‘A Virtuous Stranger’ : SGS Member Ayuba Suleiman Diallo


‘Take the case of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, whose portrait hangs in Room 15 of the National Portrait Gallery.  He was a native of the Gambia who was known and admired in C18 London as a transator of Arabic texts.  He was also, originally, a slaver.  Does that mean that he should be purged from the Gallery?’

In fact, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, whose splendid contemporary portrait by William Hoare was the subject of a recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, was a much-admired scholar whose adventurous life was the subject of interest in 1730s London, and whose experience of the slave trade was rather as a victim than a dealer.  How many members know that the early SGS was proud to claim as a member a black African Muslim, highly educated in Arabic literature and able to speak six languages?  It is surely something of which the Society can be proud in these multi-cultural times.  

This distinguished figure began his eventful and varied life around 1701, far away from Spalding, in West Africa, close to the Gambia River, either in the Gambia or in the country now known as Senegal. He was also known to English speakers in the 1730s by other variants of his name, which were attempts to Anglicise his name into something they could pronounce : Job Diallo, Job Jalla and Job ben Solomon.  We today can learn of his remarkable story from two books, published at the time, by Francis Moore and Thomas Bluett, both of  whom had met Diallo, and from the correspondence concerned with his admittance to SGS membership, held in the Society’s archive.

He was born into a devoutly Muslim family of courtiers to the local ruler of the kingdom of Futa Tooro; his name is itself a patronymic, telling of his ancestry: Ayuba (the local form of ‘Job’) son of Solomon, son of Abraham.  His father, Solomon, was a significant figure at the court of the local kingdom of Bundu or Bondu. In addition to cattle farming, Diallo proved to be a scholar, studying Arabic in order to read the Qur’an, which he knew by heart at the age of fifteen, and learning other local African languages.  He seems to have acted as the local Muslim Imam or chief religious leader for the local small kingdom, as British eighteenth-century writers refer to him as a ‘priest’, or ‘high priest’, the nearest equivalent from their own religious experience.  He might have expected to spend his life in his home region, in scholarship and farming.

However, Diallo’s story brings us into contact with the very difficult topic of slavery, a concern in these days when the whole of Western society is confronted with the fact that ‘Black Lives Matter’. The three-cornered trade across the Atlantic, bringing manufactured goods from Britain to trade with the local rulers of West Africa, collecting local people to sell as slaves in North America and the Caribbean and returning to Britain with cargoes of sugar, cotton, tobacco and rum, was a dark stain on all those involved for several centuries.  While the main driver of this dreadful trade at that time was the white merchants and landowners of Europe and America, slave-dealing has been a frequently-recurring feature of many different societies across the world.  It is sad to say that some of those providing slaves to the British dealers were local kings and chiefs.  This explains Diallo’s connection.  In Moore’s version he was travelling to sell cattle, but in Bluett’s he was sent to take two people for local sale within the region. Diallo himself was captured by a neighbouring tribe and sold to British slave-dealers  about to set off for America.

Diallo, described in Moore’s account as ‘a person of extraordinary abilities, and distinguished merit’, must have impressed the ship’s captain, Captain Pike or Pyke, as he agreed to wait until a ransom for Diallo could be sent.  Unfortunately  the slave-ship came in before the ransom appeared; the captain could wait no longer and set sail for America.  No details of this actual crossing have survived, but documentary evidence of the structure of slave-ships and the housing of slaves make for horrifying reading; Diallo was fortunate to have survived until the ship docked in the American colony of Maryland.  There he was bought and put to work in the fields by his master, among the tobacco crop, but this exhausting work proved too heavy for him and took a toll on his health and he was put to cattle-herding.  He was also mocked and attacked when he attempted his daily prayer routine in nearby woodland. In desperation he attempted to escape but was captured, imprisoned and returned to his owner.  

The accounts of his eventual release vary in the details they give. He wrote a letter in Arabic to his father, asking him to buy his release; this came into the hands of Governor Oglethorpe of Georgia, who had it translated and realising that this was a learned scholar, arranged to have him bought from his master and returned home; this would involve travel via England.  A bond for his release was drawn up, to be paid off on his arrival in London where he would await a ship for Africa. While awaiting departure  he came into contact with a local minister, the Revd Mr Henderson, who found out that he was a ‘ person of great Piety and Learning’ and learnt Arabic from him.  The story was taken up in the book written by Thomas Bluett, a local judge, who came into contact with Diallo in Maryland and remained as his escort for the next amazing stages of his journey, which began with a crossing to England .

Diallo then had to wait for some time in London for a ship sailing to the Gambia.  Once the bond was paid off, for the sum of £59 6s 11½d, so that he lost his initial anxiety that his owner in America would be able to recover him, he became an outstanding social success, impressing his visitors by his intelligence and pleasant manner, ‘a happy Mixture of the Grave and the Chearful’.  Bluett tells how Diallo had rapidly learned English during the Atlantic voyage, so that he was able to converse with the large number of visitors, some of them noted members of Georgian society, to whom he was introduced.  He was a particular success among those social figures with an interest in learning; there was a keen interest in foreign countries and societies unfamiliar to the eighteenth- century English, particularly the Arab world with which Diallo was familiar through his Islamic studies.  During his stay in England, he wrote out three manuscript copies of the Qur’an from memory.  He became acquainted with the well-known antiquary and collector, Sir Hans Sloane, for whom he translated Arabic manuscripts and other inscriptions.  This led to Diallo’s presentation at court to ‘their Majesties and the rest of the Royal Family’; he wore ‘a rich silk Dress, made up after his own Country Fashion’ and was presented with a gold watch.  Dinner with several members of the aristocracy led to an acquaintance with the Earl of Pembroke and in particular the Duke of Montague, who introduced him to English agricultural methods and provided him with samples of the latest farming equipment to take back home with him.  He impressed those who met him by his grasp of machinery and clockwork.

We can gain some impression of Diallo’s appearance from two portraits painted of him during his stay in London by the artist William Hoare RA (1707/8-1792).  Bluett explained in his book that Diallo, as a good Muslim, objected to pictorial representation of people: ‘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 asssured 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.’ Bluett’s account explains the method used by portrait painters at the time and includes a clever and thoughtful comment by Diallo: ‘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, how do some of your painters presume to draw God, whom no one ever saw?’

The portraits survive, very similar except that in one, Diallo looks to the left and in the other his head is turned slightly to the right.  He wears a loose, flowing white robe and a white turban with a red cap in the centre.  Round his neck is a string with a red wallet at the end of it.  One of these portraits is now in the National Portrait Gallery, London, which is unfortunately closed for a couple of years for improvements; the other is in the American Revolution Museum, Yorktown, Virginia, USA.  An accessible image of him, made from one of these portraits, though less well finished than these, is a print published in the Gentleman’s Magazine for June 1750; between pages 272 and 273 are two mezzotints of African gentlemen, Diallo and William Ansah Sessarakoo; interestingly, Diallo wears his traditional dress while Sessarakoo is in the clothes of an English gentleman.

One of the people who had the pleasure of meeting him in London was Maurice Johnson, Secretary of the SGS, paying one of his regular visits to the capital on legal business.  This is not recorded in either of the published books, but fortunately the SGS archive of correspondence still contains Johnson’s detailed description of the meeting.  It appears to have taken place on 23 May 1734, while Diallo was on a visit to the Tower of London.  The Master of the Ordnance there, William Bogdani, was a keen corresponding member of the SGS and a relative of Maurice Johnson’s and had presumably invited Johnson to meet this distinguished guest, who had been recommended to him by the Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries, Joseph Ames. At a later stage, Johnson wrote down his memories of this meeting, at which he was very impressed by Diallo’s personality and learning.  Johnson described him as ‘an Open, Candid, humane & Good man’ who ‘Spake English well enough to be understood, was Skilful in & wrote Arabic well & fast or very readily and Six other Eastern languages’.  Johnson’s description of Diallo’s appearance tallies with that shown on the two portraits by Hoare and helps to explain the wallet hanging round his neck which contained either a complete Qur’an or extracts from it: ‘wore an Alchoran of his own writeing in a ribband hung on his breast a White Cotton long robe & a White Muslin Turban & the Capp Crimson Velvett’.

While metropolitan learned individuals and groups were happy to meet and converse with Diallo, Maurice Johnson went a step further and invited him to become a member of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. The Society is proud to have in its archive Diallo’s application for membership, written in elegant Arabic script. His proposers were London members of the SGS,  James West, lawyer of Lincoln’s Inn and George Holmes, deputy archivist of the Tower of London, supported by Bogdani and Johnson himself.  It says a great deal about the positive attitude of the Society at the time that they were happy to admit such an unusual, though distinguished and learned member.  A letter by Johnson to his step-brother Richard Falkner, in the SGS archives, dated 6 July 1734, welcoming Falkner as an SGS member, mentions other distinguished people who have been, or are about to be admitted to membership: ‘a learned Mahometan Priest from Africa & a Noble Peer of the Realm my Lord Viscount Falkland’ and ‘the famous Dr Desaguliers FRS’, so Diallo was in good company.

Diallo’s adventures reached a happy and positive conclusion.  As Moore’s book relates, eventually a ship was available on which he could return to Africa, and he sailed to the coast of the Gambia, where Moore met him.  From there he was able to send a message to his family; although his old father was seriously ill, he survived long enough to hear of his son’s safe return, though not to meet him again.  He was reunited with his family and his farm, where he introduced the European equipment and tools which he valued as a way of improving life for his own people. His travels ended, he lived as a respected scholar and religious leader, dying at the age of around 77.  His memory lives on in England, through the portrait displayed in the National Portrait Gallery and the records of a learned society in the Fenlands of Lincolnshire which has the honour to claim him as a member.


Michael and Diana Honeybone

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