The transatlantic slave trade is well documented, but the personal lives of its victims are not. Even though hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought to colonial America and sold as slaves there, we have only a few surviving stories of individuals that are complete enough to be called biographies. Two of these rare documented lives are those of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Yarrow Mamout, both probably Fulani Muslims from Senegambia who were kidnapped from their homeland and transported to Annapolis, Maryland, where they were sold as slaves. Both men lived long lives, both men eventually regained their freedom, and, quite remakably, both men had their portraits painted.
The earlier and more famous of the two was Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a merchant and scholar who was seized by his enemies in Africa and sold to a British slave ship captain in 1731. After being sold again as a slave in Maryland he managed to secure his freedom just two years later and get back to Africa. The story of his life was published, and it is now regarded as the first of the so-called “slave narratives” printed in England. The most famous of these slave narratives was the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745–1797), but that was written almost fifty years after Ayuba Suleiman’s story had already reached the public. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was so famous in his time that he had his portrait painted while he was visiting England. One of the two known original versions of this painting is in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and will be exhibited in the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries, which will open in late 2016.
Yarrow Mamout’s story is much less well known, and we probably would not know his name at all if it were not for the fact that his portrait also got painted. There is little we can say about his life before he arrived in Annapolis in 1752 aboard the slave ship Elijah, a ship advertised as coming “directly from the Coast of Africa.” Yarrow Mamout was purchased by the prominent Beall family of Montgomery County Maryland, and passed as a slave by inheritance through estates of several Beall family members until he finally was freed in 1796. Although Yarrow Mamout had spent over forty years as a slave, he made the most of his freedom. Before his death in 1824 he became a property owner in Georgetown and an influential member of the rapidly growing Free Black community in Washington, D.C. In 1819 famous American artist Charles Willson Peale painted Yarrow Mamout’s portrait, and three years later James Alexander Simpson did another portrait of him. These portraits are rare cultural treasures just like the much earlier portraits of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, because even in the early 19th century African ex-slaves were almost never the subject of portraits.
It is an intriguing historical coincidence that two of the best-known images of African ex-slaves are of men who first set foot on the North American continent in almost the same place, the docks of the small colonial port town of Annapolis, Maryland. This coincidence is compounded by the fact that both men were Muslims who came out of the same West African cultural background. The stories of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Yarrow Mamout provide a fascinating insight into a subject we still know very little about, the personal lives of enslaved Africans.