The Oldest Photographic Portraits of Somalis (1847)

Somali Woman in Ras Hafun, daguerreotype Charles Guillain

Recovering from the loss of their empire following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the French sought to re-establish commerce and colonies in the Indian Ocean. In the 1840s, explorer Charles Guillain, captain of the brig Du Couedic, led a French expedition to Eastern Africa. Guillain was sent to explore and map the interior and coastal trade in East Africa and the Indian Ocean, from the Horn of Africa to Zanzibar. Eight years after his extended travels, Charles Guillain produced a substantial three-volume work, with an accompanying atlas folio of engravings and maps, that has become a standard source for historians of pre-colonial East Africa. The record of his travels is enshrined in Documents sur l’histoire, la géographie, et le commerce de l’Afrique orientale and Voyage à la côte orientale d’Afrique where he recorded the geography, hydrography and the ethnology of these lands.

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Early Photography on The Indian Ocean Coast:

From February 1 to 20, 1847, Guillain started his investigations of the Somali coast by first visiting the harbors of Abd-el-Kouri and Ras Hafun. In the latter, Salem, an Arab who had resided there with his wife for thirty years, served as a liaison between Mr. Vignard, the expedition’s Arabic-speaking interpreter, and the Somali community. Making great use of an early camera, he persuaded the local tribesmen and women to pose for a helmsman by the name of Vernet who accompanied Guillain on the voyage to East Africa and took what are assumed to be the first daguerreotypes from Africa, creating some of the oldest photographic portraits of Africans. His daguerreotypes, now in the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, have been called incunabula in the history of photography.

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