Primary Source: Diallo Portrait

A portrait of a black man from the chest up. He sits with his shoulders pointed slightly to the left while his head faces directly toward the viewer. He wears a white loose shirt. There is a red pouch tied around his neck that sits on his breastbone. On his head he wears a white turban. His tightly curled black hair hangs down from the turban to just below his ears. The features of his face are delicate, matching his small frame.

Primary Source

Image Citation

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, attributed to William Hoare, circa 1733, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, JYF2014.4.

Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: VUS.3c; US1.4c; US1.5d

Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies

Summary and Significance

This painting portrays Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. It is one of two versions of the earliest known portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo painted from life by William Hoare of Bath, England in about 1733. These portraits of Diallo are the earliest representations known to us of an African who had been enslaved in the British colonies, lands which later became the United States of America. Diallo was a scholar taken captive in Africa. He endured the Middle Passage and was enslaved in Maryland for two years before he gained his freedom. Diallo’s story tells us about the indignities of enslavement. His portrait is one of a man determined to represent himself and his culture rather than letting others do it for him.

Historical Background and Image Analysis

Image/Author Background

Front page of “Some Memories of the Life of Job, the Son of Solomon the High Priest of Boonda in Africa” written by Thomas Bluett and published in London in 1734. The paper is a beige color and the text is black.

Thomas Bluett, “Some Meoris of the Life of Job, the Son of Solomon, the High Priest of Boonda in Africa,” London, Richard Ford, 1734.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was born in 1702 or 1703 in Senegal. He came from an elite family of Muslim clerics and Diallo was highly educated. Diallo had two wives and several children by 1730.

In 1730, Diallo was traveling along the Gambia River to buy paper and sell enslaved people. During the journey, slave traders captured him. The indignitiy of slavery began right away: his beard, likely grown as part of his Muslim faith, and head were shaved. Diallo then suffered the Middle Passage before arriving in Annapolis, Maryland. He was enslaved by “Mr. Tolsey” on Kent Island in Maryland. Tolsey tasked Diallo with growing tobacco, but soon realized that Diallo had had no experience in agriculture. Diallo was next tasked with tending cattle. He continued to practice his Muslim faith as much as he could, including sneaking off into the woods to pray. He faced further indignity when a white boy threw dirt at him as he prayed.

For Diallo, not being able to communicate due to his lack of English speaking skills must have been frustrating. Diallo was a highly learned man, and yet he could not converse with those around him. Eventually, the indignities became too severe and he decided to run away. He was captured and ended up in a prison until his enslaver could retrieve him

In prison, Diallo caught a lucky break. A British lawyer named Thomas Bluett came to meet him and eventually found someone who could translate for him. Diallo’s relief must have been profound when he could finally communicate with the strangers around him. He was returned to his enslaver, but word about his situation spread and the head of the Royal African Company paid Tolsey for him to be sent to England. While in England, Diallo was treated as a celebrity and a fund was raised to finally purchase his freedom and pay for his return to Africa. Diallo returned to his home in 1734 where he worked for English interests until his death in 1773. 

Also in 1734, Thomas Bluett published an account of Diallo’s life, capture, and journey to freedom. That account is the primary recorded source about Diallo’s time in captivity. Bluett wrote the text based on descriptions of Diallo’s first hand accounts. However, Bluett had never visited Africa himself and did not understand Diallo’s homeland, culture and religion. Bluett’s memoir demonstrates clear anti-African bias in his descriptions of Diallo’s homeland. He also showed bias against Diallo’s Muslim religion in favor of his own Christian one. But Bluett also showed empathy for Diallo in his actions and his writings. For example, he wrote of African “ignorance” but described Diallo as “compassionate” and “genius.” 

Image Analysis

The painting above is attributed to artist William Hoare in 1733 while Diallo was in London. According to Thomas Bluett, Diallo was resistant to having his painting drawn because of his religious beliefs. When he did agree to be painted, Diallo insisted that he be painted in his country’s traditional dress, not English clothes. Diallo had to describe to the painter, Hoare, what the clothes should look like. The clothes that he wears assert his Muslim identity to the viewer. The white turban symbolizes his role as a religious leader. The red pouch around his neck may hold a Quran, a sacred Islamic book. Despite his clothes, the English pastoral background reminds viewers of the portrait that Diallo was a stranger in England. Even though Diallo was reliant on the strangers around him for the funds to return home to Africa, he was able to assert his own identity in this lasting image. 

Classroom Inquiry

Consider the following quote from Thomas Bluett’s Memoir about Ayuba Suleiman Diallo.

“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?”

1. Why do you think it was so important to Diallo that he be painted in his own traditional clothes and not English clothes?
Diallo’s traditional clothes were from his own culture, while English clothes were what he was forced to wear after being captured and forced into slavery. He wanted to be represented as himself as a free person.
2. Diallo was painted with symbols of his Muslim faith, including a white turban on his head. Why do you think he wanted to include these symbols in the portrait?
Diallo’s Muslim faith was extremely important to him. Diallo relied on his faith while he was enslaved, for example by praying even when a boy threw dirt at him. Diallo was surrounded in America and in England by Christians who did not understand his faith. By including Muslim symbols in the portrait, he showed that through his trials, he remained dedicated to his religion.

Related Classroom Resources

Additional Reading