Making glib moral judgements about the past does a disservice to history and to ourselves.
I was reminded of this during a recent encounter I had with a rather incredible art work in the National Portrait Gallery – a portrait of a man called Ayuba Suleiman Diallo which is the earliest known British portrait of an African slave.
Diallo was born to a family of educated Muslim clerics and kidnapped by slavers from his native Gambia aged 29 in 1731. He endured the harsh crossing to America where he was forced to work on the plantations. By good fortune, he came to the attention of English lawyer, Thomas Bluett, who was impressed by Diallo’s education and literacy in Arabic. Bluett took Diallo to England where he was received in London with enthusiasm and became well known. He was invited to work with Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, on translations of Arabic texts and was even received at court by George II. His supporters raised the money through public subscription to buy his freedom.
The painting is really worth seeing if you get the chance. It depicts Diallo in his native African dress, wearing a Koran on a chain around his neck, his eyes exuding dignity and sympathy. Painted by William Hoare, one of the most fashionable society portrait artists of the eighteenth century, you get a sense from this work of the importance of Diallo in transforming attitudes towards African people at the time, and his significance to the early campaign to abolish slavery in Britain. This was recognised in 2010 when a fundraising campaign was launched to try to buy the portrait for the nation. One of its champions, the playwright, Bonnie Greer, keen to score a contemporary political point, explained, “His face speaks to today, speaks to those who feel disconnected from the story of this great land.”
Here at last, amidst all the soldiers, colonial figures and slave-owning patriarchs whose statues and portraits we are told must be banished to atone for their sins, is a man worthy of our admiration. Or perhaps not.
What I learned about Diallo (and strangely absent from the museum texts about him), is that his elite family were themselves slave traders. In fact, he was kidnapped while returning home from selling some slaves. And, by a twist of fate, he was then sold to the very man he had been doing business with only days before. Even more astonishingly, after his supporters bought his freedom he returned to Africa in 1738 to work for the Royal Africa Company – which was then active in the slave trade – for the rest of his life.
If we were to follow the simplistic moral reasoning of those people arguing to pull down Nelson, Rhodes, Columbus, Wellington, Lincoln and more, shouldn’t Diallo’s portrait be torn down as well?
History is rarely about goodies and baddies – and certainly not along colour lines. It is hard for us to fathom a world in which slavery was commonplace and normalised, where racial or caste-based hierarchies operated throughout the world. Slavery was a well-developed practice in Africa long before the imperialists arrived, though it became much more profitable afterwards. The famous Benin Bronzes, a beautifully crafted series of brass plaques looted by the British in 1897 from modern day Nigeria – many of which are now on display in the British Museum – have long been the focus of campaigners angered about cultural appropriation. What is not often said is that these ornate plaques were the fruits of a kingdom that grew rich on trading African slaves with Europeans. Are the Benin Bronzes a relic of a great African civilisation or a treasure produced by slavery? Is the fact that Britain’s navy stopped slavery on the high seas and saved millions of lives just as worthy of commemoration as its role in the slave trade years earlier?
Academic life should focus on uncovering and understanding the past in all its complexity, but too often it feels like it is weaponised to serve some crude contemporary political agenda. It is a peculiarity of our times that many academics want to shut down debate by demonising those who participate – for instance, the group of historians at Oxford University who wrote an open letter before Christmas condemning one of their fellow academics for daring to question prevailing moral narratives about the British Empire (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/oxford-academics-attack-professor-nigel-biggar-over-defence-of-colonialism-ht6h0zxcv) In previous eras, it might have been an authoritarian state trying to clamp down on uncomfortable opinion. As Trevor Phillips wrote, by referring to “the wrong questions, using the wrong terms” those historians were using “an attack line of which Joseph Stalin would have been proud.”
This is what universities are becoming like in 2018. Which is why now – more than ever – we need new spaces on the internet to discuss challenging ideas in the areas of race, identity and culture. I hope this blog can be one of them.
Author: Munira Mirza