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No, this photo doesn’t show abolitionist Harriet Tubman, but Yoruba princess Omoba Aina

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.

A black-and-white photo of an eye-catching young woman dressed in an ornate 19th-century-style dress has been circulating on social media for some years. 

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”. 

The photo is often captioned in celebration of “black history”. But is it accurate that it shows the famous abolitionist?


Who was Harriet Tubman?

Tubman was born into slavery around 1820 in the US state of Maryland. She is believed to have started working at about the age of five and at 12 suffered a severe head injury which nearly killed her

She married the freeman John Tubman in 1844 and escaped across the Mason-Dixon line to the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania in 1849, where slavery had already been abolished. 

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 was active in the US Civil War, 1861 to 1865, on the side of the northern states’ Union Army, who wanted to see all slaves freed. She served as a spy, scout, nurse and cook

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. 

A photo often used of her was taken around 1900, when she was about 80 years old, and another famous image shows her in around 1913, the year of her death, in her 90s. 

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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