Angelo Soliman was an enslaved African man who was captured from a region in present-day Nigeria and gifted to the Imperial Governor of Sicily in 1734. Despite his enslavement and the numerous obstacles he faced as a Black man in Europe during this time period, Soliman managed to rise to a position of influence and respect in his adopted homeland.
Soliman, also known as Mmadi Make, was born around the 1720s in present-day northeastern Nigeria. He was a member of the Kanuri ethnic tribe, who were mostly Muslims. His original name, Mmadi Make, is said to be linked to a princely class in Sokoto State in modern Nigeria. Mmadi often spoke of the fact that his father was the Chief of his tribe.
However, when Mmadi was only seven years old, he was taken captive and arrived in Marseilles as a servant. He was then sold to the wife of a nobleman who oversaw his education. Out of affection for another servant in the household, Angelina, he adopted the name Angelo and chose to celebrate September 11, his baptismal day, as his birthday. Eventually, after repeated requests, he was given as a gift in 1734 to the Imperial Governor of Sicily, who was also a prince.
Soliman’s early years in Sicily were spent as a servant in the prince’s household. However, he quickly proved himself to be intelligent and talented, and he was eventually educated in a number of subjects, including history, mathematics, and philosophy. He was also fluent in several languages, including Arabic, Italian, and German. Soliman eventually became the prince’s valet and traveling companion accompanying him on military campaigns across Europe and allegedly saving his life once, an important incident that contributed to his social advancement.
Soliman’s success in Sicily was due in large part to his intelligence and charm, but it was also helped by the fact that he was seen as an exotic curiosity. Europeans at the time were fascinated by Africans and other non-European peoples, and Soliman’s dark skin and African features made him a popular figure in the society. Soliman used this to his advantage, cultivating a persona that was both dignified and exotic.
However, Soliman was still a slave and did not have the freedom to leave the prince’s service. He was also subject to racist attitudes and mistreatment from some members of the Sicilian court and society. Despite this, he was able to use his intellect and talents to gain a measure of power and influence within his circumstances.
After the Prince’s death, Soliman found employment as a servant in the Vienna household of Joseph Wenzel I, Prince of Liechtenstein, where he worked his way up to the position of chief servant. He continued to rise through the ranks and eventually became the royal tutor of Aloys I, the heir to the Prince. During this time, he also fell in love with and married Magdalena Christiani, a young widow and noblewoman who was the sister of the French general François Etienne de Kellermann, Duke of Valmy, a marshal of Napoleon Bonaparte.
However, Soliman’s marriage to Magdalena Christiani caused friction with the Prince of Liechtenstein. The Prince demanded absolute obedience from his servants, even in their private lives, and he saw Soliman’s marriage as an unauthorized act of disobedience. As a result, Soliman was dismissed from his position, and the Prince never forgave him for his perceived disobedience.
After leaving the home of the prince, Soliman purchased a small garden home with the money he had saved up and devoted most of his time studying history and science. His only child, Josefine, was born in 1772.
In 1783, Soliman joined the Vienna Masonic lodge “True Concord”, whose members included influential artists and scholars such as Mozart and Haydn. He eventually became the Worshipful Master and introduced scholarly elements to the lodge’s ritual, which had a significant impact on Freemasonry across Europe. Today, he is remembered in Masonic rites as the “Father of Pure Masonic Thought” under the name “Angelus Solimanus”.
Soliman’s prominence in Vienna was not without its challenges. He faced discrimination and racism from some members of the Austrian nobility, and there were even attempts to have him expelled from the Freemasons because of his race. However, Soliman was able to overcome these obstacles and become a respected member of Viennese society.
Soliman died of a stroke on November 21, 1796, near St. Stephen’s cathedral. After Soliman’s death, his body was – at the request of the director of the Imperial Natural History Collection taken to the Faculty of Medicine at Vienna’s old University where he was skinned, stuffed and adorned with strings of glass beads and shells from different cultures and was on display within their cabinet of curiosities until 1806 alongside stuffed animals, transformed from a reputable member of intellectual Viennese society into an exotic specimen.
The stuffed body of Soliman was eventually destroyed during the October revolution of 1848, when the natural history cabinet where it was displayed went up in flames.
However, a plaster cast of Soliman’s head, created shortly after his death in 1796, can still be seen at the Rollett Museum in Baden.