Nigerian poet, essayist, and novelist Ben Okri was asked by the UK's National Portrait Gallery in September 2013 to write a poem to serve as the caption for a 1733 painting of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a West African Muslim and former slave. The portrait, made by English painter William Hoare in oil on canvas, is part of a body of important cultural works which depict the lives of people of African descent in Europe prior to the 20th century, shows Diallo "as a man of intelligence, character and compassion – providing rare insight into the emergence of more tolerant values in Britain during the Enlightenment."
The painting was created nearly 100 years before the British government officially abolished the slave trade, during which millions of Africans were captured and shipped to plantations in the USA, Caribbean, and South America in horrific conditions. Diallo came from a family of Muslim clerics in Senegal. Despite his family's relatively high status and involvement in the slave trade, Diallo did not escape the brutalities of the time and was captured in 1730 and sold to British slave traders. After working on a tobacco plantation and as a cattle herd in Maryland, USA, Diallo travelled to England after an escape attempt through which he met Thomas Bluett, a lawyer who was impressed by his knowledge of Arabic and aristocratic heritage and sought to free the young man. Diallo returned home in 1734 after spending some time in the UK (during which the painting was made), and would eventually write a memoir which was one of the first slave narratives. The portrait of Diallo was purchased by the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) at auction in 2009, and is now shared by the Orientalist Museum in Doha and the National Portrait Gallery. Okri's poem, entitled 'Diallo's Testament', explores "the moving and sometimes uncomfortable story of one man’s involvement on both sides of the slave trade" and the journey which led to the discovery of and renewed interest in Diallo's story: http://youtu.be/s0PHE9_V34E
Diallo’s Testament by Ben Okri Who can read the riddle of life In this portrait of mine? I am one on whom providence Has worked its magic reversals. Behind me are silent stories Like a storm. I have worn History round my neck like chains. Freedom is a difficult lesson to learn. I have tasted the language of death Till it became the water of life. I have shaped a little my canvas of time. I have crossed seas of fires And seen with these African eyes The one light which neither empires Nor all the might of men obscure. Man is the sickness, God the cure.
Learn more about Diallo's story here. Interested in reading more on slavery and African people in history? We recommend:
- Equiano's Travels (a memoir by a former slave of Nigerian descent)
- Amistad (the story of slaves who overcome their captors and win freedom and the subject of a Steven Spielberg film)
- Jaja of Opobo: The Slave Who Became a King (a biography of the renowned ruler from modern-day Rivers State)
- I, Juan de Pareja, the story of a slave who helped create some of the greatest masterpieces of Western art.