor)
Robert Adams (born c. 1790) was an American sailor who was enslaved in North Africa for three years, from 1810 to 1814. During this time he claimed to have visited Timbuktu, which may have made him the first Westerner to reach the city, though this part of his narrative is dubious. Upon his liberation and return to Europe, Adams' story was published in two heavily edited and divergent accounts, most notably The Narrative of Robert Adams in 1816.
Regardless of its discrepancies, Adams' accounts of his experience in Africa provide many valuable historical details about the region prior to European colonization.
Very little accurate biographical information about the man known as Robert Adams is available. It is known that he was an American of mixed black and white ancestry. While he used the name "Robert Adams" in Europe, he had earlier used the name "Benjamin Rose" both when he had shipped out from New York in 1810 and when he was rescued from slavery. It is not known which if either of these names was his real one, though at the time it was not uncommon for sailors, especially "distressed seamen", to change their names. He claimed to have been born around 1790 in Hudson, New York to a white sailmaker father and a mixed-race mother. However, there is no record of a man under either of his known aliases, or fitting his general description, in Hudson during this period.
Nothing else is known of his early life until 1810 when, under the name Benjamin Rose, he signed onto the ship Charles as a merchant seaman. As he recounts in his Narrative, the ship sailed from New York City in June 1810. After a stop in Gibraltar to discharge cargo, the ship continued its course down the west coast of Africa. The captain was unfamiliar with the territory, and the ship struck a reef just offshore Cape Blanco, in Western Sahara. The entire crew was able to reach the shore, but soon after were surrounded by a large group of Moors, who stripped them naked and imprisoned them.
Life as a slave
Robert Adams was enslaved for an estimated three years in northern Africa, passing through the hands of at least five different owners before he was eventually ransomed to British consul Joseph Dupuis at Mogador. His first owners were the Moors who captured the shipwrecked sailors of the Charles. They immediately traveled southwest, possibly with the intention of later selling their slaves at a large market. They crossed the desert at an estimated rate of 15–20 miles a day, under great hardship, with scarcity of both food and water. They were often forced to drink camel urine just to stay alive in the parched conditions.
At one point in the journey, the group of Moors was overtaken by a larger group of black Africans, who took both the Moors and the slaves as prisoners, including Adams. They again traveled great distances, first to the Africans' village. According to Adams' account, he and another Christian slave, a Portuguese man, were taken to Timbuktu in around July 1812. According to Adams, they were treated as honored guests of the king rather than as slaves, and were free to move about as they pleased within the city. They were considered an exotic oddity by the locals, and Adams later recounts that people used to come from far off lands to stare at them.
Eventually, Adams' stay as a guest came to a close, and he was traded to a group of Moors who sold tobacco. Several days after making their trade, Adams set off farther east, and eventually north, with his third group of captors. Adams suffered his second great desert crossing, once again drinking camel urine to survive and avoid dehydration. Eventually the Moors reached a village of tents, where Adams was put to work for several months tending goats and sheep. At some point during this phase of his enslavement, Adams' master had promised to take him all the way to Mogador and trade him to the British consul, thus helping him attain freedom. However, his master later went back on his word and Adams rebelled as a result, refusing to care for the animals. This angered his master, who later sold him to another.
And thus Adams fell under ownership of his fourth master, a man with two wives. Adams was given to one of the wives as her personal slave. Some time later, the second wife enlisted the assistance of Adams to care for her goats. In payment, she allowed Adams to “rest” in her tent. This relationship continued for months, and upon his master's knowledge of the affair, Adams was traded for blankets and dates. His fifth master took him farther north to a village settlement where he met other Westerners, including some of his former companions from the Charles. One of the white men had already renounced his Christian faith to attain freedom, and shortly after, two of his sailing companions from the Charles also renounced their faith. Not long after, the British consul Joseph Dupuis ransomed Adams, thus securing his freedom.
From slavery to freedom
After trading for Adams, the British consul Dupuis took him first to Agadir, then to Mogador, where Adams stayed for nearly seven months. It was here that he first appeared in the historical record, with the date October 6, 1813. From here, he was sent north to Tangier, to the American Consul-General, James Simpson. After this, Adams sailed to Cadiz, Spain, where he hoped to connect with a ship headed for the United States. Unfortunately, he arrived two days late, and stayed on in the city. There he recounted his story to the American Samuel A. Storrow, who eventually published this "Cadiz Narrative" in 1817. Subsequently, Adams went to Gibraltar, where he was able to travel by ship to Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales. Adams later ended up in London, where he survived as a beggar.
In November 1815, Adams was sought out by Simon Cock of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, who had been led to him by a traveler who recognized Adams from Cadiz. Intrigued by the prospect of speaking to someone who had been to Timbuktu, Cock brought Adams to the Company's office. There, Adams agreed to recount his story in exchange for finances and security to travel home to New York. Cock and company questioned Adams and assembled a narrative of this account; it was published as The Narrative of Robert Adams in 1816.
According to Cock's introduction to the Narrative, Adams sailed home in December 1815, leaving behind much of his payment as well as his royalties from the book, but promising to return in the spring. Due to the dangerous nature of trans-Atlantic crossings in the winter, he gave Cock the "particulars of his family" to verify claims on his earnings. However, the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa's records do not show any money was ever paid to, or held for, Adams or his family. From this point, Adams vanishes from the historical record.
Two versions of Adams' story were published. The Company of Merchants Trading to Africa (aka the African Company) published the first version based on interviews held with Adams at their London offices. This version was titled The Narrative of Robert Adams included an introduction, notes, and other supporting material. Simon Cock was its primary editor and Joseph Dupuis added notes based on his encounter with Adams. The book was published by John Murray in 1816. The Narrative is reminiscent of Barbary slave narratives, which were written by other shipwrecked sailors who had been taken captive and enslaved in Northern Africa (he was not captured by Barbary corsairs, and he spent his captivity in the Sub-Saharan region south of the Barbary coast). Robert Adams and his shipmates were not alone in their condition of captivity as Christians in North Africa. It is estimated that 700 Americans were held captive as North African slaves between 1785 and 1815, just before the publication of Robert Adams' Narrative, and these Barbary captives produced more than 100 separate editions of 40 full length narratives. The one notable difference in the Narrative of Robert Adams is that Adams describes his visit to the legendary city of Timbuktu, much coveted by Europeans in that time. Adams was the first Westerner to ever give a full account of the city of Timbuktu. As Frank T. Kryza writes, "No European explorer had been there and returned since the Middle Ages."
The second version, known as the "Cadiz Narrative", was written up by Samuel A. Storrow, a "gentleman of Boston" who Adams met in Cadiz. This version was published as "Interiour of Africa" in the North American Review in May 1817, with an introductory note from editor Jared Sparks. In July 1817 Sparks wrote a review of the African Company's version, noting the discrepancies between the Cadiz account and the London version and calling Adams' tale a "fiction."
The legends of the gold of Timbuktu spread after Mansa Musa, King of the Empire of Mali, set out in the year 1324 on a hajj, or journey to Mecca, showering gold on everyone he met. Ibn Battuta, famed Moroccan traveler, visited Mali for several months from 1352-1353 and confirmed an abundant supply of gold in the kingdom. These accounts spread throughout Africa and Europe, with many European countries coveting gold from the Malian city. The only people not looking for Timbuctoo were the Americans, because the United States was such a young country at that time.
Timbuktu was at the time a major center of trading, with a focus on salt, books, and gold. Goods coming the Mediterranean shores and salt Tegaza in the north were traded in Timbuktu for gold, which came from the immense gold mines of the Boure and Banbuk. The prosperity of the city attracted both black African and Arab scholars, merchants and traders from all over North Africa. Salt, books and gold were very much in demand at that time. The fact that the city was a major center for trading goods for gold only increased its fame, and it was this very trade that made the city enormously wealthy.
Many failed expeditions to the remote city of Timbuktu were attempted by the following explorers: the American John Ledyard, the Englishman Simon Lucas, the Irishman Major Daniel Houghton, the Scotsman Mungo Park, the German Frederick Hornemann, an Englishman named Nicholls, and the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. They all failed in one way or another, mostly by either disappearing in the middle of the expedition or by dying before reaching the city. Most did not return home. Robert Adams' tale of his visit to Timbuktu was highly significant for two reasons: first, a westerner finally managed to arrive at the famed city, long coveted for its supposed wealth and extensive reserves of gold, and second, because he arrived there by accident, and not through an organized exploration.
The part of Adams' story that gained the most attention was his account of Timbuktu. However, his account does not match what is now known of the city, and is regarded as a probable fabrication.
- The Narrative of Robert Adams, a sailor, who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and resided several months in the city of Tombuctoo. With a map, notes, and an appendix. London: John Murray, 1816
- The Narrative of Robert Adams, a sailor, who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and resided several months in the city of Tombuctoo. With a map, notes, and an appendix. Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1817.
- "The Narrative of Robert Adams, An American Sailor, who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, and was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert. He was the first White Man who ever visited the great city of Tombuctoo, where he resided several months." In Robinson Crusoe's Own Book; or, the voice of adventure, from the civilized man cut off from his fellows, by force, accident, or inclination, and from the wanderer in strange seas and lands, by Charles Ellms. Boston: Joshua V. Pierce, 1946.
- Shah, Tahir. Timbuctoo: Being a singular and most animated account of an illiterate American sailor, taken as a slave in the great Zahara and, after trials and tribulations aplenty, reaching London where he narrated his tale London: Secretum Mundi, 2012
- Adams, Robert (2005). Charles Hansford Adams, ed. The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive: A Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press. pp. ix, xliii. ISBN 0521842840. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
- Adams, Robert (2005). Charles Hansford Adams, ed. The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive: A Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press. pp. x–xi. ISBN 0521842840. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
- Adams, Robert (2005). Charles Hansford Adams, ed. The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive: A Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press. pp. xvi; 182. ISBN 0521842840. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
- Adams, Robert (2005). Charles Hansford Adams, ed. The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive: A Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press. p. x. ISBN 0521842840. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
- Gardner, Brian (1968). The Quest for Timbuctoo. London: Readers Union Cassell. pp. 20–22. ISBN 978-0-304-93081-4.
- Adams, Robert (2005). Charles Hansford Adams, ed. The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive: A Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press. pp. xiii; xvi–xvii. ISBN 0521842840. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
- Adams, Robert (2005). Charles Hansford Adams, ed. The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive: A Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press. pp. ix–x. ISBN 0521842840. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
- Adams, Robert (2005). Charles Hansford Adams, ed. The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive: A Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press. p. xvi. ISBN 0521842840. Retrieved September 12, 2012.
- Kryza, Frank T. (2006). The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold. New York: HarperCollins. pp. xi. ISBN 978-0-06-056064-5.
- Gordon, Sam. "Morocco: Hunt for Djinns and Sorcerers". Retrieved 29 March 2012.
- Staff. "History of Timbuktu, Mali". Timbuktu Educational Foundation. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
- Baxter, Joan. "Timbuktu - City of Legends". BBC News Online. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
- Adams, Charles Hansford (2005), The narrative of Robert Adams: A Barbary Captive. A Critical Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Adams, Robert (2005). Charles Hansford Adams, ed. The Narrative of Robert Adams, A Barbary Captive: A Critical Edition. Cambridge University Press. p. xiii. ISBN 0521842840. Retrieved September 12, 2012.