Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, (1701-1773) by William Hoare (English artist, 1707-1792)
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo [Job Ben Solomon] (c.1701–1773), Muslim cleric & slave, was born about 1701 in Bundu, west Africa, the son of a prominent Fulbe political & Islamic leader. He spoke several African languages, & Arabic, which he could also read & write, & by the late 1720s had married 2 wives & had several children. In 1730, with his interpreter Lamine Ndiaye (also known as Loumein Yoas), he traveled to the River Gambia & sold there some slaves to the Royal African Company factor. On their return journey they were captured by hostile Manlinke, their heads were shaven, & they were then sold to the very European slaver with whom Diallo recently had traded. Despite Diallo's desperate attempts to secure release, the 2 men were shipped as slaves across the Atlantic to Britain's North American colony of Maryland. They were two victims of a brutal traffic in humanity which by the mid-18C was dominated by British ships: in the period 1644–1816 nearly 260,000 Africans were sold down the River Gambia, although it was only a minor export region for slaves.
At Annapolis, Diallo was sold to a Maryland planter named Tolsey, from Kent Island, on Chesapeake Bay. Set to work in the tobacco fields & looking after cattle, he ran away. He was soon caught & while imprisoned came to the attention of an Anglican cleric &; lawyer, the Revd Thomas Bluett, who was impressed by Diallo's knowledge of Arabic & deemed him to be ‘no common slave.’ Bluett also saw potential advantage in redeeming the aristocratic African, who might become a useful commercial agent in west Africa. Diallo wrote a letter to his father in London this came into the hands of James Oglethorpe, deputy governor of the Royal African Company. Oglethorpe bought Diallo for £45 & in the company of Bluett he sailed for Britain in April 1733.
For some time Diallo lived in the Hertfordshire town of Cheshunt, but he still feared that he might be sold as a slave. With Bluett's help, various local gentlemen subscribed sufficient money to buy his ‘liberty’ in December 1733, Oglethorpe agreeing to the sale on condition that Diallo was returned to his home country. During his stay in Britain, mainly in London, in 1733-4, Diallo continued to learn English & orientalists were keen to make use of his knowledge of Arabic & Islamic culture. He was employed by Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal Society, to translate Arabic texts, & also by George Sale, the Arabic scholar, & Cromwell Mortimer, secretary of the Royal Society. Diallo was also fêted by aristocrats & gentlemen who were attracted by his dignified demeanor & pious behavior. He stayed at the home of the duke of Montagu & was also presented to members of the royal family. His portrait was painted by William Hoare. Diallo's fame spread & he was made an honorary member of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society.
Diallo was described by Bluett as being about 5 feet 10 inches tall, of lean appearance, & with ‘his hair long, black, & curled.’ His memory was described as ‘extraordinary’ & he was able to write out 3 copies of the Koran. while he was in Britain. From the same account Diallo appears to have been at ease with modern technology, & also a man of firm belief but of gentle disposition towards other religious ideas. In many ways his life & demeanor fitted well with the then current idea in Europe of the ‘noble savage.’
In the 1730s there were probably several thousand black people living permanently in London, working mainly as servants & artisans. Their legal status was ambiguous; it was not clear whether or not a slave from the colonies became ‘free’ when he or she stepped onto English soil. As a colonial slave Diallo was exceptionally fortunate & generally recognized as a man of superior status who possessed rare skills. There were few literate black people in Britain in the 1730s, & his easy accommodation within élite society helped forward the idea that Africans were fellow human beings worthy of respect, a moral point frequently labored by abolitionists later in the century.
In July 1734, with the assistance of the Royal African Company, Diallo returned to the River Gambia on board the Dolphin, taking with him gifts valued at £500. On arrival at the fort of St James, on Bance Island, he was greeted by Francis Moore, the company's factor. The company had purpose in returning Diallo to his home country. They hoped that by his agency they would gain access to the markets of the interior region of the River Senegal, contested with France, & secure the trade in slaves, gold, & gum. Late in 1735, & accompanied by Thomas Hull, also a company employee who kept a journal of his travels, Diallo traveled up-country to Bundu. There he found that his 2nd wife, thinking him dead, had remarried. In Bundu, Diallo's identification with the British earned the enmity of the French & he narrowly escaped enslavement by them & being shipped to Martinique. Thereafter he wrote a few letters to his contacts in England & made 1 or 2 unsuccessful attempts to revisit London.
There were a few other slaves who successfully returned from the Americas to Africa in the 18C, including Lamine Ndiaye, who gained his freedom in 1738 due to Diallo's persistence, aided by Bluett. However, none made the mark that Diallo did in London, considerably helped by memoirs of his experiences being recorded by both Bluett (in 1734) & Moore (in 1738). Although there is little evidence as to his later life in Bundu, news of his activities must have been brought to England as his death in 1773, was recorded in the minutes of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society.
David Killingray, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo [Job Ben Solomon] (c.1701–1773), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press