A Portrait of Humanity: The Compelling Story of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo

Gus Casely-Hayford

The life of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, from modern-day Senegal, reveals some of the startling and uncomfortable truths behind the historic slave trade.

Cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford examines the intriguing portrait of Diallo, which was painted by William Hoare in 1733 and currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. The depiction of this gentle and educated African Muslim convinced many people in Britain at the time of the inhumanity of slavery. It was an important piece of abolitionist propaganda and reminds us of the complex demography of eighteenth century Britain.

Yet Diallo’s life is also one that contains moral contradictions and twists. Where was Diallo from and why does his story matter?

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This is an image which just speaks to you, you look at it and you can tell that this is someone with a story they want to tell. You look into those eyes, and what he’s basically saying is, I am just like you. You need to treat me with the kind of equality and dignity that you would afford anyone else. The work that we’re seeing is of a 29-year-old man, he’s from Senegal and he’s arrived in Britain, he had been cast into slavery and has managed to broker his freedom. But he doesn’t have that searing anger, he just looks out at you in a sort of dignified but somehow imploring way and his eyes are the thing that really haunt you, that stay with you.

The life of Diallo is a fascinating one, because it’s not like the story of most people that end up enslaved. His father was actually a slave trader and he’s on his way to settle some deals on behalf of his father, but the unscrupulous captain of the ship sells him into slavery. And he’s someone who would have been part of the whole mechanism of enslaving peoples but suddenly here he is, a victim of this system that has enriched him and his family. He survives on an American plantation, for about two years, and a chap called Thomas Bluett befriends him and Diallo travels to Britain. He becomes the personification of the anti-slavery movement. And even though he is someone who’s family have made a fortune from slavery, he becomes this incredible argument against it.

Many people who were enslaved were forced to take on Christianity. But Diallo, he’s a scholar of Islam, so we see him in his traditional clothing, we see him with the Qur’an around his neck. If you look very closely you can see on his forehead a little mark where he’s been praying so much that over a period of time, it’s created a little sort of impression. He’s wearing his identity in his very body. Am I not a man? The question that was asked beneath so many anti-slavery petitions. This is a human being that’s trying to communicate with you. And this someone who is cast into slavery and is now sitting there and saying how can you live in a world where this sort of system is possible?

The thing that slavery does more than anything else is it crushes individuality, it crushes personal freedom. And the thing that that portraiture is all about, is about individuality. This portrait absolutely exudes the inherent dignity of human beings and for anyone in that period who would have thought – this is a system of enslavement which somehow is about a hierarchisation of human beings, that black people are beneath us. Look at that picture, look into those eyes and it will absolutely destroy any argument that would be based upon that.

The thing that is particularly special about this picture is the gaze. William Hoare understood that for this portrait to do its job it needed not to be just about the individual but about something universal. The great thing is it’s a piece of art that does this, it’s a piece of art that is implicitly being used as abolitionist propaganda. This is his great work because it’s about a kind of dignity that is inherent in all of us. It becomes something which speaks to the viewer. If you wonder around the National Portrait Gallery or any gallery for that matter, this painting fills a gap. It can be difficult to get a sense of the demographic complexity of Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries. There were many thousands of people of African descent, living and working in Britain and that bit of our history, it’s not been wiped away for good because it’s still there in the backs of pictures, in the backs of Hogarth’s you’ll see the odd figure. We can begin to get a sense of the many other figures that lived in the shadows as well.

The tragic post-script of this story is that, and it’s something which speaks to us all about history that this is a real thing and, Diallo he goes back, he returns to what is today Senegal. And he goes back in part to slave trading. This was something which was just so thoroughly woven through the warp and weft of that period and a sense of acceptance of it being the underpinning basis of economies. It tells you something about the time. It tells a chapter of British history which is difficult and complex and appalling. It’s something that we mustn’t forget, sure we must condemn it but it is something that we mustn’t forget. I would love it if this can find a permanent place in the National Portrait Gallery. In this one gorgeous image, it’s encapsulated just so beautifully. Dignity. It’s a sort of dignity which seems to somehow transcend time, race, anything.

With thanks to…

National Portrait Gallery
Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge

 

Archive

Bridgeman Images
British Museum
Getty Images
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Pond5

 

Music

Audio Network

 

Full list of images shown:

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon)
William Hoare, 1733
National Gallery (Lent by Qatar Museums Authority: Doha: Qatar, 2010)
NPG L245
Photo: © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

 

A maquette of a statue commemorating the enslaved Africans whose lives were lost during the slave trade
BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

 

Job, son of Solliman Dgiallo, High Priest of Bonda in the Country of Foota, Africa [Ayuba Suleiman Diallo of Futa]
William Hoare, c. 1734
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Michael Graham-Stewart Slavery Collection

 

Slave ship poster 1789
From The history of the rise, progress and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British Parliament, Thomas Clarkson, 1808 (London)
By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge

 

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (Job ben Solomon); William Ansah Sessarakoo
Published by Gentleman’s Magazine, after William Hoare, and after Gabriel Mathias
line engraving, published June 1750
© National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG D45779
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society
Josiah Wedgwood, 1795
British Abolition Movement

 

Engraving of a Slave in Prayer
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

 

Olaudah Equiano (‘Gustavus Vassa’)
Daniel Orme, after W. Denton, 1789
© National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG D8546
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

A Harlot’s Progress: Plate 2, Moll is now a kept woman, the mistress of a wealthy merchant
William Hogarth, 1732
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

 

A Harlot’s Progress: Plate 4, Moll beats hemp in Bridewell Prison
William Hogarth, 1732
British Museum
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/

 

‘Slave Chain with Four Yokes’ from the Dexue voodoo convent in Adounko, Benin, 19th Century.
NICOLAS DERNE/AFP/Getty Images

 

Memorial at Door of No Return, Ouidah, Benin, West Africa
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us / Getty Images

 

Goree Island known as ‘Island of Shame’ in Senegal’s Dakar
Halil Sagirkaya/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

 

Mémorial de l’esclavage à Gorée
Photo: Remi Jouan, 2010
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

 

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