Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Yarrow Mamout, 1819. Oil on canvas, 24 by 20 inches.
Philadelphia Museum of Art

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Bundled in a heavy overcoat, high-collared jacket and knit cap, an elderly black man regards the viewer with a frankness of expression tinged with bemusement. The spellbinding candor of self-presentation seen here could only have been recorded by an artist possessed of great sympathy for his subject. The fortuitous meeting of the ex-slave Yarrow Mamout and the painter-naturalist Charles Willson Peale produced one of the most fascinating and memorable portraits of the early American republic.

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Unlike the vast majority of slaves brought to the Americas from Africa, Mamout lived a life that is relatively well documented. He seems to have been born in Guinea or Senegal on the west coast of Africa, in a region inhabited by the Fulani people. Despite the profoundly disorienting effects of enslavement, Mamout kept his native name, and consequently something of his personal identity, throughout his long life in forced exile from his homeland.

The original version of his name may have been “Mamadou Yero,” later inverted because of carelessness or unconcern on the part of his captors. A lifelong Muslim, he was named in honor of the Prophet Muhammad, but the significance of both names probably also reflects local practice regarding the circumstances of his birth. “Mamadou” was sometimes given to Fulani boys born on Monday, and “Yero” to a woman’s fourth-born child. Once in America, he used “Yarrow” as an improvised surname.

Enslaved in his early teens along with his sister, Mamout was brought to Annapolis, Md., in 1752. He was sold to Samuel Beall, a local entrepreneur, whom he served as a skilled worker for about 25 years. Mamout was inherited by Samuel’s son Brooke and was taken from Annapolis to the recently established settlement of Georgetown. In 1796, after more than 40 years in bondage, he finally gained his freedom through what seems to have been a negotiated settlement with his master.

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From that point on, his fortunes improved considerably, and the former slave soon became a conspicuous presence in Georgetown. Four years after he gained his freedom, Mamout not only had purchased a house but also held shares of stock in a local bank founded by a relative of his former owner.

In late 1818, at the age of 77, Peale journeyed to Washington, D.C., seeking Congress’ official recognition of the unique museum of paintings and natural history that he had established in Philadelphia. Although the prominent artist’s efforts proved fruitless, while he was in the area, his curiosity was aroused by the news of a local black man who had supposedly attained the astonishingly great age of 140. The physiological basis of longevity had long fascinated the artist, and he was keen to understand its scientific basis. Mamout is now known to have been in his early 80s at the time, not much older, in fact, than Peale himself.

That Mamout and Peale should have met seems to have been curiously fated. Their lives and fortunes had been determined by many of the same forces, only to follow dramatically different paths. While growing up in Annapolis, Peale could actually have witnessed the slightly older Mamout being taken off the slave ship Elijah, and may also have read about the availability of its cargo in the local paper.

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Christopher Lowndes, the owner of the ship that transported Mamout into bondage, was one of several local merchants who later sponsored Peale’s formal training in London. A further irony lies in Peale’s own subsequent possession of slaves. The last of these, the artist Moses Williams, was freed only in 1802.

Peale’s interest in Mamout was not the first case of his involvement with a black subject as a matter of scientific concern. Nearly 30 years earlier, he had painted James “the White Negro,” a local young black man whose body had begun to progressively manifest the splotched-skin condition known as vitiligo. Convinced that only lack of education and skin pigmentation separated the races, Peale speculated on the eventual, full inclusion of black Africans in American society. In addition to Mamout’s diet and lifestyle, Peale may have also regarded race as a contributing factor in Mamout’s advanced age.

Mamout’s life in Georgetown serves as a telling, and particularly poignant, reminder of the situation of blacks, free and enslaved, in the United States. The ironic persistence of slavery in a city so close to the new capital of the country was surely not lost on Mamout and the other black residents of the community.

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According to the census for 1800, there were almost 1,500 slaves in Georgetown out of a total population of more than 5,000. By this time, Mamout was counted among the much smaller number of 277 free blacks.

Life for this class of residents was not devoid of opportunities, as Mamout’s case proves, and many free blacks found employment in various trades and in domestic service. Some even practiced professional skills, such as medicine. Still, the presence of a large number of slaves in Georgetown prompted the passage of repressive ordinances intended to keep the population under control.

The story of Yarrow Mamout has recently been brought together and published by the historian James H. Johnston in his book From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family. Most remarkable of all is the restoration of Mamout’s genealogical descent down to the present day. He had at least one son, Aquilla, through whose marriage to a local black woman his line has descended to the present day. One member of the family, Simon Turner, served in the Civil War. A further mark of distinction was achieved by Robert Turner Ford, who received his undergraduate degree from Harvard College in 1927.

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An obituary published just after Mamout’s death in January 1823 provides a final insight into his personal life. The account states that he was buried in the garden behind his home, in the spot where he had prayed as a devout Muslim. Consciously or not, the last surviving published record of his life stresses the crucial preservation of his African origins in the face of nearly overwhelming odds. 

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. 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.

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.