IN SHORT: Perhaps we shouldn’t remember Harriet Tubman “beaten and tortured”, as a viral social media post exhorts us not to. But the image it suggests instead doesn’t show the famous Underground Railroad conductor, but instead a West African princess given as a slave to Queen Victoria.
The young black woman’s portrait appears to have been captured in a photography studio. It’s posted with the claim that she is Harriet Tubman when “Young and Beautiful” who “still survived because she is black”.
Who was Harriet Tubman?
Over the next decade Tubman led about 70 enslaved people from the southern US states to freedom in Canada, along the Underground Railroad, a network of people and safe houses, becoming one of its most famous “conductors”.
Tubman also campaigned for women’s suffrage, or a woman’s right to vote, and became a well-known speaker.
Photos of Tubman don’t include portrait
There are a limited number of photos available of Tubman, as you would expect of someone born into poverty in the 19th century when photography had only just been invented and was not widely accessible.
One publicly available photo of Tubman as a younger woman was taken in 1868 or 1869. She is dressed plainly and does not resemble the woman in the photo shared on social media, supposed to be of Tubman when she was “young and beautiful”.
Photo shows African princess who became a slave, then a queen’s goddaughter
A quick reverse image search reveals this to be true – the woman in the photo is not Harriet Tubman. She is instead Omoba Aina, or Princess Aina, known as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the name given to her by her slave captors. The photo was taken in 1862 and is in the UK’s National Portrait Gallery in London.
Aina was a Yoruba-Egbado princess who was enslaved in present-day Benin after her parents were killed. She was traded to England’s Queen Victoria when she was seven years old, but apparently the queen took an interest in her and sponsored her education. She is often referred to as Queen Victoria’s goddaughter.
Aina married a wealthy Yoruban, reportedly on the encouragement of the queen, and eventually returned to West Africa, settling in Lagos. The photo shared on social media is one of a series of photographs taken shortly after her wedding and possibly commissioned by Queen Victoria.
Both Harriet Tubman and Omoba Aina deserve a place in the annals of history, but the photo shows Aina when “young and beautiful”, not the abolitionist Tubman.
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