The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

In a portrait format usually reserved for the privileged classes, an elaborately dressed, elderly black man regards the viewer with a reserved demeanor. For all his finery, however, he is a servant in the household of an aristocratic family. His remarkably candid image sheds light on the situation of people of African descent in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, in this case the less well-studied Eastern region of the continent.

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A four-line inscription below the image identifies the unique sitter as “Joseph, a Moroccan” and goes on to give a broad account of how he came to be in the service of the Bohemian family that commissioned the portrait. According to the text, he “was captured by Freiherr Mitrovsky and baptized at Syracuse, Sicily, in 1698. From 1728 to his death in 1777, he served the family of Count Novohradsky z Kolovrat for 49 years.”

The skillfully worked engraving seems to have been issued as a token of esteem for a valued member of a noble household. Most likely it was intended to circulate in very small numbers among those who actually knew him. This example may well be the only copy still in existence.

The man who captured Joseph was probably Maximilian Mitrovsky von Nemysl. As a land-holding member within the Austrian Empire, Mitrovsky may have been sent across the Mediterranean as part of the Grand Alliance, a coalition of states aligned with Great Britain and Spain to counter the territorial ambitions of Louis XIV of France.

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In the print, Joseph is described as Moroccan, which could merely refer to his place of capture by Mitrovsky and not his actual place of origin. It may have been there, along the western Mediterranean coast of Africa, that their paths intersected.

During the late 17th century, when Joseph was captured by Mitrovsky, Morocco had just entered one of the greatest periods of its long history under the despotic Alawite ruler Moulay Ismail. His highly efficient consolidation of power had been accomplished largely by the use of a huge levy of black troops. Known as the Black Watch, at its peak, the unit numbered as high as 150,000 men. Perhaps Joseph was a member of the large community of black Africans so vital for the continued stability of Moulay Ismail’s regime.

By the time his story picks up again, Joseph would have grown to maturity, perhaps already having reached middle age. In fact, at the time of his death, he could have been of truly advanced years. If he had been captured by Mitrovsky as a young adult, he may have attained the venerable age of 100, another reason to celebrate his presence at the court as a type of natural curiosity.

Some idea of Joseph’s physical surroundings is provided by the ornate palace built in Prague by a branch of the house of Kolovrat. Set along one side of a picturesque square, the baroque splendor of its facade forms the architecturally ordered equivalent of Joseph’s livery or official attire. His vest, closed with richly worked buttons, and flowing jacket create a lively play of tonal contrasts. The grand effect is completed by a small pearl earring and tightly wound turban.

When we consider the history of Africans in Europe, it is mostly the Western regions of the continent that receive the most attention in the scholarly literature. The Diaspora spread throughout all areas of Europe, however, though perhaps in lower numbers in the Eastern areas. By Joseph’s time, other blacks in the region arrived as war booty from successful campaigns against the Turks or from the slave markets of Southern Europe. Black people were certainly not unknown in Austria and Bohemia during antiquity and the Middle Ages. The first documented instance of a black person in Austria dates from the 15th century.

Joseph’s story parallels that of perhaps the best-known African captive at the Austrian court. Angelo Soliman, originally called Mmadi Maki, was abducted from his native Nigeria as a young child during the 1720s. His service to noble families in Marseilles, Sicily and Austria parallels Joseph’s own position with the Mitrovsky and Kolovrat families, but on a much grander scale, and it seems that Joseph’s career never so dramatically strained the turbulent waters of class and race as did the career of his younger contemporary.

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Soliman served as tutor to the royal family and was an intimate of the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Sadly, but not so surprisingly, given the European fascination with the notion of the savage state of man, Soliman’s fate after his death in 1796 was anything but noble. His body was stuffed, mounted and displayed as an exotic, “wild” African tribesman.

Conversely, we will never know just what position Joseph served in Bohemia. His long service to the Kolovrat family and exotic dress he wears in the print seem that of the kammerdiener, or chamber servant. In this role he is probably typical of any number of black servants in Eastern European courts.

Slavery was only abolished in Bohemia in 1781, four years after the death of Joseph. Joseph therefore may never have been officially freed, but as time went, the nature of bondage took on less relevance. He lived to see the fashionable employment of black servants in grand European households begin to fall out of favor. The historically brief time of his half-century as kammerdiener left behind the age of baroque finery and extravagance to enter the more sober Age of Enlightenment. 

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.