This is the story of a remarkable man. A former slave who’s portrait is on display at the Georgetown Public Library. It was rendered in 1822 by James Alexander Simpson, an art professor at Georgetown University and famous artist of that time. Artist Charles Willson Peale painted another portrait of Mamout in 1819 and wrote about him in his diaries. Peale is known as the painter of the Founding Fathers: he painted George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and other great men of the American Revolution and the early republic.
Lawyer and historical scholar James Johnston was so intrigued when he saw the portrait of Mamout hanging in the Georgetown Public Library’s Peabody Room that he spent eight years researching Mamout’s life: “I was surprised to see a portrait of a poor black man at the Georgetown library. After all, Georgetown’s whole image is rich and white.”
Mr Johnston’s 8 years of research uncovered a wealth of information that he documented in his book From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family. He reconstructed Mamout’s life based on legal documents, court records, diaries, oral histories, paintings, photographs and books.
Mamout was enslaved at 16 years old. He was a devout Muslim teenager from the West African Fulani people. He spoke the Fula language and could read and write Arabic and rudimentary English.
Two Hundred and Sixty Five Years ago (June 4, 1752) Yarrow Mamout was brought from Africa aboard the slave ship ‘Elijah’. After a voyage of about 2 months in inhumane conditions, he arrived in the English colonies at the port of Annapolis Maryland and spent 44 years of his life as a slave of the Beall family in Maryland and Virginia before earning his freedom in 1796.
“He was only sixteen and looked younger,” writes Johnston in his book. “He may have worked topside. Records of his life later in Georgetown show that he knew his way around a ship and water. His owner at the time rented him out to work on the oceangoing sailing ship ‘the Maryland’ while it was in port. The Maryland’s owner said Mamout was the best swimmer ever seen on the Potomac River.”
Mamout was put to work in tobacco farming and was later promoted to the position of Beall’s ‘body servant’ not only tending his daily needs but accompanying him on all his business trips.
Yarrow Mamout was known as a jack of all trades: he made charcoal, weaved baskets, worked on ships, and made bricks. He was able to earn his own money from these endeavors, and a brick-making agreement with Beall’s wife eventually led to his manumission in April 1807. After 44 years in slavery, Mamout became a free man. He went on not only to buy land in Georgetown, but also to invest in the Columbia Bank there and become a financier for both black and white local merchants. “I think a remarkable part of this story is that he wasn’t freed until he was 60 and immediately has enough money to invest, which he loses. He starts over again and earns another $100 and loses that too” both times because of the actions of the men holding the money for him,” says Johnston.
Mamout’s leap from slave to landowner and entrepreneur is remarkable. Even for white Americans of the working class at the time, that level of success was barely attainable. So how did Mamout do it? The main secret to his success seems to have lain in his faith and persistence.
Yarrow Mamout remained a faithful Muslim all his life. He practiced his faith faithfully and even when Mr Johnston and Nancy Kassner, archaeologist of the District of Columbia, looked for his grave they looked in the place where he used to perform the Muslim prayer, the south east corner facing Mecca.
Everything we know about Mamout’s life is thanks to Charles Willson Peale who was in Washington in 1819 to paint President James Monroe. Peale had heard of the elderly Mamout, whom locals wrongly touted as more than a hundred years old, and sought him out to learn the secret of his longevity. He recorded their meetings in his diary with entries like this: “Yarrow owns a house and lotts and is known by most of the Inhabitants of Georgetown and particularly by the Boys who are often teasing him which he takes in good humor. It appears to me that the good temper of the man has contributed considerably to longevity. Yarrow has been noted for sobriety and a cheerfull conduct, he professes to be a mahometan, and is often seen and heard in the Streets singing Praises to God and conversing with him he said man is no good unless his religion comes from the heart.”
In 1800 Georgetown was home to a small community of free African Americans many of whom were Muslims who resided in the Rock Creek area. Often, they were considered trustworthy by contemporaries because of their faith and specifically its proscription against alcohol.
When Mamout died in 1823, it was Peale who penned his obituary, leaving what remains the most intriguing clue to the man’s past. “He was interred in his garden, the spot where he usually resorted to pray,” Peale wrote.
Mamout’s story is an opportunity for American Muslims to feel a greater connection to the earliest days of American history.
“There is a deep connection between Islam and America that most miss, and Yarrow is an embodiment of that,” says Rahim. “Thomas Jefferson owned Muslim slaves and studied Arabic at the College of William and Mary. Along with France, the Muslim nation of Morocco was the first to recognize American independence. I think the current interest in Yarrow speaks to the fact that we, as Americans, are realizing we’ve been getting it all wrong.”