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.

Ignatius Sancho

(1729 – 1780)

Charles Ignatius Sancho was an Afro-British writer, actor and composer. He was formerly enslaved but gained fame in literary and artistic circles and thus became known as “the extraordinary Negro.” Sancho was born in 1729 on board a slave ship destined for the Spanish colony of New Granada. Shortly after his birth, his mother died. It has been reported that his father took his own life in opposition to being enslaved. Sancho was brought to England when he was two years old. From 1731 to 1749, he lived with his master’s three unwed sisters in Greenwich. During this time, Sancho met John Montagu, the 2 nd Duke of Montagu. The Duke found him to be very intelligent and sociable. He encouraged Sancho to read and lent him books from his personal library in Blackheath. In 1749, Sancho ran away from Greenwich to work as a butler for Mary Montagu, the Duchess of Montagu until her death in 1751. While at the Montagu House, Sancho immersed himself in music, poetry, literature and writing. Upon the Duchess’s death, Sancho inherited £70 as well as an annuity of £30, which he spent quickly and frivolously.

On December 17, 1758, he married Ann Osborne, a West Indian woman with whom he had seven children: Frances Joanna (1761-1815), Ann Alice (1763-1805), Elizabeth Bruce (1766- 1837), Johnathan William (1768-1770), Lydia (1771-1776), Katherine Margaret (1773-1779), and William Leach Osborne (1775-1810). At the peak of the national debate on slavery in 1766, Sancho wrote renowned writer and clergyman, Laurence Sterne, encouraging him to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade in his writings. Sterne responded to Sancho in a highly publicised letter on July 27, 1766. The letter became an essential part of 18 th century abolitionist literature. It has been theorized that Sancho and Gustavus Vassa must have known each other to some extent due to their mutual involvement in the London abolitionist movement. Over the years, Vassa spent a significant amount of time at the Guerin family’s home in Westminster, which was a few blocks away from Sancho’s place of residence.

In 1774, Sancho opened a grocery store with the help of the Duke of Montagu. During this time, he wrote and published two plays, as well as his literary piece, Theory of Music. Sancho owned a house in Westminster and was financially independent, making him eligible to vote in the parliamentary elections in 1774 and 1780. He became the first person of African descent to vote in Britain. He was an adamant supporter of the monarch and the attempt to defeat the American War for Independence. He wrote many letters and newspaper op-eds vocalizing his political views under his real name and his pseudonym “Africanus.”

On December 14, 1780, Ignatius Sancho died from complications derived from gout. He became the first person of African descent to receive an obituary in the British press. In 1782, The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, a compilation of 160 of his letters, was released posthumously by Sancho’s correspondent, Frances Crewe. It remains one of the earliest accounts of slavery written in English by someone who was formerly enslaved. Sancho’s son, William Leach Osborne, inherited his grocery store, which he later reconstructed into a printing and book- selling business. In 1803, Osborne’s establishment printed the fifth edition of The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho With Memoires of His Life by Joseph Jekyll which featured a frontispiece of Sancho, engraved by the artist, Bartolozzi.

At some point during the 1750s or 1760s, artist Alan Ramsay painted the famous portraiture now known as, “Portrait of an African.” There has been much debate surrounding this painting. At one point the portrait was assumed to have been painted by another artist named Joshua Reynolds and was titled “Black Boy by Joshua Reynolds.” It is one of the few portraits of Africans portrayed in a gentlemanly manner rather than as an enslaved person or servant. The man in the painting was originally identified as “Olaudah Equiano,” based on his supposed resemblance to the portrait of Gustavus Vassa from the frontispiece in his memoir. Scholars have since indicated that this is not possible as the facial likeness is not there. Moreover, the painting has been dated to the late 1750s or early 1760s, during which time Vassa was enslaved and spent much of his life at sea with his slave masters, Michael Henry Pascal and Robert King. The painting appears to be of a wealthy man in his 20s or 30s. In the 1750s and 1760s, portraitures were expensive, making them not accessible for most people, let alone those who were enslaved. For these reasons, scholars have suggested the painting is more likely of Ignatius Sancho. His age and wealth during this time make him the likely sitter. Furthermore, Sancho’s master was an art collector who had regular correspondence with popular artists. This, along with his association with the literary and artistic elite of London lends further support to this theory.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

REFERENCES

Carey, Brycchan. “ The Equiano Portraits,” BrycchanCarey.com, published April 2002. https://brycchancarey.com/equiano/portrait.htm

Carey, Brycchan. “ ‘The Extraordinary Negro ’ : Ignatius Sancho, Joseph Jekyll, and the Problem of Biography,” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 26:2 (2003), 1-13.

King, Reyahn. “Ignatius Sancho and Portraits of the Black Elite,” in Reyahn King, Sukhdev Sandhu, James Walvin and Jane Girdham, eds., Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1997), 15-43.

Madin, John. “The Lost African: Slavery and Portraiture in the Age of Enlightenment,” Apollo: the International Magazine of Art and Antiques (2006), 34-39.

Sancho, Ignatius. Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho: An African, to which are Prefixed, Memoirs of His Life by Joseph Jekyll, Esq. (London: J. Nichols, 1782).



This webpage was last updated on May 9, 2020 - Fahad Q

Ignatius Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1768) National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.