1840-1855 Unidentified boy of African descent

Kindly I would like to thank Katherine Meyers Satriano
for her help and encouragement.

In March 2021 I emailed the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology with a question about a photograph of Omo (Peabody number 35-5-10/53069). At that time, the online catalogue stated the daguerreotype of Omo carried the description “Dudu Unquay”. In the collection of the Peabody Museum, there is one other daguerreotype that contains those two words, it shows a young boy in profile (Peabody number 35-5-10/53073). I asked the Peabody Museum whether they had established a relation between the two images.

Daguerreotype, boy of African descent (ca. 1840-1855). Collection Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University, id. nr. 35-5-10/53073

Within a few days I received a kind reply from Katherine Meyers Satriano, senior archivist at the Peabody Museum. She informed me she was wondering about a possible connection between the two daguerreotypes. Unfortunately, she couldn’t look at the objects in person due to COVID-19 measures. Nevertheless, a mere week later she followed up on her initial message. She hadn’t been able to find the inscription “Dudu Unguay” on Omo’s image, and she concluded the cataloguing was in error. Besides, she suggested the inscription on the daguerreotype of the young boy in profile, was not “Dudu Unquay”, but “Dudu Unguay”.1

The Peabody number 35-5-10 refers to the accession in 1935 of a group of 33 daguerrotypes collected by Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873). 2 The naturalist and Harvard professor Agassiz advocated the theory of polygenesis or “separate creation”, arguing that mankind was not only divided into separate races, but also that the races were different species altogether. Widely discussed by scientists as well as laymen, 3 the construction of a racial hierarchy served as a scientific justification for the institution of slavery. In the words of Manisha Sinha: “In the United States, the science of man became the “science of slavery”, serviceable in the cause of enslaving nonwhite, inferior “races” suited allegedly by nature to hard labor in hot climates.” 4

In 1850 Agassiz commissioned the daguerreotypes of Jack, Drana, Delia, Renty, Fassena, Foulah or Alfred, and Jem: Africans and African Americans who were enslaved. Since the rediscovery of the daguerreotypes in 1976, scholars have discussed the images in the context of race, ethnology and scientific racism.
The unidentified boy, like Jack, Drana, Delia, Renty, Fassena, Foulah and Jem, was depicted as a racial type. This also applies to a tintype in Agassiz’s collection, which shows an unknown woman of African descent (Peabody number 35-5-10/53071). Like Drana and Delia, she looks straight into the camera, her upper garments stripped to her waist.

Tintype, woman of African descent (ca. 1840-1855). Collection Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University, id.nr. 35-5-10/53071.

In Exposing Slavery, Matthew Fox-Amato shows that by the mid-1840s, American slaveholders were already commissioning photographic portraits of the people they owned. A decade later, tintypes were popularized. Showing their entire body, in some instances naked, both front and back, the tintypes facilitated sales of enslaved people. Close scrutiny of the materialized image was equivalent to physical inspections performed at actual slave markets across the slaveholding states.5
It is possible the two photographs were made in the United States, after Agassiz commissioned the photographs of Jack, Drana, Delia, Renty, Fassena, Foulah and Jem. However, Amato-Fox notes that the majority of the photographs of enslaved people were very different from Agassiz images as they followed photographic conventions.6 Therefore, it should be considered the boy and the woman lived in bondage elsewhere in the world.

In an article on daguerreotypes depicting Chinese people in the collection of Agassiz, author Michelle Smiley explains American ethnologists and naturalists corresponded with their European counterparts. Daguerreotypes of enslaved people and “racial specimens” circulated through the international postal service. 7 Furthermore, Agassiz was aware of the proposal of Etienne-Reynaud-Augustin Serres, a professor of comparative anatomy, to establish a museum of photographs of the races of mankind. Serres was inspired by the French daguerreotypist E. Thiesson who had taken studies of Brazilians and Portuguese Africans in Lisbon. 8

Given the fact a distinguished group of scholars has researched the daguerreotypes in the Agassiz’s collection, it seems highly improbable further information on the unknown boy and woman can be found. Yet, the coming months I intend to search for traces of the two photographs in museum collections in Belgium, Brazil, Portugal and France.


  1. Katherine Meyers Satriano, email message to Parveen Kanhai, April 8 2021.
  2. Elena Bulat, India Spartz, Brenda Bernier, and T. Rose Holdcraft, “A Case for Preservation: Revisiting the Agassiz Collection of Daguerreotypes from the Peabody Museum Archives at Harvard University”, Topics in Photographic Preservation 13 (2009) pp. 147-159. https://resources.culturalheritage.org/pmgtopics/2009-volume-thirteen/13_21_Bulat.html
  3. Molly Rogers, “The slave daguerreotypes of the Peabody Museum: Scientific meaning and utility, History of Photography (2006) 30/1, pp. 39-54, 42.
  4. Manisha Sinha, “Of Scientific Racists and Black Abolitionists. The Forgotten Debate over Slavery and Race”, in: Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, Deborah Willis (eds.) To Make Their Own Way in the World. The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes (Cambridge: Peabody Museum Press; New York: Aperture, 2020) pp. 235- 257, 236. https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/08_Sinha_TMTOW_wm_a11y.pdf
  5. Matthew Fox-Amato, Exposing Slavery. Photography, human bondage and the birth of modern visual politics in America (New York: Oxford University Press 2019) 2, 52 and 97.
  6. Fox-Amato, Exposing Slavery, 38.
  7. Michelle Smiley, “Daguerreotypes and Humbugs: Pwan-Ye-Koo, Racial Science, and the Circulation of Ethnographic Images around 1850,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6/22 (Fall 2020), https://doi.org/10.24926/24716839.10895.
  8. Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9/2 (1995), pp. 38-61, 45. https://faculty.risd.edu/bcampbel/brianwallis-blackbodieswhitescience.pdf; Christoph Irmscher, “Mr. Agassiz’s “Photographic Saloon”, in: Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, Deborah Willis (eds.) To Make Their Own Way in the World. The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes (Cambridge: Peabody Museum Press; New York: Aperture, 2020) pp. 205 – 231. https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/07_Irmscher_TMTOW_wm_a11y.pdf