Yarrow Mamout, 1822

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This record was last updated on 25 May 2012

Image Reference

Original oil painting in the Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch, District of Columbia Public Library; Courtesy, Georgetown Branch, District of Columbia Public Library.

Yarrow Mamout (or, Mahmoud or Muhammad Yaro) was born in Africa around 1736 and was a teenager when enslaved and brought to America in 1752. He was a Fulani and probably came from the Futa Jallon region in the eastern part of today’s Senegal and Guinea. Brought to Annapolis, Maryland as a slave, he was manumitted in 1796 and lived in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C. where he was well known. A devout Muslim and hard worker, he was able to accumulate money and a house. He lived the rest of his life in Georgetown, where he died in 1823 at the age of about 88. The little known painting shown here was done by the American artist James Alexander Simpson, a sometime teacher of painting and drawing at Georgetown College. D.C. The Simpson portrait appears to have been painted from life and is not a copy of the much better known 1819 portrait (done when Yarrow Mamout was about 83 years old) by the celebrated American painter, Charles Willson Peale (see image I029 on this website). The Simpson painting was done in 1822, about a year before the subject’s death. In this portrait, Mamout seems to be wearing the same clothing, aside from the leather coat, as in the Peale painting. Moreover, he is holding a pipe which appears to be of West African origin or design; such pipes had short stems and a reed or wood tube was inserted into the hole at the pipe’s stem (i.e., the stem socket) in order to lengthen the stem. The most comprehensive account of Yarrow Mamout’s life (and that of his descendants) is in James H. Johnston, From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the history of an African American family (Fordham University Press, 2012); the Peale and Simpson portraits are discussed in detail on pp. 80-100. We thank Johnston for drawing our attention to the Simpson portrait and for sharing his research on Yarrow Mamout’s life, and to Jerry McCoy, Archivist/Librarian, Georgetown Branch Library, for providing us with a digital copy of the painting.