ASSOCIATES



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.

Family

Family

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.

Slavery

Slavery

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.

Abolition

Abolition

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
Religion

Religion

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.

Scientific

Scientific

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.

Military

Military

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.

Subscribers

Subscribers

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.

Ottobah Cugoano

(1757 – 1791)

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, one of the first Afro-Briton abolitionists, was born in 1757, in the Fante village of Agimaque, present-day Ajumako, on the coast of what is now modern Ghana. In 1770, he was abducted by African slave-traders and was sold to Europeans, likely the British, who placed him on a slave-ship bound for Grenada. In 1772, after having worked for two years as a slave on various plantations, he accompanied his slavemaster Alexander Campbell, to England, where he eventually obtained freedom.

On August 20, 1773, at the age of 16, he was baptized at St. James’s Church in Piccadilly, with the name “John Stuart.” From roughly 1784 onward, he was employed as a servant to the principle painter to the prince of Wales, Richard Cosway, and his wife, Maria Cosway, in Schomberg House, Pall Mall. During his time with the Cosways, he encountered many public figures, including William Blake. In 1786, he joined forces with William Green, another Afro-Briton, to fight for the rescue of Henry Demane, an African who had been kidnapped by slave-traders and was set to be shipped to the West Indies. The pair contacted Granville Sharp, who was able to arrange for Demane’s release. In 1787, Cugoano published his Narrative of the Enslavement of a Native of Africa, which documented his personal experiences with slavery in the Caribbean. The book was sent to King George III and Edmond Burke, among other notable political figures. Although the King’s opinion on the slave trade did not falter, the book was significant in that it was the first abolitionist narrative written by a former enslaved African in the English language. Cugoano was also one of the first known Africans to publicly demand the eradication of the transatlantic slave trade. He was one of the “sons of Africa,” between 1787 and 1789, who submitted public letters to London newspapers advocating the abolitionist cause. These letters provide context for the publication in 1787 or his Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, also thought to be written with the help of Vassa. The book was celebrated by fellow abolitionists for its critique of religious and secular pro-slavery arguments that dehumanized Africans and preached the necessity of the trade. It was controversial in that in it he declared that all British citizens were responsible for the crimes of the slave trade unless they chose to actively lobby against it.

In 1791, he published the second edition of his narrative and announced that he would be opening a school for Afro-Britons. That same year, he wrote to Granville Sharp, in hopes of being sent to Nova Scotia to organize a settlement project in Sierra Leone for emancipated Africans. Scholarship has yet to discover records suggesting that the school was ever opened or that he participated in the settling of Sierra Leone. The details of his death are unknown.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

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REFERENCES

Adi, Hakim and Sherwood, Marika. “Quobna Ottobah Cugoano,” in Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora Since 1787, (London, EG: Routledge, 2003), 26 – 28.

Carretta, Vincent. “Cugoano, Ottobah [John Stuart],” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography published on May 26, 2016. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-59531

Simkin, John. “Ottobah Cugoano,” Spartacus Educational, published September 1997. https://spartacus-educational.com/USAScugoano.htm



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

Ottobah

Print by Richard Cosway (1784), National Portrait Gallery, London.