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Black History MonthFrom the archives: revealing hidden portraits

Tah-Too Duari Unused illustration from the paper "An account of the disquamation and change of colour in a Negro of Upper Guinea, West Africa", by Thomas Staughton Savage. View the full portrait here

The Royal Society archives contain a number of “hidden portraits” of persons involved in scientific observations and experiments. Tah-too Duari, painted in 1846 by T.S. Savage, is one of those persons.

Tah-too’s story reveals the interest that 19th-century science maintained in the colonial territories and the physiology of their inhabitants. It is possible that Tah-too’s name is derived from the tattoo on his left shoulder.

"The subject of this narrative, named Tahtoo Duari, is a member of the Grebo tribe, the aboriginal inhabitants of Cape Palmas and its vicinity. His parents were members of the same tribe and natives of the same region. The father was of a decidedly black complexion, while the mother was what is termed yellow, the two extremes observable in the tribe, and between which there is found every variety of shade. In March 1844, when about twenty-five, Tahtoo was attacked with a quotidian ague, having previously been in perfect health. The febrile symptoms subsided in the course of a week, but were followed by a general desquamation of the cuticle, leaving the subjacent skin of a dingy yellow hue. A month afterwards, the same process, preceded by a similar febrile attack, recurred, and was followed by still greater whiteness of the newly-formed skin, resulting in the complete conversation of a negro to a white man, retaining the characteristic features and hair of an Ethiopian".

Revealing hidden portraitsIllustration from 'A Journal of a voyage to the south seas, in His Majesty’s ship', The Endeavour, by Sydney Parkinson (London 1773).

An interest in recording the diversity within different racial groups was often done using portraiture. This image compares six people living on the islands now known as Tahiti and Huahine, as named by James Cook.

Black History Month

Black History Month aims to celebrate the contribution of black people to the UK and to British society.

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