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.

Josiah Wedgwood

(1730 - 1795)

Josiah Wedgwood, born in Burslem, Staffordshire, England, likely on July 12, 1730, was a master pottery designer and producer, and was one of Gustavus Vassa's first subscribers. Wedgwood came from a line of potters dating back to the early 17th century. In his early life, he showed great promise of becoming a potter himself; however, after contracting a serious bout of smallpox, Wedgwood’s knee had to be amputated. This disabled him from using the potter’s wheel, an essential tool in pottery making. As a result, he focused his attention on enriching his knowledge in pottery and its designs. In 1754, he became an apprentice to renowned potter, Thomas Whieldon, thus allowing him to master his pottery and design skills. In 1759, he founded a company that manufactured and produced fine china and pottery for a market that had developed for luxurious art pieces. Consequently, the Wedgwood company saw swift success and soon became a leading pottery vendor in England.

 

Wedgwood had a reputation for being an aggressive and imaginative salesman. As a result of his superior marketing and craftsmanship skills, he became the official potter of Queen Charlotte of England in 1762. He also worked for other distinguished nobility such as Empress Catherine II of Russia. He was known for treating his employees well, as he “provided healthcare, housing and schooling for his workers and their families” (Carretta, p. 253). He even built a village for his workers, which he called Etruria. The housing accommodated 300 employees at a cost of £3 per year to rent. In 1764, Wedgwood married his third cousin, Sarrah Wedgwood (1734 – 1815). Together they raised eight children. His first daughter, Susannah Wedgwood (1765 – 1817) married the son of Wedgwood’s partner. The couple gave birth to Charles Darwin, who subsequently became one of the most famous naturalists of his time.

 

James Phillips, the book publisher, who knew Wedgwood through a business affiliation, recruited Wedgwood to design a medallion that became the symbol of the abolitionist movement. Phillips was a Quaker and one of the twelve founding members of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST). The organization’s founders included Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Phillips recommended that Wedgwood design an official medallion for SEAST, which subsequently was widely distributed. The medallion depicted an enslaved Black man in chains on his knees against a white background, with the words “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” Wedgwood mass produced the medallion which appeared on posters, pins and even tobacco pipes.

 

Phillips also introduced Vassa to Wedgwood. SEAST endorsed Vassa's autobiography, inviting him to lecture at different events in Britain. Many members of the society became subscribers to Vassa’s Interesting Narrative. In November of 1788, Vassa wrote to Wedgwood on a printed solicitation for the Interesting Narrative asking him to buy his soon to be published autobiography. The handwritten note indicates that Vassa and Wedgwood were well-acquainted, as he calls Wedgwood “worthy sir” and amongst his “worthy friends.” The solicitation also marked the first known time that Vassa publicly referred to himself as “Olaudah Equiano.” On August 21, 1793, Vassa wrote to Wedgwood again, asking him for protection on his trip to Bristol, where many people opposed the abolition of slavery. A few years earlier, abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, had visited Bristol with a bodyguard, as he too anticipated opposition from the pro-slavery community. Vassa also feared that, as an experienced seaman, he would be forced into joining the Royal Navy in Bristol due to the ongoing war with France. Wedgwood was out of town and replied to the letter three months later. He told Vassa that he should contact his secretary, his nephew, while he was away and signed the letter “your friend and servant.” Vassa did not actually need Wedgwood’s help, as he did not encounter any difficulties in his journey.

 

In his later years, Wedgwood invented a device that could measure oven temperatures and became a fellow of the Royal Society in the United Kingdom. When he retired in 1790, he gave the Wedgwood company to his sons, which became Josiah Wedgwood and Sons Ltd. His sons maintained his legacy by continuing to be the leading pottery manufacturers in England. In 1795, Josiah died in the house he built on the grounds of Etruria. He left his fortune to his children. His cause of death is thought to have been cancer of the jaw.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

REFERENCES

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

McKendrick, Neil, "Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley: An Inventor-Entrepreneur Partnership in the Industrial Revolution," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 14 (1964), 1-33

Ramage, Nancy Hirschland, “The English Etruria: Wedgwood and the Etruscans,” Etruscan and Italic Studies 14:1 (2011), 187-202.

Reilly, Robin, “Wedgwood, Josiah (1730-1795), Master Potter,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

Gustavus Vassa to Josiah Wedgwood, Handwritten Note on Printed Solicitation for the Interesting Narrative, November 1788, L74/12632, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire.



This webpage was last updated on 2020-08-25 by Kartikay Chadha

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Portrait by Samuel William Reynolds (1841), National Portrait Gallery, London.

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Wedgwood Factory, Etruria, Staffordshire by John Wakefield (n.d.), Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

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“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Medallion designed by William Hackwood (1787) for Wedgwood Company for the British anti-slavery campaign, Brooklyn Museum.

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