Selim Aga

Vendor to African Collection and Natural History Collections

Selim Aga was born in the Kingdom of Taqali in the Sudanese Kordofan on the edge of the Nubian Mountains. At the age of eight in about 1834, while out tending his father’s goats, he was kidnapped by Arab slavers and carried off to Kordofan where he eventually ended up as one of the household slaves of a Turkish military officer who treated him with extraordinary cruelty. Over the next year he then travelled down the Nile passing from one master to another and suffering many abuses and hardships until he arrived in Cairo. He was put up for sale at a Cairo slave market and purchased by Robert Thurburn, a Scottish merchant and British commercial consul in Alexandria. Selim then travelled in style with the Thurburn family on a site-seeing trip up the Nile before being sent as a gift to Robert Thurburn’s sister-in-law Elizabeth in Peterculter near Aberdeen in Scotland. Selim was sent to the local school to be educated and Christianised and he waited at table in the Thurburn mansion dressed in Egyptian clothes.
In 1846 Selim published his “Incidents Connected with the Life of Selim Aga”, an account of his enslavement and eventual arrival in Britain. In the same year he left the Thurburn household and ended up in London where at one point, he found work lecturing at the “Panorama of the Nile” at the Egyptian Hall attraction in Piccadilly. This was a moving diorama and an early precursor to the cinema. It consisted of moving transparent screens painted with Egyptian scenes that gave audiences the sensation of gliding up or down river on the Nile.
Some time later Aga joined the Dayspring expedition up the Niger as Lieutenant Glover’s servant. It was on this trip that he acquired the northern Nigerian items that he sold to the Mayer Museum in 1860. When Selim left Glover’s employment he set himself up in business in Lagos and wrote to the Royal Geographical Society with an expedition proposal in which he mentions that he was then collecting natural history specimens for Liverpool's Derby Museum. Selim’s business venture was not a success because he took up employment as Richard Burton's steward from 1861 to 1864. Burton was then British consul at Fernando Po Island (now Bioko) and Aga made another visit to Abeokuta as Burton’s assistant and it was in his account of this journey that Burton listed, among Aga’s many other skills, his ability to shoot and stuff birds and animals and to collect spirit specimens. Aga visited Abeokuta the West African kingdoms of Abeokuta, Benin and Dahomey with Burton. He also accompanied Burton on an expedition up the Congo River in 1863 and he wrote an account of it that was published in the Geographical Magazine in July 1875. After his Congo trip he would have been among a very small number of people who had travelled on all three of Africa’s great rivers.
Selim Aga was killed in Liberia in 1875 during one of the conflicts between the Americo-Liberian colonists and the indigenous Grebo.
[Ref. McCarthy, James. 2006. Selim Aga: A Slave’s Odyssey, Edinburgh: Luath Press Ltd. McCarthy, James. 2007. ‘Selim Aga: New Light on His Life and his Explorations in West Africa’, Journal of the Hakluyt Society (www.hakluyt.com/journal_index.htm)]
  • Gender
    Male
  • Relationship
    Artist/maker
  • Nationality
    British: Scottish; Liberian
  • Born
    c.1826
  • Place of birth
    Africa: Northern Africa: Sudan
  • Died
    10th October 1875
  • Place of death
    Africa: Western Africa: Liberia
  • Cause of death
    Decapitation
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