‘for by his… Countenance, we could perceive he was no common slave.’
– Some Memoirs of the Life of Job… Thomas Bluett, 1734
A newly acquired slave narrative written by Englishman Thomas Bluett will enrich our understanding of the exceptional life of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an African cleric whose portrait hangs in the first gallery at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. The rare book “Some Memoirs of the life of Job, the Son of Solomon, the High Priest of Boonda in Africa” was published in London in 1734.
The memoirs offer an extraordinary account with a fortunate outcome for a kidnapped African sold into slavery in 1731. There are few survivors of such printed slave narratives from the 18th century that speak to the life and times of an enslaved individual. It may be the earliest English book in print to record the life of an enslaved person who escaped a terrible term of servitude and separation from their African roots of West Central Africa to return to their homeland.
Diallo, also known in England as Job, was an educated man from a family of Muslim clerics in West Central Africa. In 1731, he was taken into slavery while travelling outside his Fulbe territories and was shipped from the coast of Africa to a plantation in Maryland in North America.
By his own enterprise and literary knowledge, and the fortunate encounters in Maryland with English judge Thomas Bluett, Diallo proved to be his own best agency for securing his release from bondage. Once Diallo arrived in London in 1733, he attracted the support of friends in powerful places who sought to obtain his release and organized a public subscription to pay the bond of servitude owed to his former enslaver in Maryland.
Recognized as a deeply pious and educated man in England, Diallo mixed with intellectuals in London and was presented to elite social groups at the English court. William Hoare’s portrait of Diallo in 1733 is the earliest known British oil portrait of a freed slave who had escaped a lifetime of servitude in North America in a British colony. The painting is the first portrait to honor an African subject as an individual and an equal, providing a fascinating insight to the 18th-century English response to other peoples and religions.
In the narrative, Bluett expounds that Diallo’s personal qualities were evident to him upon their first encounter at a court hearing in Maryland, speaking through an interpreter. Diallo identified himself to the judge and wrote his name in Arabic. Bluett, an early abolitionist, was committed to secure the means for Diallo to travel to England.
Upon arrival in London in 1733, Diallo was given lodging with friends and supported by the Royal African Company of London and met powerful intellectuals whom he introduced to the prime texts of the Muslim faith, the religion of Islam. Diallo’s personal magnetism and intellect impressed Sir Hans Sloan, a renowned physician and scholar whose papers and collections are preserved at the British Library and British Museum. During this time, Diallo wrote in Arabic a complete manuscript copy of the Quran from memory and presented this to Sir Hans Sloan, as well as two prominent colleagues who subscribed to his manumission payment. Diallo’s manuscript letters survive in London at the British Museum.
Unlike many enslaved individuals forcibly brought to the British colonies in North America at the time, Diallo was well known and did not have to answer to another name or lack recognition as a Muslim cleric given Bluett’s account.
Diallo became a celebrity in England as much for his intellectual prowess as for his charm and other personal qualities. Bluett recorded several episodes of Diallo’s encounters with English people in the course of his visit to England, including the 1733 commission of Diallo’s portrait from a society painter like William Hoare. His friends wished to have a reminder of his sensitive face when his bond was paid and he returned to Africa.
Bluett’s memoirs feature a chapter on Diallo’s family and kin and the region of Senegambia where he was born to a Muslim cleric, Solomon, noting the assiduous attention Diallo paid to his devotions and to reciting prayers of the Muslim religion. In the early 18th century, few Africans of free or enslaved status came to the British Isles, and fewer still returned to their native country in Africa, as was the case for Diallo.
His cultural background of Islam and West Central Africa and the traditions of the Fulbe nation were of great interest to English scholars. Diallo was generous in sharing his knowledge of Arab texts, especially the Quran which he had memorized in its entirety. Indeed it may be no coincidence that George Sale, an English Arabist scholar, published his seminal work of the Quran converted from Arabic to English in 1734, the first translation to appear in print. While on the voyage from Maryland to England, Diallo learned the English language, which afforded him the ability to communicate with scholars such as Sir Hans Sloan and George Sale, and aristocrats like the Duke of Montague. Diallo returned to Senegal in West Central Africa in 1734, living the rest of his life there until his death in 1773.
In the early years of the 19th century, advocates for the abolition of slavery would cite Diallo as a key figure in asserting the moral rights and humanity of the African people. The narrative account of Diallo’s life written and published by Bluett, an English supporter and friend, provides a deeper perspective on this extraordinary life. The portrait, though providing an evocative presence in itself, is more meaningful with Bluett’s narrative and the knowledge of the sitter.
Together, these two artifacts bring this exceptional man into greater focus.
Sarah B. Meschutt, Ph.D.
Senior Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
The Bluett narrative acquisition was supported by private gifts to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc. The William Hoare portrait of Diallo in 1733 was supported by an initial gift made by Fred D. Thompson, Jr., a member of the JYF Board of Trustees, a grant from the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation of Richmond, Virginia, and undesignated private gifts to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc.