What can portraits tell us about the struggle to end the transatlantic slave trade?

Learning objectives

  1. Examine portraits of some of the individuals involved in the transatlantic slave trade, resistance to it and the campaign for abolition.
  1. Discuss some of the complexities of these people and their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, resistance to it and the campaign for abolition.
  1. Reflect on how historical context and present-day perspectives affect our views of historical figures.
  • View larger image
[IMAGE] An African man wearing white flowing robes and a white and red turban, with a small red book hanging around his neck.
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo
by William Hoare
oil on canvas, 1733
30 in. x 25 in. (762 mm x 635 mm)
NPG L245
OM.762. Orientalist Museum, Doha.
On display in Room 12 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Between the 1500s and 1800s, millions of African people were kidnapped, sold and forced to work on Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in the Caribbean and the Americas as part of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . Nations, including Britain, grew extremely rich from enslaved people’s labour. Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. owners and slave traders in Britain and other countries also grew extremely rich.

Generations of enslaved people resisted and rebelled against their enslavement and brutal treatment. In the 1800s laws were passed in Britain to end the trade and then slavery itself.

The transatlantic slave trade was a complex system and the history of how it ended is complex too. It involved a huge number of different people.

We will look at some of the people whose lives and actions played into this part of our past.

Before you start this resource, it is important that you understand how Britain built its trade, and how the trade worked. If you need more information, here are some good places to start:

This is a traumatic part of our history. Its legacy still affects our lives today. Learning about the history of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. , you will encounter descriptions of violence against men, women and children; and offensive language and attitudes. You will also encounter stories of Resistance The act of using force to oppose somebody/something. and extraordinary resilience. We recommend you learn about this topic with support from your teacher.

Examining portraits: your first impressions

These five people, who lived in the 1700s and 1800s, have a connection to Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. , and its end.

Choose three portraits that interest you to focus on. Look at each portrait carefully and capture your first impressions by making notes or recording your ideas.

For each portrait think about:

  • what you can see
  • what you know
  • what you assume or guess
  • what you want to find out.


    • Look closely at every part of the picture. Look at their face and the way their body is Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. . Look at their clothes, objects and their surroundings.
    • Take your time. Keep looking.
    • Can you tell where the person is? Does the background of the picture give any clues?
    • Have you seen this portrait or read this name before? What do you know already?
    • Why has the artist shown them with particular clothes and objects or in a particular place? What might this say about them?
    • What do you think their life was like, up until their portrait was created? What do you see that makes you think that?
    • Why do you think the National Portrait Gallery has this portrait? Who might this person be? What could they have done?
    • What do you want to know about this person?
    • What questions could you ask to find out more about this portrait?

What has shaped your perceptions?

Your perceptions – how you look at someone, what you think about them, and the questions you ask about them – are affected by many things. For example:

  • what you know about the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. , the people who made money from it, and the people trying to stop what was happening
  • what you know about this time in British history
  • how you learnt about this history and who you learnt about it with
  • your life and your experiences.

As you find out more about these people, and discuss your ideas with others, your perceptions can change.

Now explore the portraits again. This time, we have given you more information about the people and their stories. As you get to know them, think about if and how your perceptions of them change.

Look closer: Toussaint L’Ouverture by J. Barry

In 1791, Toussaint L’Ouverture led an important and successful Uprising A situation in which a group of people join together in order to fight against the people who are in power. of enslaved Africans against Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. owners in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), on the island of Hispaniola. L’Ouverture and his troops fought a long series of fierce battles. By 1801, he had successfully taken control of Saint Domingue from France.

Haiti was the first independent nation in the Caribbean and the first independent Black Republic ​A country that is governed by a president and politicians elected by the people and where there is no king or queen. in the world. It was ruled by formerly enslaved people and was free from slavery. The events leading up to independence became known as the Haitian Revolution.

This victory for enslaved people, and the actions of their leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, sent shockwaves through Britain. It encouraged people campaigning for the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. and the enslavement of African people to keep going.

  1. Why do you think people wanted to buy prints of Toussaint L’Ouverture?
  1. How do you think uprisings by groups of enslaved people might have affected the abolition campaign?
  1. What do you think this portrait is trying to say about L’Ouverture’s leadership?

Look closer: Ignatius Sancho, after Thomas Gainsborough

  • View larger image
    Ignatius Sancho,    by Unknown artist, after  Thomas Gainsborough,    circa 1802-1820,    NPG 7063,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ignatius Sancho, by Unknown artist, after Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1802-1820
    • Sancho is wearing a grey jacket and waistcoat with gold buttons and gold trim. He has a white cravat (a sort of tie) around his neck.
    • These are the sort of clothes men of high status would have worn at the time. The gold tells us that they were expensive.
    • Sancho is shown here as a typical English gentleman.
    • We can only see Sancho’s head and shoulders. He is turned slightly and looking off to the side, rather than looking at us – the viewer. This was a typical Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. for portraits of English men at the time.
    • A good deal of the portrait is taken up by his face. His eyes appear slightly closed and his expression looks confident and dignified.
    • Altogether, he appears completely at ease and self-assured.

Ignatius Sancho was enslaved from a very young age and brought to Britain from the Caribbean as a young child. He lived in London for much of his life, owned his own shop, and became the first Black person to vote in a British election.

He grew up in a house in Greenwich where he was enslaved by the family who raised him. He met the Duke of Montagu who taught him to read and write. Aged twenty he escaped and went to work for the Montagu family as a butler.

Sancho met and made friends with artists and writers. He wrote to them, encouraging them to use their popularity to support the growing campaign for the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. of slavery. He wrote letters calling out the Inhumanity The fact of not having the usual human qualities of showing sympathy and being kind. of the slave trade that were printed in newspapers. He also described the racism he experienced living in London. After he died, his letters were published in a best-selling book.

  1. Why do you think Sancho wrote to the newspapers?
  1. Why do you think people wanted to read Sancho’s letters?
  1. Why was letter writing was so important at this time?

Look closer: Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare

  • View larger image
[IMAGE] An African man wearing white flowing robes and a white and red turban, with a small red book hanging around his neck.
Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, by William Hoare, 1733
    • Diallo sat for this portrait in England. He chose to wear the clothes of his home in West Africa.
    • Diallo is wearing a turban. He may have chosen to wear this because by covering his head he shows respect to God. It may also show he is a man of learning. His education and his religion were both important to him.
    • Diallo came from a wealthy family of religious leaders and traders. While conducting business in Africa he was kidnapped and enslaved. His beard, part of Islamic tradition, was shaved off by his captors. In this portrait, it is starting to grow back.
    • He is wearing a Qur'an The holy book of the Islamic religion, written in Arabic. around his neck. He wrote it out from memory during the year he spent in England. It represents his education and his religion, which were both important to him. Together with his clothing, it makes a powerful statement of Diallo’s cultural identity as an African Muslim.
    • Diallo’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. is formal but also relaxed.
    • He looks directly out at the viewer. His eyes are bright and his expression is engaging.
    • He appears confident and dignified.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was an educated man from a family of Islamic leaders, in present-day Gambia, West Africa. His family were involved in the trade in enslaved African people, as part of the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. . While conducting business in Africa, Diallo was kidnapped and enslaved himself, and forced to work on a tobacco Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in America.

Two years later, in 1733, he was brought to London. He met highly-educated British people, who were impressed by his abilities. He became a celebrity in Britain. This painting was used to make prints, so many people could own a picture of him. 

Slavery erased the identity and freedom of millions of African people. Many British people – especially plantation owners, slave traders, and their supporters – believed that African people were less than human. This is the root of many racist ideas that still exist today. But Diallo’s portrait contradicts this. It shows an educated man looking out at the viewer as a dignified individual – an equal with his own identity. 

In 1734, Diallo’s friends and admirers collected enough money to buy him out of slavery. He returned to West Africa and went back to his family’s business, which included trading in enslaved African people.

Diallo’s Memoir An account written by somebody, especially somebody famous, about their life and experiences. was published in 1734. It describes what had happened to him when he was enslaved. Decades later, anti-slavery campaigners used the example of Diallo to show the humanity of enslaved people, and that Africans are equal to white British people, with the same rights to freedom.

  1. Why do you think Diallo’s memoirs were such a powerful tool for the abolition campaign?
  1. Diallo did not choose to be part of the abolition campaign. How far is it possible to know what Diallo’s views on slavery were?

Look closer: Sir John Gladstone by Thomas Gladstones

  • View larger image
    Sir John Gladstone,    by Thomas Gladstones,    circa 1830,    NPG 5042,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir John Gladstone, by Thomas Gladstones, circa 1830
    • Gladstone is shown as a wealthy man, wearing well-made clothes.
    • These clothes were common among rich gentlemen in Britain in the 1830s.
    • He is seated in a leather armchair, which would have been an expensive piece of furniture.
    • His Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. is confident and authoritative.
    • He is looking directly at us, the viewer, with a serious expression.

John Gladstone made his money by trading corn, tobacco, sugar and cotton across the British Empire The countries ruled by Britain starting in the late 1400s and peaking around 1920 when the British Empire included around a quarter of the world's population. , and through the exploitation of enslaved people. He owned Plantation A large area of land, especially in a hot country, where crops such as coffee, sugar and rubber are grown. in the Caribbean. The largest was worked by 430 enslaved people.

Gladstone spent his money in many ways.

  • He bought land in Scotland.
  • He put money into building projects such as new railways and canals in Britain.
  • He was religious, a Christian, and paid to build churches in Liverpool and St Andrews.
  • He paid for his sons’ education and their political careers. One son, William, later became prime minister.

He was a powerful man, and a Member of Parliament (MP) A person who has been elected to represent the people of a particular area in a parliament. . He regularly argued in parliament that slavery should continue. He fought against the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. of the slave trade.

When slavery was Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. , the British government paid money to the slave owners. Gladstone received a huge pay-out, more than £109,000 (over £80 million today), for the 2,912 enslaved people he had owned. The enslaved people received nothing.

  1. Why do you think Gladstone fought so hard against abolition?
  1. He wanted his sons to be politicians, not merchants. Why do you think he wanted this for them?

Look closer: Hannah More by Henry William Pickersgill

Hannah More was an abolitionist – a campaigner for the Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. of slavery. She was also a very popular writer of plays, poems and letters. She was an Evangelical Christians A religious group that emphasizes the authority of the Bible and the importance of people being saved through faith. , and wrote about religion, Morals Standards and principles of good behaviour. , good manners and education. The popularity of her writing made her famous and influential. People listened to her.

As a campaigner for the abolition of slavery she:

  • wrote pamphlets and letters and spoke to MPs to try to persuade them to support the campaign
  • wrote Slavery, a poem to publicise the MP William Wilberforce’s campaign to bring in laws that would Abolition The ending of a law, a system or an institution. the slave trade
  • organised sugar Boycott The act of refusing to buy, use or take part in something as a way of protesting. , where people refused to buy sugar produced by enslaved workers
  • made friends with famous and influential people and tried to persuade them to join the campaign by showing them shocking pictures and information about the treatment of enslaved people
  • used her fame to help keep attention on the campaign for abolition. It took years for the laws to be passed which made the Transatlantic slave trade The buying and selling of African people as slaves between the 1500s and 1800s, using trade routes that crossed the Atlantic Ocean. and the enslavement of African people illegal.
  1. What difference do you think celebrities can make to campaigns?
  1. Hannah More hadn’t experienced slavery. How far do you think this matters? Why?

Look again

Revisit your first ideas and questions about the three portraits you chose to focus on.

Now that you have more information, have your ideas been confirmed or changed?

  1. Do you see any details in the portraits that you missed first time around?
  1. Have your first impressions of the sitters’ expressions and poses changed, now that you have explored their attitudes and opinions?
  1. Have your questions been answered? Do you have new questions?
  1. What have these portraits added to your understanding of people’s attitudes towards slavery and the struggles to end the transatlantic slave trade?

Reflections

  • You have focused on a complex and brutal part of our shared history. It can bring up strong reactions. How are you feeling?
  • Do you have any questions? You could discuss them with a teacher or an adult you feel comfortable talking to.
  • You could use the links in this resource to find out more or explore more portraits that link to this history from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.