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.


1847-1848 Omo

W. & F. Langenheim, Daguerreotype, African youth, portrait (1848), Collection Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University, id.nr. 35-5-10/53069

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University holds in its collection a daguerreotype from 1848, made by the established Philadelphian brothers Langenheim. The daguerreotype was commissioned by Samuel George Morton (1819-1850), the craniologist whose scientific inquiry served the intents and purposes of white supremacy. 1 The image is described as “African youth. Mounted daguerreotype in case, young boy in school -boy style uniform. Three- quarter view to waist.”
In her latest book, Anna Mae Duane unearthed the story of the person portrayed. Born in southern Africa as Omo, he was exhibited in Boston and became known as “Henry the little Bushman”. In 1849 he died of cholera in the New York Colored Orphan Asylum. 2

advertisement The Daily Atlas, December 12, 1847. The Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts was establised in 1841 by Moses Kimball and functioned as a natural history museum, zoo, wax museum, theatre and art gallery.

Newspapers announcing Omo’s arrival spoke of him as: “a specimen of nature’s production, this evidently connecting link between the animal and rational works of the great Creator.” 3 According to the Boston Statesman, the “Bushmen are supposed to be the next link in the chain to the ourang outang.”4 The Boston Cultivator described the private exhibition at the Boston Museum for “distinguished medical men.” Omo stood on a table with the exhibitor by his side. Meanwhile, the “scientific individuals” carried out measurements, some spectators pulled Omo’s hair, touched his head and poked his ribs, to establish he was a “genuine specimen of the South African race.” 5

Sarony & Major, Litograph, New York journal of medicine (1848). Omo sat two times for the artists who made the lithograph. Source: https://archive.org/details/newyorkjournalo1184forr_0/page/n159/mode/1up?q=bushman

A committee of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York concluded 18-year old Omo had the intellect “like that of a child of 6 or 7 years. […] his mind is too immature to be capable of any serious employment.” The examiners considered this a positive outcome, especially when Omo was compared to “children of savage tribes and those African ones.” Hence it would be incorrect to “stigmatize the Bushmen as the lowest in the scale of mental capacity. He is decidedly intelligent, quick in his perceptions, and possessed of a full share of vivacity.” 6

the logic of the specimen bends both time and space around the Black body, somehow always returning it “home” to slavery […] in the free city of Boston, an African youth found his body held up as commodity, assessed, if not for immediate labor, then for evidence that his race was suited for noting else. […] Certainly he received a treatment similar to that of slaves subject to the auction block […]

Anna Mae Duane, Educated for Freedom (2020) p. 79.

Omo came to Boston as the property of Isaac Chase, the first American consul to the Cape of Good Hope. Chase wrote: “the Bushman which I have brought from South Africa, came into my possession between four and five years ago, from the hands of a trader, who (according to his own account), picked him up in a dying state, while passing through the Bushman country.” 7 I would like to suggest Omo’s plight reflects the enslavement and extirpation that were inflicted on the indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa from the onset of Dutch colonial settlement and expansion.

Widow of Jacob van Meurs (ed.) Map of the Cape of Good Hope and a view of Table Bay (1682). Collection National Library of The Netherlands, id.nr. 388 A 9 part II, after p. 6.
Source: https://www.atlasofmutualheritage.nl/nl/Kaart-Zuid-Afrika-gezicht-Tafelbaai.5654

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie – VOC) established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope, to restock ships on the long sea voyage between Europe and the trading centres in Asia. Dutch historian Matthias van Rossum has conclusively demonstrated the importance of slave labor throughout different parts of the VOC-empire. 8
The extensive shipping network of the VOC allowed for a constantly changing slave trade. From the Cape colony, the VOC undertook slaving expeditions to Mozambique and Madagascar. Moreover, enslaved people were transported from the eastern possessions of the company, notably along the southwest coast of India and the Indonesian archipelago. In the era of legal slave trade (1652-1808) the VOC owned a few thousand “company slaves” in the Cape colony. However, the majority of the enslaved population was owned by private individuals, such as high ranking VOC-officers and proprietors of grain and wine estates. 9

Commando raids

Jan Brandes, Khoikhoi and colonists on the plains of the Cape (1786). In the foreground two Khoikhoi men, followed by two men on horseback, one of whom carries a rifle. In the background a trekboer who returns from Cape Town to his farm. The man walking next to his cart is probably enslaved. As early as the 1730s, commando’s captured Khoikhoi on the western Cape frontier and bound them to servitude Collection Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, id.nr NG-2017-14. Source: http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.667073

Contrary to private estate owners, the so-called trekboers (Dutch for “migrating farmers”) lacked the financial resources to participate in the legal overseas slave trade. From 1657 onwards, the VOC encouraged independent farmers to cultivate the land. Trekboers penetrated the south-western Cape, impinging on the territories of the Khoikhoi herders. Within half a century, these indigenous inhabitants of the Cape peninsula were dispossessed of their land and subjected to forced labor, a process that was completed by 1800. 10
As they moved beyond the arable south-western Cape, the trekboers met with fierce resistance from a diverse constellation of hunter-gatherers, now commonly referred to as “San”. The trekboers used the derogatory appellation Bosjesmans (Dutch for “Bushmen”), indicating they were regarded as a different species to humanity. By the 1770s coordinated attacks of the San had brought colonial expansion into the interior to a standstill. 11

Trekboers prepared to leave for a commando, (ca 1836). Collection Zuid- Afrikahuis, Amsterdam, id.nr. 6.3

The trekboers retaliated with a commando system to crush resistance. Large scale commandos divested vast territories of their inhabitants to open them to the Dutch pastoralists. It was common practise to kill adult San men and enslave the women and children. 12
The slave raids became one of the principal sources of labor and continued until the second half of the nineteenth century. From 1775 onwards, the servitude of captured children was legalized by the so-called “inboekstelsel” (Dutch for: “register system”.) According to Eldredge, the inboekstelsel was “as oppressive as slavery from its inception.” The children were tied as “apprentices” to a household until they were 25 years. However, the law ensuring liberation when captives reached that age, was not enforced.13

When the British seized control of the Cape Colony (1806-1870), they created “Bushmanland” a reserve for the San in the arid north. Nevertheless, the authorities were no able to prevent continuous incursions of the trekboers. Commandos between the late 1840s and the 1860s were not intent on enslaving the San. In the words of De Prada Samper, the operations “can only be understood as part of a premeditated and planned campaign aimed at the complete extermination of the San inhabitants of Bushmanland.” 14 Several authors have stated the massacres committed upon the San in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, amounted to genocide. 15