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Newly discovered 'slave' portrait crosses the Atlantic on way to a museum under development
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, portrait by William Hoare, circa 1733, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

WILLIAMSBURG, VA.- The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a Virginia state agency that operates Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center history museums, has acquired a previously unknown oil portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a freeborn, educated African who was kidnapped in Africa and sold as a slave in Maryland during the colonial era. Before taking its place as a centerpiece of the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (opening late 2016), the rare portrait (c. 1733) goes on view at the Yorktown Victory Center this summer from June 14 through August 3.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was catapulted into fame in the 1730s when the remarkable story of his enslavement and redemption in the North American British colonies was published. From almost the moment he touched ground in London in April 1733, he 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.

Showing Diallo in a white robe and turban, wearing around his neck a bright red leather pouch probably containing texts from the Qur'an, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation portrait is one of two versions painted by William Hoare of Bath, a leading English portrait painter of the 18th century. They are the earliest known portraits done from life of an African individual who was held as a slave in the 13 British colonies that would become the United States of America. The other is currently on view in the National Portrait Gallery of London, on long-term loan following its purchase by the Qatar Museums Authority in 2009.

In a private collection since the 19th century, the Foundation’s portrait came to light following the publicity surrounding an appeal to the British public to keep the Qatar portrait in England. The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., purchased the oil-on-canvas painting with funds raised privately, including a lead gift from Foundation trustee Fred D. Thompson, Jr., of Thompson Hospitality, the country’s largest minority-owned food service company. “This portrait is a powerful symbol of the diversity of colonial America’s population, which included people from many different African cultures,” says Thompson. “Diallo – his image and story – is an ideal teaching opportunity for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries.”

“For approximately three years now, the Foundation has been in confidential negotiations to acquire this important portrait,” says Thomas E. Davidson, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation senior curator. “Diallo’s visage speaks for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who remain largely unknown, yet who constituted a major part of late-colonial America’s population.”

“As we plan for the new museum,” Davidson continued, “we hope to convey the way in which the American Revolution represented the beginning of the end for slavery in the United States. While the Revolution did not end slavery by itself, it created an intellectual, moral, and political climate in which the practice could not and did not continue forever.”

While there are similarities, neither Hoare portrait is a copy of the other. The painting of Diallo that will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is 14 by 12 inches, with the subject’s upper body turned toward his right, against a landscape background, within a painted oval. In the other portrait, Diallo is turned toward his left against a solid background.

Diallo had first resisted the very idea of a portrait due to religious misgivings. Although he relented, he did insist that he “be drawn in his own Country Dress,” rather than in European clothing, according to the memoirs of Thomas Bluett. A lawyer in Annapolis who became impressed by Diallo and helped to free him, Bluett is remembered today as the author of “Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, the Son of Solomon, the High Priest of Boonda in Africa; Who was a Slave About Two Years in Maryland; and Afterwards Being Brought to England, was Set Free, and Sent to His Native Land in the Year 1734.” (Diallo was known in England as Job ben Solomon.)

That William Hoare portrayed his sitter in the dress of his own country speaks to the respect and elite reception accorded Diallo in London.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo
Born in 1701 in Senegal to a prominent Fulbe family of Muslim clerics, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was captured during a trading mission on the Gambia River in 1731 and transported to the colony of Maryland, where he was enslaved on a tobacco plantation on Kent Island. He sailed to England in 1733 with Thomas Bluett, who had ultimately arranged with the Royal African Company to secure his freedom.

In London, Diallo was introduced at the royal court of George II and commissioned to translate Arabic manuscripts and inscriptions by Sir Hans Sloane, the British doctor and collector of Irish birth whose collection became the foundation of the British Museum. Diallo returned to Senegal in 1734 and thereafter represented English interests in the region. He died in 1773.

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
A rare first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the first book ever published by an American of African descent; archaeological artifacts associated with the lives of enslaved people in colonial America; and the full-scale re-creation of a South Carolina slave quarter: these are among the artifacts and exhibits that will help convey the nature of the lives of Africans and African Americans during the Revolutionary era in the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Their stories are part of a comprehensive overview of the people and events of the Revolution, from the mid-1700s to the early national period. The Hoare portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo will be exhibited in a section of the new museum’s galleries that examines life in the 13 British colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.

Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland, New York, and Washington, D.C., is design architect for the 80,000-square-foot museum building, currently under construction, and Gallagher & Associates of Silver Spring, Md., the exhibit designer. As well as permanent and special exhibition galleries, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown will feature a theater, classrooms and visitor amenities. An outdoor living-history Continental Army encampment and Revolution-period farm will complement the indoor experience.

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