Gustavus Vassa was acquainted with a number of prominent individuals, and he probably knew others for whom there is no documentary evidence. He also referred to other individuals whom he knew, especially in London, about whom little if anything known beyond Vassa's reference. There were also several associations and affiliations that referred to groups, such as the Huntingdonians, the Black Poor, the Sons of Africa, and the London Corresponding Society. By highlighting the individuals Vassa knew or possibly knew, Vassa's world expands considerably, and the list increases exponentially with his book tours and the sale of subscriptions to his autobiography, ultimately generating hundreds of individuals who purchased at least one copy of his book. Vassa's associates are divided into seven categories: Family, Slavery, Abolition, Religion, Scientific, Military and Subscribers.



Gustavus Vassa was born in 1745 in the Igbo region of the Kingdom of Benin, today southern Nigeria. He was the youngest son in a family of six sons and a daughter. He was stolen with his sister and sold into slavery at the age of 11. Not much is known about his Igbo family, aside from what is included in his memoir. In 1792, he married a white woman named Suzannah Cullen. The couple had two daughters, Anne Marie Vassa and Joanna Vassa. Anne Marie passed away shortly after Vassa’s death. Joanna went on to marry a congregationalist minister named Reverend Henry Bromley. The lives of his family members are detailed in this section.



Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped when he was about eleven or twelve and arrived in Barbados in mid 1754. During his experience as a slave before he was able to purchase his own freedom in 1767, he was associated with a number of individuals, three of whom were his owner, a Mr. Campbell in Virginia, Captain Michael Henry Pascal, and merchant Robert King. The section also includes his two closest friends during his enslavement, Richard Baker and John Annis, and King Gustavus Vasa I of Sweden, his namesake, and finally Ambrose Lace, a leading Liverpool slave trader.



Gustavus Vassa became a leading member of the abolitionist movement in the middle to late 1780s, publishing the first edition of his autobiography in the spring of 1789 as Parliament opened its hearings into the slave trade. This section identifies many of the individuals with whom Vassa was associated in the struggle to end the slave trade and to expose the barbarities of slavery.

Black Poor
Sons of Africa
Lord Mansfield
Granville Sharp
William Wilberforce
Thomas Clarkson
John Clarkson
Ottobah Cugoano
Ignatius Sancho
Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Thomas Hardy
Josiah Wedgwood
Queen Charlotte
James Ramsay
Anthony Benezet
Robert Wedderburn
Mary Wollstonecraft
Law Atkinson and Susannah Atkinson


Through his slave master, Michael Henry Pascal, Gustavus Vassa was introduced to the Guerin family, relatives of Pascal who were devoutly religious. The Guerin sisters taught Vassa how to read and write, and instructed him on the principles of Christianity. Under their guidance, Vassa was baptized in 1759. Six years later, in 1765, Vassa heard the famous Calvinist Methodist preacher, George Whitefield, preach in Savannah. Whitefield and the Countess of Huntingdon’s Calvinist orientation of Methodism had a profound influence on Vassa. Throughout his life, he was affiliated with many religious figures, such as the Quakers, who were one of the first organizations to take a collective stand against the institution of slavery.



In 1772, Gustavus Vassa was employed by Dr. Charles Irving to help him with the operation of a sea water distillation apparatus on two ships. This was the first of many scientific connections that Vassa developed over the years. He participated in an exploration of the Arctic alongside Dr. Irving and Constantine John Phipps. He was recruited to be part of a plantation scheme in the Mosquito Shore, which introduced him to Alexander Blair, an investor who was connected to distinguished chemist James Keir and the famed steam machine inventor, James Watt. As Vassa’s narrative gained popularity, his life story peaked the interest of the so-called “father of physical anthropology,” Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. The men were mutually acquainted with the President and founder of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks and met in person. These connections, among others, are detailed in this section.



Gustavus Vassa travelled extensively as a seaman. He fought in the Seven Years War, where he met war hero, General James Wolfe. When he eventually settled in London in the 1770s, he became deeply involved in the political sphere, landing him various government and military connections. In his fight against the institution of slavery, he wrote many letters to high ranking officials, some of which were presented in front of the House of Commons. He participated in a disastrous plantation scheme on the British-controlled Mosquito Shore, during which time he met the son of the Miskitu kings and soon to be King George II. He worked for a former government official of the short-lived Province of Senegambia, Matthias McNamara, and participated in a resettlement scheme for the black poor in the Sierra Leone peninsula. His connections with various military and government officials are listed here.



Like many other first-time authors in the 18 th century, Vassa followed a subscription-based model to secure funding for his autobiography, which he published himself. In this way, he was able to retain its copyright, a feat virtually unheard of for a black, formerly enslaved man during this period. To do so, he sold the book by subscription, convincing individuals to commit to purchasing the book prior to publication, for a discounted price. Vassa’s original list of subscribers to his first edition was 311,and by the 9th edition, it had increased to 894. This section provides a list of the subscribers for various editions of the narrative, which included many well-known abolitionists, religious figures, government officials, and others.

Black Poor

The “Black Poor” was a name that was given to indigent Black residents in London during the late eighteenth century, and as the term was used, it also applied to destitute whites. The community consisted predominantly of men who were brought to London in the Atlantic slave trade and had increased significantly with the arrival of Africans and African Americans who had fled to the British during the War of Independence of the thirteen colonies in North America. The Black Poor were not numerous; however, they were hyper-visible. Most of the Black Poor lived in poverty in East End parishes or in Marylebone and Seven Dials.

The plight of the Black Poor brought forth relief efforts. The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was established in 1786 after a local baker placed an advertisement offering to “give a Quatern Loaf to every Black in distress who will apply on Saturday next between the hours of twelve and two.” This advertisement led more people to become involved in meetings to organize relief efforts. The Committee attracted many of London’s financial elite, including George Peters, the Governor of the Bank of England, philanthropist Thomas Boddington, and General Robert Melville. The Committee raised £890 within a few months from donors including clergy. The largest donations were collected from Quakers.

The Committee organized two regular alms venues that provided outdoor relief: The White Raven tavern, located at Mile End and the Yorkshire Stingo, located in Lisson Grove, Marylebone. In addition, there was a sick house on Warren Street that provided indoor relief and medical attention to 40-50 men. Some aid recipients were provided with jobs, specifically seamen. Due to a lack of work at sea, the Committee helped recipients with aid who were willing to relocate to Halifax and surrounding Nova Scotia locations for employment.

In February of 1786, Henry Smeathman suggested that the Committee resettle the Black Poor in Sierra Leone. Humanitarians believed resettlement would be a means of showing pro-slavery lobbyists that Black people could contribute to the development of a Sierra Leone colony. Government officials became involved as they hoped to remove the Black Poor from the streets of London.

Towards the end of October 1786, applicants signed an agreement stating that they would retain their British status and be defended by the Royal Navy. Though the Committee recruited approximately 700 Black Poor, only about 441 boarded the three ships that prepared to sail from London to the Sierra Leone River via Portsmouth. Many Black Londoners were unhappy with the resettlement scheme due to the coercion utilized by the Committee along with the government force used to coerce the Black Poor aboard the ships.

Gustavus Vassa initially supported the resettlement scheme and was hired as Commissary Officer for the expedition. However, he later became one of the most vocal critics of the plan due to what he considered to be mistreatment of the Black Poor and the financial mismanagement of the Committee. Vassa argued with many of the leaders of the scheme, including the newly employed director of the organization, Joseph Irwin, following the death of Henry Smeathman. Vassa wrote a public letter to his friend, writer and Black leader, Ottobah Cugoano, who opposed the project, criticizing the leaders of the scheme. Following his public condemnation of the plan, Vassa was dismissed from his position.

On April 9, 1787, the ships sailed to Portsmouth with approximately 280 Black men, 40 Black women and 70 white women, who were considered prostitutes or believed to be the wives and girlfriends of the Black men on board. A total of 96 passengers died on the expedition between Plymouth and Sierra Leone. Those who survived arrived on the banks of the Sierra Leone River on May 15, 1787. They established what was called “Granville Town,” named after Granville Sharp, in the “Province of Freedom” on land obtained from King Tom of Koya Temne. The payment for the land was understood as an arrangement for permanent acquisition; however, it is believed that this was not clearly communicated to the Temne leaders who did not think permanent alienation of land had been negotiated. This led to disputes with the Koya leadership and King Tom’s successor, King Jimmy. As a result the settlement was set on fire in 1789, destroying it completely.

Following the destruction of the settlement, Alexander Falconbridge arrived in Sierra Leone to relocate the remaining Black Poor settlers, re-establishing Granville Town at a location near Fourah Bay. Hostilities between the Temne and the Black Poor continued, and the settlement was weakened further through illness. Eventually the settlement was eliminated, although Granville Town was later rebuilt by 64 surviving black and white settlers. Their descendants became part of the Sierra Leone Krio population.



Braidwood, Stephen J., Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London’s Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Resettlement 1786 –1791 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994).

Carretta, Vincent. Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-made Man (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005).

Gerzina, Gretchen. Black London: Life Before Emancipation (New Brunswick, NJ : Rutgers University Press, 1995).

“An Account of Money paid by W. Cotton of the Black Poor,” 1 March 1787, T1 643, The National Archives, London.

Committee for Relief of the Black Poor, 7 June 1787, T1 632, The National Archives, London.

Proceedings of the Committee for Relief of the Black Poor, 10 May 1786, T1 630, The National Archives, London.

Proceedings of the Committee for Relief of the Black Poor, 25 August 1787, T1 635, The National Archives, London.

Proposal for Taking Black Poor to Grain Coast of Africa, 24 May 1786, T1 631, The National Archives, London.

This webpage was last updated on 18-April-2020, Fahad Q


“Dudley Street, Seven Dials” by Gustave Dorè from Douglas Jerrold’s London, a Pilgrimage (1872).