Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Virginia’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation acquired the earliest known portrait of a slave from the 13 colonies and the first Western portrait of a named African sitter:

Ayube Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon in England, was the scion of a wealthy family of Muslim clerics and rulers in the West African Kingdom of Futa. While on a mission to the Gambia River to barter two slaves in exchange for supplies, Diallo was kidnapped and sold into slavery himself. He told the British slavers who bought him from his Mandingo kidnappers that his family would ransom him, but when the message didn’t get to his family in time, William and Henry Hunt loaded him into the ship and sold him to a dealer in Annapolis, Maryland.

He wound up the property of one Mr. Tolsey, a tobacco farmer on Kent Island, Maryland, who first attempted to put Diallo to work in the fields. He couldn’t hack it. This was back-breaking labor, and Diallo was a soft scholar. He was assigned to tending cattle instead, which he was a little better at. After being mocked by children for his prayers, in June of 1731 Diallo ran away. He was soon captured and put in prison in the Kent County Courthouse. There he met a British lawyer named Thomas Bluett whose curiosity was piqued by Diallo’s fine carriage and composure.

Bluett enlisted a translator and found out Diallo came from a wealthy family of important people. Tolsey, keen to derive some kind of profit from this liability of a slave, allowed Diallo to write a letter back home and then gladly allowed an official from the Royal African Company in London to buy his freedom. Diallo and Bluett sailed to London in March of 1733 where the cleric, nobleman and former slave made a social splash. He was commissioned by the future founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, to translate Arabic manuscripts in his library. He was introduced at Court by the Duke of Montagu. And he had his portrait painted by William Hoare.


Bluett describes the painting of the portrait in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, one of the earliest slave narratives (albeit not written in first person):

JOB’s Aversion to Pictures of all Sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great Difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any Picture, and that we wanted his for no other End but to keep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr. Hoare. When the Face was finished, Mr. Hoare ask’d what Dress would be most proper to draw him in; and, upon JOB’s desiring to be drawn in his own Country Dress, told him he could not draw it, unless he had seen it, or had it described to him by one who had: Upon which JOB answered, If you can’t draw a Dress you never saw, why do some of you Painters presume to draw God, whom no one ever saw?

Hoare figured it out in the end, painting Diallo in a white robe and turban, wearing verses from the Qur’an in a pouch around his neck. The use of national dress makes this portrait unique. Other prominent named Africans would be painted after Diallo, but they were depicted wearing English dress and wigs.

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