J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Washington and the “Mahometan” World

A centerpiece of the Museum of the American Revolution opening in Philadelphia this April is Gen. George Washington’s second headquarters tent, purchased and used during the Revolutionary War.

The museum staff spoke of the challenges of conserving and displaying the tent in this C-SPAN video. It was erected in its new home this month, as covered in the New York Times. Interesting details about its history and construction can be found in this online article.

However, one of the most thought-provoking details about Washington’s tent appears at the end of this article by Cherie Hicks in the Altoona Mirror:
A circular stamp is on the inside of the tent made of linen, which was coming out of Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country by the mid-18th century.

“It appears to be a Quranic verse in Arabic script,” [museum director Scott] Stephenson said. “Somebody knew Arabic to craft that. It’s a very enigmatic stamp and another good reminder that there wasn’t just one type of experience of slavery in Colonial America.”
The rest of that article talks about another artifact, also to be displayed at the new museum, testifying to the presence of Muslims in America before the United States. Almost all of those people were enslaved, captured in western Africa.

Washington acknowledged the possibility of Islamic laborers at Mount Vernon, at least jocularly, when he wrote to former aide Tench Tilghman in 1784 about hiring new skilled workmen:
I am a good deal in want of a House Joiner & Bricklayer, (who really understand their profession) & you would do me a favor by purchasing one of each, for me. I would not confine you to Palatines [Germans]. If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any Sect—or they may be Athiests—I woud however prefer middle aged, to young men. and those who have good countenances & good characters on ship board, to others who have neither of these to recommend them—altho, after all, the proof of the pudding must be in the eating. I do not limit you to a price, but will pay the purchase money on demand
According the Mount Vernon’s scholars, the people living and working at that slave-labor plantation probably already included some Muslims, judging by such names on the records as Fatimer and Nila. And Washington appears to have understood that, even on the west side of the Atlantic, he was touched by the people and products of of the Islamic world.

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