The portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is currently open to public viewing on a long-term loan to the National Portrait Gallery in London, from the Orientalist Museum in Qatar. However I am very hard-pressed to describe this “loan arrangement” as a voluntary exchange. This loan was only made possible as a result of the British Government’s intervention to prevent its exportation to its rightful owner from the small and wealthy sheikhdom of Qatar.
This portrait of Ayuba Diallo was long thought to be lost until the Qatar Museums Authority bought it at a Christie’s auction. This art purchase by a foreign buyer irked some people within the British Government. A special export ban was immediately devised so that its exportation could be prevented. Such a ban is an unusual move only reserved for artifacts with great national significance.
The subject of this portrait is Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a Muslim aristocrat and ex-slave, who became a celebrity in the 1700s after a Briton named Thomas Bluett purchased his freedom. Bluett happened to be working as an attorney in Maryland during the same period.
Why is there such an international drama over a painting of a former Muslim slave from Maryland? What makes this painting a national treasure?
Answers to these questions can be found in Diallo’s heartbreaking but happy-ending life story, which brought him to Americas as a captured slave and ended with his departure to London as a free man. Ayuba’s and liberator Bluett’s memoirs gave outsiders a glimpse of the horrors of slavery in the South for the first time.
Diallo was born approximately around 1701 into a wealthy family of Muslim scholars and traders in Senegal, West Africa. He was an educated man who fluently spoke multiple languages including Arabic. He was captured was a young man by a rival tribe in an ambush; his beard was shaven to insult his Islamic faith. Shortly after his capture, he found himself in a transatlantic slave ship and subsequently sold to a slave owner in Maryland.
Diallo ended up in a tobacco plantation where he was coincidentally discovered by a British attorney and missionary named Thomas Bluett. The British lawyer was very impressed with Ayuba and he subsequently purchased Ayuba’s freedom to bring him back to England with himself. Ayuba was greeted with great admiration and quickly joined the intellectual circles of London. He even met the British royal family and translated Arabic documents for the British Museum during his well-publicized stay in London.
Diallo mesmerized his greeters in London with his ability to rewrite a copy of the Quran in Arabic solely based on his memory. In1734, he was able to return to this homeland in Africa, a dream for many other victims of the transatlantic slave trade. Diallo’s own insider accounts of slavery and Thomas Bluett’s memoirs later brought the truth about slavery to the public attention in Europe.
When his portrait was painted by William Hoare in 1733, Ayuba was already a celebrity within the London elite. Ayuba was a devout Muslim and initially protested being portrayed due to his religious convictions but after intense pressure from his friends gave in. In the painting, a copy of the Quran – which Ayuba handwrote from memory while in London – hangs from his neck.
Ayuba’s story is an example of self-determination and strong will. His self-confidence radiates from his bright eyes, and his elegance is evident in his composure. I recommend anybody who is currently in London to pay a visit to see Ayuba’s portrait.
Lachin Hatemi is a physician in Buffalo, New York. His interests include human rights, latient’s rights and interfaith dialogue. You can reach Lachin at email@example.com.