By Mark St. John Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4783
2:09 PM EDT, April 29, 2013
As the political epicenter of British America’s richest and most populous colony, the town of Williamsburg played host to a rich cross-spectrum of humanity during the 1700s.
Planters, merchants and tradesmen of all shades and stripes came from as far as what is today West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois, mixing with a similar stream of teamsters, servants and slaves.
Notable figures such as Philadelphia postmaster, publisher and scientist Benjamin Franklin and the great English evangelist George Whitefield visited here, too, not to mention several notorious pirates and the painted, befeathered emissaries of distant Indian nations.
Still, few could match the story told by Selim the Algerine, a stranded North African who became a favorite of the Virginia capital’s elite just before and during the Revolution.
Born in Algeria, he was classically educated in Istanbul before being captured by Mediterranean pirates and sold into slavery in New Orleans. From there, he was sent up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers before being seized by Shawnee, from whose lands he escaped and walked across the Appalachian wilderness to Augusta County.
Throw in Selim’s conversion to Christianity, his troubled homecoming in Algeria and his addled return to Williamsburg and you get a tale that reads like a 1700s picaresque novel.
It’s also an early milestone in the spare yet evocative history of contact between British America and the Islamic Middle East.
“It’s a fantastic story — if it’s true,” says Middle East historian Judith Tucker of Georgetown University.
“The problem is that all we really know about Selim is what he said about himself — and that the Virginia gentry believed him. What we can’t do is prove it.”
Two of the most cited sources of Selim’s story come in a detailed second-hand account published by Virginia Episcopal Bishop William Meade in 1857 and an 1800s reminiscence penned by a member of the Page family, who owned Rosewell Plantation in Gloucester County.
Except for a few minor inconsistencies, those descriptions support each other broadly, notes Colonial Williamsburg historian Robert Doares, who wrote about Selim for the foundation’s journal in 2002.
Many similar accounts crop up in stories recorded in Virginia’s western counties during the 1800s and early 1900s.
“I’ve found 12 references to Selim,” says Tucker, who began looking into the tale five years ago after an inquiry from a friend working on a project for Detroit public TV and the Dearborn, Mich., Arab-American National Museum.
“What you find is that they all seem to build on each other. In some ways it’s become a self-perpetuating legend.”
Common to them all is Selim’s emergence from the Virginia backwoods as a naked, wounded, near-starved refugee who was found and nursed back to health by a frontier hunter.
Moved to the home of a sympathetic Augusta County planter, he taught himself English as he regained his strength, learning so quickly that he was soon regaling both his benefactor and his neighbors with the astonishing story of his unwanted odyssey from the Middle East.
Sometime later, Selim approached Staunton Presbyterian minister John Craig following a dream that persuaded him to forsake Islam for Christianity. Almost immediately, he astounded his teacher with his ability to read the New Testament in the original Greek.
As well-mannered as he was well-educated, Selim arrived in Williamsburg sometime between 1762 and ’64 bearing not only a letter of introduction from his Augusta friends but also a generous sum of money raised to send him home.
His prime contact was wealthy planter and royal councilor Robert Carter III, who welcomed his guest to his stately home off Palace Green. But Selim also attracted the company of the town’s educated elite, including College of William and Mary President James Horrocks and Professor William Small, with whom he read Greek.
Among the others whose path Selim likely crossed is Small’s student Thomas Jefferson, whose interest in the Muslim world drove him to order a translation of the Koran from the town printing office in 1765.
“Selim’s ability to read Greek was a big deal — and Carter actually mentions it in his letter of introduction to the Colonial Secretary to explain why the people in Virginia had taken such interest,” Tucker says.
“It made him a gentleman in their eyes. It made him a person of rank and worth. It made him just like them.”
So strong was this appeal that — despite the intermittent mental instability caused by his Muslim family’s rejection — Selim was welcomed back when he returned to Williamsburg during the Revolution.
Even after being committed to the town’s lunatic asylum, he remained a friendly, learned and garrulous gentleman — one who became a favored acquaintance of such figures as Gov. John Page of Gloucester and Gov. Thomas Nelson Jr. of Yorktown.
“Selim would have been a person of great interest. He provided a window into an exotic, remote culture that they would have had no other way of knowing so closely,” Doares says.
“And it certainly helped that he was not only gentlemanly — even in his madness — but also had been converted and baptized.”
A founder of Williamsburg’s Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge, Page held Selim in such high esteem that, in 1789, he commissioned Charles Willson Peale to paint both his friend and himself when they visited Philadelphia for the first Continental Congress.
The Algerian’s likeness hung at Rosewell for years before moving to his old haunt at the Carter House following the marriage of one of Page’s daughters.
Lost during the Civil War, the character-filled portrait is only known today through an early 1800s engraving published in Meade’s book.
It’s the only surviving direct link to Selim outside of Carter’s letter, which Tucker found in the British Public Records Office in London as part of an otherwise unsuccessful hunt that also led her to Williamsburg and Istanbul.
“We may never know if his story’s true. But the important thing is that people in Virginia believed him,” Tucker says.
“And they responded in a way that wouldn’t have happened 20 or 30 years later because attitudes about Islam and race had really hardened.”
Copyright © 2014, Newport News, Va., Daily Press