The epic life of Nicholas Said, From Africa To Russia To The Civil War

Dean Calbreath’s biography, ‘The Sergeant,’ relates the improbable adventures of a brilliant 19th-century Black man


If a novelist had written the life of Nicholas Said, “Son of an African General, Slave of the Ottomans, Free Man Under the Tsars, Hero of the Union Army,” she would have been criticized for creating a character who defies reality. The improbabilities that formed Said’s life make any summary oversimplified. For the astonishing details, read Dean Calbreath’s biography, “The Sergeant.”

Mohammed Ali ben Said (later Nicholas Said) was born circa 1837 into a powerful family in Kukawa, then the walled capital of the sheikhdom of Borno and now northeastern Nigeria. His father was a warrior and military leader who enslaved many people — though he was himself enslaved, but of a higher order than the others. Under Borno’s feudal system, he was a general, or “kachella,” entrusted to take on certain tasks. If vassals failed to meet the high taxes demanded of them, kachellas were dispatched to plunder and loot villages and enslave anyone old enough to work in payment. Said’s father kidnapped people into slavery and was actively involved in Borno’s thriving slave trade, which brought people to market in Egypt and Liberia for sale throughout the Muslim world.

In the complex world of Islamic slavery, most Muslim enslaved people came into bondage through violence and were doomed to lives of hard labor at great distances from home, but a discrete number rose to professional positions, as Said’s father had done. Unlike American chattel slavery, bondage did not pass from parent to child. In addition, “Islam generally offered more legal rights and paths to freedom than in the Americas … [and] discouraged perpetual slavery.” Thus, opportunities were open to Said.

When Said’s father was killed driving back an attack from a neighboring kingdom, 9-year-old Said was sent to boarding school by his uncle guardian. There, he mastered writing in Kanuri and then Arabic. At 13, Said was captured and sold to Abd el-Kader, “a most ferocious and cruel-looking” merchant who traded in ivory and people. Said was forced to travel across the Sahara to the Turkish province of Fezzan, at the eastern end of the Ottoman Empire. When el-Kader discovered who Said’s father was, he offered liberation. Said declined because he could not bear to cross the Sahara again and was confident he could buy his freedom later. He requested to be sold to a Turk (Turks were known to pay allowances) and ended up with Abdy Aga, a military aide-de-camp to Fezzan’s governor.

Said learned Turkish from Abdy Aga, who was so pleased with Said’s talent that he sent Said as a gift to his father, Daoud, in Tripoli, 600 miles north. Daoud brought Said into his tobacco business — including training him as a “chiboukji,” a master of the tobacco ritual. The two went on a year-and-a-half-long hajj to Mecca. On return, Daoud learned that his business had been destroyed by fire. He sold Said, who was ultimately purchased by Mehmed Fuad, foreign minister of the Ottoman Empire. Fuad needed a chiboukji for diplomatic work. He dressed Said in “brand new and glittering” clothing, and they set sail for the wealthy enclave of Buyukdere, outside Istanbul.

“The Sargeant” is based on Said’s autobiography (published in 1874) and his other published writings. Said was so widely traveled and such a brilliant linguist who could speak to people in different lands that many accounts were written about him during his lifetime. Calbreath uses these various sources to evoke the flavors of Said’s epic journeys (Fuad’s six-acre walled harem, Said eating sherbet in the gardens of the Seraglio in Istanbul, and the tall-masted ships from New York and Boston moored in the harbor in Fazzan).

In the 1840s, France and Russia vied for control of the Holy Land, under Ottoman rule for 300 years. Prince Alexander Sergeyevich Menshikov arrived in Istanbul in 1853 in the ongoing Russian bid for Palestine. Settling in Pera, Istanbul’s Christian section, he took a liking to Said. Said, about 17, was “astounded” by Pera’s difference from Muslim countries — saloons serving alcohol, “theaters staging bawdy shows,” casinos and ballrooms where men and women danced together.

Menshikov broke off negotiations with the Turks, bought Said, and took him to St. Petersburg via Trieste and Warsaw. There Menshikov informed Said that he was free, since slavery was illegal in Russia. Being free, however, would have left Said without income and place, and without means to travel to his home 5,000 miles away, an unaffordable and impossibly long journey. Instead, Said found a Russian to take over his indenture, Nicholas Vassilievich Trubetzkoy, a 22-year-old godson of Czar Nicholas, who taught him Russian.

Despite Said being a practicing Muslim, Trubetzkoy drilled him in Christian ritual and took him to Riga midwinter to have him baptized and renamed Nicholas. They traveled around Russia until the czar’s 1855 death opened foreign travel. For three years, Trubetzkoy and his Turkish-garbed “valet” traveled to Germany and Austria in the autumn, Italy in the winter, France in the spring, and England in summers. Said learned fluent French, German, Italian and English. Forever homesick, Said persuaded Trubetzkoy to give him a year’s leave with sizable back pay so that he could return to Africa.

Said signed on with a young Dutch swindler he met in London, Isaac Jacob Rochussen, whose family had “risen to prominence due to his ancestors’ skills at piracy and slavery.” Claiming he was an abolitionist, Rochussen hired Said as a valet, promising great sights in the New World before taking him to Africa. After a tour of the Caribbean, Said arrived in New York in 1860. So ends the first third of the book.

The virulent racism that Said encountered in America, combined with the fervor he stirred in abolitionists, created a life in the United States for Said as exotic — if much more difficult and troubling — as what came before. Said became a teacher in Detroit, joined the Union Army and was promoted to sergeant, advocated against unequal and often no pay for Black soldiers, fought on the front lines in the South, and at the end of the Civil War, chose to remain in the Deep South as an educator and political reformer.

Throughout the book, Calbreath fills out historical context. He compares European racism with American racism; describes dozens of major historical figures Said encountered in the United States and elsewhere; and does his best to fill out Said’s personality, friendships and love relationships. This reader would have been helped by a timeline, since the narrative can get muddled as Calbreath makes a worthy effort to provide a complete picture. The book is well annotated and indexed and includes contemporaneous photos and illustrations. In addition to being a breathtaking travelogue, “The Sergeant” is evidence that accidents of history have tremendous consequences for individuals. More important, it is a wonderful illustration of the curiosity and ingenuity of the human spirit, and proof of the inadequacy of assumptions and stereotypes.

Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, “Three Muses,” was recently published. She completed 26 years running a social justice foundation in 2020.