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Home Articles Articles A Black Tale of Poetic Justice

A Black Tale of Poetic Justice

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In 1734 Ayuba Sulayman Diallo, otherwise known as Job Ben Solomon, made a splash on the English scene. Sulayman, a member of the Jaloff tribe between Senegal and Gambia on the West Coast of Africa, had been kidnapped in 1731 and sold as a slave to a Captain Pyke, who carried him to Maryland in America and sold him there.

 

There is poetical justice in his capture and enslavement. For while he was free in Africa, Sulayman had dealt in slaves himself. In fact, he was himself captured on the coast while endeavouring to sell two of his own flesh and blood.

Sulayman’s father was of the Islamic faith and the spiritual leader of his African town in Senegal. Sulayman assisted his father. Thus, by the time he was sold into slavery he had become well versed in the Koran, all of which he could recite from memory.

After about a year in Maryland, he wrote a letter in Arabic to his father acquainting him with his misfortune and hoping that he might be able to free him. The letter fell into the hands of James Ogelthorpe. Ogelthorpe sent the letter to Oxford University in England to be translated, which, when done, changed his opinion of  Sulayman. Ogelthorpe had travelled to England, and then sent directly for Sulayman to join him from America, and ultimately he became a free man.

There are two contemporary accounts of the excitement which Sulayman caused during his stay in England. Thomas Bluett who was closely associated with Sulayman in America and came over to England with him, reported that he translated several Arabic manuscripts in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane for the antiquarian, and Sloane found Sulayman “a perfect scholaster of the Arabic tongue”.

Sloane, whose collections formed the nucleus of the British Museum collection of Arabic documents, introduced Sulayman to the Duke of Montagu, who in turn, introduced him to the Court of the King George II. The Queen presented him with “a rich Gold Watch”. He was also well received by the nobility and gentry, and when he left England for Africa in June 1734, he was furnished by the Duke of Montagu “with all sorts of farming and gardening instruments, and several rich presents” and presents from other sources worth upwards of £500, a small fortune in those days.

A portrait of Ayuba Sulayman Diallo

Sulayman had a phenomenal memory, a quality highlighted by Bluett and corroborated by Wadstrom. “His memory was extraordinary” wrote Bluett, “for when he was fifteen years old he could say the whole Alcoran (Koran) by heart, and while in England he wrote three copies of it without assistance of any other copy, and with out so much as looking to one of those three when he wrote the others”.

And Wadstrom confirmed that a Mr W. Smith, MP had in his possession an MS copy of the Koran “in Arabic, written by the extraordinary African, when in England, purely from memory, as appears from a Latin certificate, at the end, signed by the Rev. Dr. Chandler, and some other reputable persons, competent to judge the merit and authenticity of this curious performance”.

A.R.

 

 

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