The story of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is one of the most interesting and incredible verified accounts of an African slave during the 18th Century, Whilst it is incredible, it also illustrates well the complexities of the slave trade and some of the injustices perpetuated upon slaves.
Diallo came from a prominent Fulbe family of Muslim religious leaders in western Africa. His grandfather had founded the town of Bundu, and he grew up with Samba Geladio Diegui the heir or kamalenku to the Kingdom of Futa-Toro.
In 1730, Ayuba became a victim of the ever-growing slave exploitation of the Senegambia region. Ayuba and his interpreter Loumein Yoas (also known as “Lamine Jay,” “Lahamin Joy,” “Lahmin Jay,” “Lamine Ndiaye,” and “Loumein Ybai”) were near the Gambia River to trade slaves and paper. While visiting some friends on their return trip, Ayuba and Yoas were captured by invading Mandingoes (successors to the mighty Mali Empire).
The invaders shaved their heads to make them appear as war captives, and there by the customs of the time in the region, legitimately enslavable, as opposed to their actual condition of people captured in a kidnapping raid for the specific purpose of selling slaves for financial profit.
The two men were sold to figures associated with the Royal African Company who were a British mercantile firm that had originally set up to trade in gold but had subsequently branches out into slavery in what today is Ghana.
Somehow Ayuba managed to convince the English Captain Pike of his high social status, and explained that his father was capable of paying ransom. Captain Pike granted Ayuba leave to find someone to send word to Ayuba’s family. Sadly the messenger did not return in time and at the behest of Captain Henry Hunt, Pike’s superior, Ayuba and Loumein were sent across the Atlantic to Annapolis, Maryland, where he was delivered to Vachell Denton.
Ayuba was soon purchased by Mr. Tolsey of Kent Island, Maryland and put to work in the tobacco fields; however, after being found unsuitable for such work, he was placed in charge of the cattle. While in captivity, Ayuba used to go into the woods to pray. and this led to an incident that was to again change his life.
After being humiliated by a child while praying, Ayuba ran away and was captured and imprisoned at the Kent County Courthouse. It was there that he was discovered by a lawyer, Rev. Thomas Bluett of the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, traveling through on business.
The lawyer was impressed by Ayuba’s ability to write in Arabic. One of his original letters is below.
Reverend Bluett wrote about the events thus:
“When another African who spoke Wolof, a language of a neighboring African ethnic group, was able to translate for him, it was then discovered that he had aristocratic blood. Encouraged by the circumstances, Mr. Tolsey allowed Ayuba to write a letter in Arabic to Africa to send to his father. Eventually, the letter reached the office of James Oglethorpe, Director of the Royal African Company. After having the letter authenticated by John Gagnier, the Laudian Chair of Arabic at Oxford, Oglethorpe purchased Ayuba for £45.”
According to his own account, Oglethorpe was moved with sentiment upon hearing the suffering Ayuba had endured. Oglethorpe purchased Ayuba and sent him to the London office of the Royal African Company in 1733 London with the Rev. Bluett and during his voyage learned English.
For whatever reasons, no-one had informed the Royal African Company of what should be done with Ayuba upon his arrival and remarkably it was left to one of those involved in his enslavement , Captain Henry Hunt, to arrange for lodgings in the country for him.
Ayuba heard rumours that Hunt was planning to sell him to traders who claimed they would deliver him home. Ayuba, fearing yet more trickery, contacted Bluett and other men whom he had met en route to London. Bluett arranged for Ayuba’s stay in Cheshunt in Hertfordshire.
The RAC, following Oglethorpe’s orders, made in part through persistent requests from interested men in London, subsequently paid all the expenses and purchase price of the bond for Ayuba. Ayuba beseeched Bluett once again, explaining that none of this secured he would not be enslaved once again. According to Bluett, all the honorable men involved had promised they would not sell Ayuba into slavery, so, though supposedly Ayuba was not under any threat, Bluett and other sympathizers paid “fifty-nine pounds, six shillings, and eleven pence half-penny” simply to ease Ayuba’s anxiety.
Respectable gentleman who knew Ayuba collected money for his “freedom in form,” an official document seal made and sealed by the RAC.
Bluett explained, “Job’s Mind being now perfectly easy,” he could fraternise with London’s elite, obtaining many gifts and new friendships, while also being of service to Hans Sloane through his newly acquired ability to translate Arabic into English. His service to Hans Sloane included organising the collection of Arabic Manuscripts at the British Museum. Ayuba was in the company of many other prominent people, including the Royal family and John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu and his wife Mary, the Duchess of Montagu, which lead him to being inducted into the Gentleman’s Society of Spalding.
In July 1734, Ayuba freely returned to Gambia and later returned to his homeland. Sadly by now his father had died, and one of his wives, presuming that Ayuba had perished, had remarried. His homeland was ravaged by war, but being a prosperous individual, he was able to regain his old lifestyle. His memoirs were published by Bluett in English and French.
Despite the incredible turn around in fortunes, Ayuba was an extremely rare good news story in the slave trade of that time. Due to his intelligence, education and the good fortune of coming across men with relatively good morals, he was able to legally escape the hardships of slavery and return home to Africa.
That wasn’t quite the end of the story though as Ayuba, however, faced later hardships. In June 1736, he was imprisoned by the French, perhaps due to his relationships with prominent figures in the U.K. He was held for a year by the French when finally his release was secured. His death was recorded in the minutes of the Spalding Gentleman’s Society in 1773.
For many years Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was best known for his striking portrait which was painted in 1733. For centuries the original was missing and presumed lost with the work of art only known through copies, however, happily the original painting came to light at the beginning of this century.
For two posts on very contrasting figures you might like to read one of my posts on prominent early Black Britons then you might like to read my 2016 post on Mary Seacole – The Greatest Black Briton or about the fascinating story of the first Black man in the British Army.