Portrait of a Freed Black Slave - Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

by KathleenDuffy

A rare portrait of a freed black slave, painted by William Hoare in 1733, is visiting galleries in South Shields and Leicester before returning to the National Gallery in London

A portrait of an African Muslim painted by William Hoare in 1733 is compelling because of the humanity and charisma of the sitter. Unusually for the time, it represents a black man as an individual in his own right, a person of dignity and status rather than the appendage to a white master or mistress.

The subject’s name was Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (he was known in England as Job ben Solomon) and how he came to be the subject of one of the most respected portrait painters in eighteenth century England, is a fascinating story.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

The son of a Fulbe Muslim religious cleric, Diallo was born in a town called Boonda in the Senegambia region of West Africa. His family was of high status and wealthy and Dallio was therefore well educated, speaking not only his native language, but Arabic and later, English.

In 1731 Diallo was on a trading mission on behalf of his father when he was captured by slave traders and transported on a British ship, the Arabella, to America.

Diagram of Slave Ship
Diagram of Slave Ship

This incident is tinged with irony, for Diallo was also a slave trader.

Looking to sell slaves to a Captain Pike, Diallo and Pike were unable to agree on a price for Diallo’s slaves. Eventually Diallo managed to exchange the slaves for two cows to another trader.  But Diallo was himself captured on his way home and sold to the very same Captain Pike.  Once on board the Arabella, his beard, an important attribute of his Islamic identity, was shaved off.

How Diallo was Rescued from Slavery

Diallo spent twelve months enslaved on a tobacco plantation at Kent Island, Maryland. His situation was aggravated by his devotion to his prayer life which meant he would stop work to pray five times a day.  He attempted to escape, often running into the forest to find solitude and release from the hard physical labour.

Eventually, his escape attempts led to his imprisonment and it was while he was incarcerated that he met the man who would be his salvation.

Thomas Bluett was an English lawyer and missionary.  He became aware of Diallo’s intellect and scholarship when he heard how the captured slave was not only deeply devoted to his Muslim faith, but could also read and write.  These attributes, together with Diallo’s charm and humour, created a link that bridged the perceived cultural divide between the two men.  

Bluett would go on to write a biography of Diallo which you can freely access here.

 

Slave Fresco on Martin's Bank, Liverpool
Slave Fresco on Martin's Bank, Liverpool

The result was that Diallo was once more on board ship - but this time he was on his way to England with Thomas Bluett.

For a time Diallo stayed with Bluett until the Royal African Company provided him with free lodgings at Africa House -  but it wasn’t long before this striking and charismatic man became the toast of scholars and aristocrats. 

He was soon translating Arabic manuscripts, making three transcriptions of the Qur’an from memory for Sir Hans Sloane.  He was presented at Court to King George II and Queen Caroline.   Regarded by the aristocracy as an ‘African gentleman’ he was elected a member of the Gentleman’s Society of Spalding.

Technically, however, Diallo was still a slave, but through the raising of public funds his freedom was eventually obtained. 

Diallo Has His Portrait Painted - Reluctantly

Naturally, such an unusual and distinguished guest as Diallo would be encouraged to sit for his portrait.  The artist chosen for this prestigious task was William Hoare of Bath, an established society portrait painter who became a founding member of the Royal Society. 

But initially Diallo was having none of it! As a Muslim, Diallo protested that it was against his faith to have his likeness portrayed, for to him pictures were in danger of becoming objects of worship. Hoare eventually managed to reassure Diallo that the portrait would be regarded as a reminder of him and his visit to England and Diallo was persuaded to sit

What Does Diallo's Portrait Really Tell Us?

The finished portrait is strikingly simple, yet beautiful, showing Diallo, by his own choice, resplendent in his traditional turban and robes and with a copy of the Qu’ran around his neck in a protective pouch. Ayuba Suleimann Diallo gazes out a little beyond the viewer with the air of a serene, compelling and equal human being.

Detail of Diallo's portrait showing pouch for Qu'ran
Detail of Diallo's portrait showing p...
Wikimedia
Detail close up of Diallo
Detail close up of Diallo
Wikimedia

How would such a portrait have struck the eighteenth century viewer?

It may well have begun to break down the assumptions that all victims of the slave trade were ignorant semi-human beings incapable of self-awareness. For those who were beginning to call for an end to the slave trade, this work may certainly have boosted their cause, slowly chipping away at the well-ingrained prejudices.

However, some may have seen Diallo as the exception to the rule, a being who was like the later patronising Victorian equivalent of the ‘deserving poor’ - at a disadvantage certainly compared to his white patrons, but sharing the same concept of one God, indeed sent to England by God, blessed with the desire to work and study, and sharing their business interests concerning the slave trade.

Diallo Returns to Africa

When he returned to Africa, Diallo resumed his slave trading activities, working for the English Royal African Company.  And just as the English aristocracy had saved him from slavery, Diallo negotiated the freedom of a number of Muslim’s who had been sold into slavery - his own slaves he regarded as ‘infidels’.

In the eighteenth century slavery was regarded, on the whole, as a legitimate business enterprise. Such reasoning was justified by moral values that seem strange to our modern sensibilities, especially when we learn that there were complex variants of these values amongst  both British  and African elites.  

Attitudes to Slavery Begin to Change

Enlightenment values gathered momentum in Europe. Black voices calling for an end to the slave trade became louder.  Those  whites who  recognised slavery for the cruelty and suffering it inflicted on fellow human beings began to demand its end.

As a representation of the social period when this work was produced, for the beauty and sensitive handling of the subject matter itself and the story it tells of our human journey, this an extremely important work of art.   

It has so much to say to the viewer - and will strike at the heart of each one of us as individuals when we stand before it, because we have all been shaped to some degree  by the legacy of slavery.

 

Where to See the Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

The work was bought at Christie’s in 2009 by the Qatar Museums Authority and is generously on loan to the National Portrait Gallery in London.

It is at present touring and, at the time of writing, can be seen at:

South Shields Museum and Art Gallery - until 9th March 2013 - this exhibit has concluded but I think it is interesting to see why this gallery was chosen to exhibit the portrait.

It was  exhibited with a selection from the Gallery’s own archives, focussing on faith and identity. The town is home to a well-established Muslim community.

New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester - (6th April - 30th June 2013)

The Gallery will focus on changing demographics of the local community, hoping to develop a sustainable relationship with the Somali community.

After this, the portrait returns to the National Portrait Gallery. Eventually it is expected to return to Qatar.

Sources:

“Face of Freedom” by Bonnie Greer in Art Quarterly, Spring 2011.

Press Release: National Portrait Gallery, Wednesday 7 July 2010 Ayuba Suleiman Diallo Appeal

 Voyages database: Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Slavery in the Atlantic World.

 

Copyright: K. Duffy

Updated: 03/29/2013, KathleenDuffy
 
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frankbeswick on 05/10/2015

The crews of the slave slave ships were little better than slaves themselves, wage slaves, often the most inadequate seamen who could not get jobs other than on these miserable under-crewed ships. There would be a sea captain and a bullying a Boatswain to control the men, along with the slave merchant who sold humans for a profit and underpaid and underfed his miserable sailors.

KathleenDuffy on 05/10/2015

That is such an interesting comment Frank. Many thanks for this.

frankbeswick on 05/09/2015

Slavery is a world wide phenomenon. Yes, the Atlantic slave trade was White Europeans capturing Blacks Africans, but the East African trade was Arabs enslaving Africans. It is a brutal truth that the European slave ships were so badly under-crewed to the extent that they were not capable of raiding for slaves, so they had to purchase slaves from other Africans, who were happy to collaborate with Europeans in enslaving fellow Africans. It was Africans who did the raiding to sell to the European slave traders. The Barbary Corsairs, from North Africa, ran an operation capturing and enslaving Europeans for many centuries until about 1812, when the British and the Dutch attacked Algiers and forced the Bey to cease his operations and release European slaves. So many races have had members who were slaves and slavers.

Slavery continues today through the human trafficking of people, particularly young women and children. But there are forms of slavery that use debt as a tool, and these are not racially based, but relate to social class and poverty.

I am a member of Antislavery International. I was inspired to join by the stories of modern slavery and human trafficking in the press.

KathleenDuffy on 05/09/2015

Hello Mira, Thanks for your comment. I guess it could show that slavery wasn't purely a racial transaction, but more to do with profit and 'class'.

Mira on 05/02/2015

Very interesting story. Like one guest who commented here, I find it hard to imagine and accept that he continued to trade slaves after experiencing slavery himself.

KathleenDuffy on 05/02/2015

Robin - I am so glad you enjoyed the article and that you have seen the portrait. It is a truly moving work of art. :)

Robin Danely on 04/30/2015

Thank you so much for this article... I just recently visited the Portrait Gallery and saw this stunning portrait. I really appreciate hearing his story in more detail -- it is truly fascinating.

KathleenDuffy on 03/15/2013

Thank you Georgette!

georgettejohn on 03/15/2013

Very interesting article!

KathleenDuffy on 03/14/2013

Some great philanthropists have come from the 'upper classes' - often motivated by profit as in Victorian industrialists and their model towns, but nevertheless they did some great things. Again, I think it's a complex subject which is why it is so fascinating.


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