The African merchant named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701-1773) was many things. He was a free-born, erudite Muslim, a native of Senegal. He traded livestock, agricultural commodities and slaves – and in the early 1730s was himself kidnapped and enslaved to pick tobacco on Maryland’s Kent Island.
And finally, again a free man, he became an object of fascination in England, presented to the court of King George II.
Because of his celebrity at the time, Diallo sat for two oil portraits around 1733 that are of great interest to art historians nearly three centuries later: They are considered the earliest known portraits of an African held as a slave in the 13 original Colonies. Now one of them is going on view starting next week at Virginia’s Yorktown Victory Center museum, thanks to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which recently bought the Diallo portrait from a private collection.
Diallo defied 18th century English caricatures of the uneducated African; he spoke English, wrote Arabic and was thought to be able to transcribe the Koran from memory. He was painted by William Hoare, a noted English portrait artist who captured the visages of prime ministers and royals. Of all the enslaved people brought to the North American British Colonies, Diallo is singular because he was painted from life – very likely the only one, and the first one.
“This is the one face we’ve got,” said Tom Davidson, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation senior curator. “The circumstances of an African getting his portrait painted are extraordinary.”
Early abolitionists would come to embrace Diallo and his story, which played out a century before that of Solomon Northup, whose slave narrative became the basis of the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.” Diallo’s time in captivity lasted about two years, from 1731-33. He escaped from the Maryland plantation and made contact with an Annapolis lawyer named Thomas Bluett, who worked to free Diallo.
Wealthy patrons in England bought Diallo from bondage, Davidson said, and “he was given lavish presents.” The former slave stayed about a year in England and returned to Africa in 1734.
The 14 by 12 inch painting goes on view at the Yorktown Victory Center from June 14 through August 3, then will undergo conservation before it becomes a centerpiece at the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, scheduled to open in late 2016. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation operates Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center history museums.
Qatar bought the other Hoare portrait of Diallo in 2009 but put it on loan to the National Portrait Gallery of London, where it is now on view.