The Women in the Painting

This rather squeejee photo is of a postcard which I bought a few years ago in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. The caption on the back reads: “ARAB PRINCESS, (with black maid) fl. 1628 Wife of Sir John Henderson of Fordell by Walter Frier after an unknown artist”. This had intrigued me at the time but it wasn’t till I came across it recently while doing a bit of a tidy that I began to research what lay behind the painting and the Zanzibari connection came to light.

The names of the women are lost to us now – in the West, at least – but a panel of writing on the left-hand side of the painting gives us the bare bones of the story, in one long splendid sentence and using the writing conventions of the time:

“John Henderson of Fordel Travelling in his youth thro several parts of Asia and Africa from y 1618 to y 1628 was delivered unto Slavery by a Barbari Prince in Zanguebar on the Cost of Africa where Princess of that Countrie falling in love with him Even to Renoincing her Religion and Countrie contrived the mians of both their Escape and getting a board a ship trading up y Red Sea landed cam to Alexandre where she died whose Picture Mr Henderson cauised to take with her black Maid after their oun Country habett from y original Picture at oterston by W Frier 1731”

Above the panel of writing is what I take to be the Henderson family crest and their motto – sola virtus nobilitat (virtue alone ennobles). The background is of a European ship arriving at a landscape which is neither Zanzibari nor Egyptian. What interests me is that the two women are posed side by side, though it’s the Arab woman who gazes confidently at us while the African maid looks to her right. The maid is wearing a plainer dress, though it has golden threads running through the white material. She has three strings of pearls around her neck and another three on her wrist; she has a white and gold ribbon headband and wears pearl drop earrings. Round her waist and coiled over her left arm is what I take to be a snake with its tongue extended, though it has ears on it, and I couldn’t say what this signifies, only speculate. The Arab woman is in a dress of fancier material, has better quality jewellery, wears a coronet and is holding an orb with a cross on top – is this meant to represent the reputed conversion to Christianity? If so, it’s quite a contrast with the snake! I’m no expert on 17th century fashion but they appear to be wearing European clothing. What was not obvious to me from the postcard and what you likely won’t be able to tell from the above photo is that the breasts of the African woman are fully exposed; I didn’t realise this till I saw a much better reproduction online. The artist has made a clear distinction between the two women and together with the snake, it’s one that I find with my 21st century eyes to be a disturbing racial one.

Like with most paintings I suppose, the more I look the more I see. Is the artist suggesting that the two women are holding hands? The maid’s right arm and the princess’s left arm are angled towards each other at the bottom of the painting. If their hands are not clasped, they must at least be very close together and this suggests a close bond between the women in spite of their different backgrounds.

I found out next to nothing about Walter Frier, the artist who updated the original painting except for his dates of 1685 to 1761. There’s a painting of him on He must have got the story for the information panel from John Henderson’s family but we’ll never know what he used from the original painting, commissioned by John Henderson, and what details of clothing and landscape, and the social standings of the two women, he decided on for himself. Nor will we know whether either or both of the subjects sat for the first artist in Alexandria – if it was painted there – or if he just used details from Henderson and his own artistic imagination.

I’ll come back to the painting later but I now want to tell you a bit about John Henderson of Fordell. He was born on 3 November 1605, according to Wikipedia but I’ve also seen the year of his birth as around 1600; the latter date seems more convincing as surely even then he wouldn’t have gone gallivanting “thro several parts of Asia and Africa” when he was only 13? Coincidentally perhaps, his father had died in 1618. He was back in Scotland by 1625 (so not “y 1628”) as he married Margaret Menteith of Stirlingshire on 7 February, though I’ve seen 1624 as their wedding year on one site. He served in the Danish army from 1625 to 1629, then in the Swedish army in 1632 but the couple somehow managed to have 10 children (18 was the number given on one ancestry site). He was a Governor of Dumbarton Castle, and a diplomat for the Stuarts – he was knighted around 1640 by Charles I; he fought in the Civil War and was taken prisoner after the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. He returned to Denmark on his release in 1645; he died on 11 March 1650 either in Denmark or in Fife, depending on the source you read. His wife Margaret died in Edinburgh in 1653. There’s a biography of him which concentrates on his military and political careers at however I’m thinking from about half way down, they’ve got him mixed up with another John Henderson, possibly his son. Our Sir John’s portrait was painted by George Jamesone in 1644 and maybe this was done after he got his knighthood.

“oterston” mentioned in the panel on the painting is likely to have been Otterston Castle in Fife, a medieval tower house built at the end of the 16th century; all that’s now left is a two-storey tower and some sections of wall. It’s a few miles south of Fordell Castle which is another 16th century tower house, now restored, to the east of Dunfermline. The Henderson family came to Fordell in the early 16th century before the working of many open cast coal seams on their land vastly increased their wealth.

The longest article I found about John Henderson and the painting was in the Journal of the Tanganyika Society of September 1955 by Sir John Grey called “Sir John Henderson and the Princess of Zanzibar” – see The author tells us that the painting shows typical features for the subjects of 17th century portraits: “long sloping shoulders, long necks and straight lined noses”. As for John Henderson “like so many of his compatriots, from the age of about eighteen onwards, he spent a number of years abroad”.

In the article, Grey refers to a published sermon by William Milne in 1714 which was dedicated to the Henderson family which claimed that John Henderson had “travelled thro most of the Countries in Christendom”; he had “followed the Military Way and had Command in some war in Africa, where after a Defeat he was taken Prisoner by the Canibals; and when ready to be devoured by them he was ransomed by a Lady, whose Picture you have in your family”. Grey excuses these excesses by pointing out that Rev Milne did not have access to the details on the painting, but “was in all probability acting upon information supplied to him by a member of the family”. However, Grey himself changed “Barbari” to “?Barbarian” when transcribing the panel on the painting. Barbary however was a 16th to 19th century word to describe the coastal regions of North Africa while barbarian from barbarous is from Greek and originally meant non-Greek, unable to be understood.

Rev Milne went on to write of the “Picture”: “and in the Ground of it is painted a Landskip representing his Deliverance”. This is more havering as the landscape in the background is more likely to be that of Fife, but then Rev Milne had clearly not seen the painting, far less the landscapes of North or East Africa. These details didn’t prevent him from writing confidently about them though.

Grey mentions that a later book Baronage of Scotland by Sir Robert Douglas contained a paragraph almost the same as Milne’s though Sir John Henderson now “had a considerable command upon the coast of Africa” and the reference to cannibals had been removed. These were the only other two versions of the story that Grey could find in print. However he does have some helpful historical information about European ships in the area: two ships from the English East India Company had visited Zanzibar in 1591 and in 1609 but “no Scottish merchants appear to have indulged in ventures in the Indian Ocean”. I wondered then if John Henderson was on a ship of the Dutch East India Company as “At this date many Scots were taking service in Holland”. No luck with that as there’s no record of a Dutch ship in Zanzibar between 1618 and 1625 and in any case such a ship would have “met with a hostile reception from the Portuguese and, presumably also … from the Moorish King of that island”. (The Portuguese had been in East Africa since 1498.) The English company ship called Union from the 1609 visit had two crew members killed and one captured in a skirmish on the neighbouring island of Pemba. The references to John Henderson having some kind of “Command” or “considerable command” in an African war don’t seem to be borne out by any facts I’ve been able to uncover. And surely he would have been kind of young for any position of command on board a ship? He could not have been with the Royal African Company as it wasn’t set up until 1660 and then it operated on the west coast of Africa, first going after gold and then slaves.

Zanzibar has a long history as a trading post: archaeologists have found artefacts going back to the 6th century – pottery from China, India, North Africa and Iran plus jewellery, glass, coins, metal and ivory objects. Dhows sailed north, north east and came back south and south west using the monsoon winds, trading with places that are now Yemen, Iran, Oman, India and Somalia. The oldest building on the island is a ruined mosque from about 1107 CE. In the early 16th century, it came under the sway of the Portuguese when, according to Wikipedia, the sultan, whose “precise origins are uncertain”, gave in to the demands of a Portuguese ship’s captain in exchange for peace. It wasn’t until about 1594 though that the first Portuguese fort was built on Pemba and the current Old Fort on the Zanzibar town seafront was built by Omani Arabs in1698. Slave trading on Zanzibar continued until late on in the 19th century with slaves being brought to the island from the East African interior before being sold on. There’s an interesting article called History of Zanzibar Isles on or read Alastair Hazell’s The Last Slave Market to get all of the grim details.

Back to Sir John Grey, who speculates that the “Moorish king” or Sultan was then living at Dunga, a distance away from Zanzibar town and “it was a daughter of this ruler who helped John Henderson to escape from captivity”. An alternative theory is of a 17th century palace lived in by a Zanzibari queen called Fatuma on the site of what is now the Beit el Ajaib or The House of Wonders built on the Zanzibar town seafront in 1883. Wikipedia gives dates of 1650 – 1715 for Fatuma which is too late for our purposes, but it says she was the daughter of King Yusuf. Frustratingly though, I could find nothing online about him. There could of course be Arabic records about him and any missing sister or daughter.

I lived in Zanzibar town for two years in the early 1980s and was given the print shown above by a young Danish man as a farewell gift. It shows a dhow, whose design probably hasn’t changed much since the 17th century, passing the town just round the corner to the south from the Omani Old Fort, the Sultan’s Palace and the House of Wonders, the most impressive buildings on the waterfront.

With him a prisoner of some kind and her the daughter of the ruler, I’m intrigued by how John Henderson and the Arab princess could actually have met, let alone how she managed to get him, herself and her maid on board a ship similar to the one above and not all like the one in the painting. Sir John Grey, in his Tanganyika Society Journal, after a lengthy daft aside about Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, believed that the story was “not inherently improbable”. I tend to agree with him that in getting the portrait painted, John Henderson “was seeking to perpetuate the memory of somebody who had once been very dear to him and to whom he was under an unforgettable obligation”. Grey believed that the presence of the maid “seems to lend conviction to the story” and is in the portrait because she went with them to Alexandria. He saw it as a “pleasant tribute to this old romance that the portrait …. has now been allowed to hang” next to that of Sir John Henderson “among the worthies of Scotland”. He was writing this in 1955 and appears to be responding in part to an article in The Times dated 9 February 1954 about the hanging of the painting in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. I’m guessing this is when it came to the gallery from Fordell Castle.

The painting is known by several different different names but only on the back of my postcard is the Arab woman called John Henderson’s “Wife”. Is this because she could not at that time be called his lover or did they marry in Alexandria before she died? On a purely personal level, I wonder what Mrs, then Lady Margaret Henderson made of it all as she bore and raised his ten (or eighteen) bairns.

“PORTRAIT OF THE PRINCESS OF ZANZIBAR AND AN AFRICAN LADY-IN-WAITING” is what Prince Michael of Greece called it. Who he?, as would be asked in Private Eye. Well, you can look him up at and if you add to that /princess-of-zanzibar, you’ll find a shortish entry about our painting, related to its second sale. He tells his readers that Captain John Henderson “had been travelling through Africa for many years” and that he “was captured by Barbarians” in 1628. He was taken to Zanzibar “where a Moorish king reigned”. After he escaped with the princess, they got to Alexandria “where he had time to have this portrait painted” before her sudden death. No sources are provided however.

In a Herald article of 16 May 1997 called “Our rich roots in black and white”, the unnamed journalist opens with a reference to the painting “which hung for generations at Fordell Castle” but was then in Edinburgh’s Portrait Gallery. He / she tells us that the “name of the artist, bold, but unsophisticated, probably English, just possibly Scots, is unknown, so is the story behind the picture …. “. I know these were pre-internet days, but really! Did they not even go into the Gallery and read the information panel?

A second Herald article of 13 June 2001 has the dodgy headline: “Scots adventurer and the Pocahontas of Zanzibar”. The painting was up for auction the following day, being sold by one of Sir John Henderson’s descendants so it must have been on loan to the National Portrait Gallery since 1954. This time, the writer has some of the ‘facts’, telling readers that Sir John Henderson had “apparently fought in various campaigns in Africa but was imprisoned in Zanzibar in the early 1620s. A local princess fell in love with him and they escaped together up the Red Sea to Egypt where she died. Sir John returned to “Britain” where he married Margaret Menteith and they had their ten children. He commissioned a portrait of the princess and the original, whose artist was unknown, was “copied or elaborated on by a portrait artist called Walter Frier” and was hung in Fordell Castle. It was a “Sotheby’s specialist” who came up with the line that the story behind the painting was identical to that of Pocahontas; maybe they’d been reading Sir John Grey’s Tanganyika Journal article or watching the Disney film which came out in 1995 and thought this might increase both interest and value. The journalist or the editor lazily bought it though.

In December 2017 the painting was again for sale, now called on Sotheby’s site: “Portrait of the Princess of Zanzibar with an African Attendant”. (There’s an alamy stock photo of it on display on 1 December 2017 prior to the sale in London.) The guide price was £70 – 80,000 but it sold on 4 December for £187,500, presumably giving the 2001 buyer a very handsome profit. No details alas of either buyer could I find or where the painting is now, some 400 years since it was inspired by these two women now sitting forever so docilely side by side after their great adventure.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s