From almost the moment he touched ground in London, Diallo won the respect of the leading lights of advanced learning in England and ultimately entered the annals of history as a figure embraced by the global abolitionist movement. Known as Job ben Solomon in England, Diallo returned in 1734 to Senegal, where he represented English interests in the region. He died there in 1773.
The recording of Diallo’s likeness by William Hoare, a leading English portraitist of the 18th century, is referenced in memoirs published by Thomas Bluett in 1734. During the sitting, Diallo insisted that he “be drawn in his own Country Dress” rather than in European clothing.
A rare 1730s oil-on-canvas portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a high-status African who was enslaved for a time in North America, has been acquired for exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the Yorktown Victory Center by late 2016. It is one of two known paintings of Diallo made by English portraitist William Hoare, the earliest known portraits done from life of an African who had been enslaved in the British colonies that became the United States of America.
The portrait, on temporary exhibit at the Yorktown Victory Center June 14 through August 3, will be placed in a section of the new museum’s galleries that examines life in the 13 British colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.
Diallo, shown in the portrait attired in a turban and robe, wearing around his neck a red pouch probably containing texts from the Quran, was born in 1701 in Senegal to a prominent Fulbe family of Muslim clerics. During a trade mission on the Gambia River in 1731, he was captured and transported to the colony of Maryland, where he was enslaved on a tobacco plantation on Kent Island. Diallo drew the attention of lawyer Thomas Bluett, who ultimately arranged with the Royal African Company to secure his freedom and sailed with him to England in 1733.
The portrait acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is 14 by 12 inches, with the subject’s upper body against a landscape background within a painted oval. While the portrayal of the subject is quite similar to Hoare’s other Diallo portrait, which is owned by the Qatar Museums Authority and on loan to Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, the two paintings differ in size. Diallo is turned toward the left in one and to the right in the other, and the Qatar painting has a solid background.
In a private collection since the 19th century, the Diallo portrait was acquired for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown with gifts to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., including a lead gift from Fred D. Thompson, Jr., a member of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Board of Trustees.
The story of Africans and African Americans during the Revolutionary period will be an important component of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s 22,000-square-foot exhibition galleries, featuring period artifacts, re-created immersive environments, interactive exhibits and short films. Spanning the mid-1700s to the early national period, the galleries will present five major themes: “The British Empire and America,” “The Changing Relationship – Britain and North America,” “Revolution,” “The New Nation,” and “The American People.”
The American Revolution represented the beginning of the end for slavery in the United States. The Revolution certainly didn’t end slavery by itself, but it created an intellectual, moral and political climate in which slavery could not survive forever. The Ayuba Suleiman Diallo portrait provides a face for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who constituted a major part of late-colonial America’s population, but who remain largely unknown.