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.

Anthony Benezet

(1713 – 1784)

Anthony Benezet was born on January 31, 1713 in Saint-Quentin, France, to Huguenot parents, an ethnoreligious group of French Protestants. At the age of two, his family fled to Rotterdam to escape persecution in France and eventually moved to England in 1715. Upon their arrival, they had little to their name, having been forced to abandon their possessions in France. In London, they were met with open arms by fellow Huguenot refugees. Once established in London, Benezet’s father befriended the Society of Friends and Moravians and subsequently became Quakers. In 1731, at 18 years old, Benezet and his family moved to Philadelphia. There, they befriended several Moravians, including August Spangenberg, Peter Bohler, and Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinsendork, all of whom were connected to John Wesley, the founder of the Wesleyan Methodists. The Moravians are credited with having exposed Wesley to evangelical Christianity and thus contributed to his spiritual development. Shortly after arriving in America, along with his father, Benezet joined the Society of Friends, to which he remained a member for life. At the age of 23, he married Joyce Marriot, a fellow Quaker who had started her ministry when she was 18. She continued her ministry for the rest of her life. The couple gave birth to a daughter and a son, neither of whom survived infancy. Benezet and his wife remained in Philadelphia or within a 25 mile radius of it, until his death in 1784.

In 1739, Benezet began his career as a teacher in Germantown. In 1750, he began conducting evening sessions exclusively for black students. He taught them the foundations of education, as well as Christianity. Through his interactions with enslaved Africans, free blacks, and white slave owners in Philadelphia, he began to recognize the brutality and dehumanizing effects of slavery and became aware of the difficulties formerly enslaved individuals faced in society without an adequate education. These observations formed the focus of his life work, eradicating slavery and ameliorating the treatment of blacks. Benezet remained an ardent opponent of slavery for the rest of his life. Consistent with his Quaker beliefs, he considered all individuals as equals in the eyes of God. Thus, he could not comprehend how Christians could remain silent in the presence of evil, let alone inflict such terror upon others. In his later writings, he stated with respect to slavery that “We cannot be at the same time silent and innocent spectators.”

To supplement his teaching, Benezet worked in a printing office as a proof reader. At the age of 41, he began writing tracts against slavery. In 1754, he published The Epistle of 1754, Presented to the Year Meeting of the Society of Friends. Over the next 29 years, he wrote seven tracts, ranging from three pages to more than 144. The most influential was A Caution and Warning to Great-Britain, and Her Colonies, in A Short Representation of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes in the British Dominions, which he finished in 1766. At times, he used a primarily religious argument, drawing upon Scriptures and Christian responsibility to denounce slavery. In other writings, he appealed to humanitarian principles. His publications possessed a powerful emotional element, describing first-hand accounts of the atrocities endured by those who had been enslaved. Although he lived in America, he had a significant influence on the British abolitionist movement. His pamphlet, Some Historical Account of Guinea, Its Situation, Produce, and the General Disposition of Its Inhabitants. With an Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade, Its Nature, and Lamentable Effects written in 1772, was read by John Wesley who referenced the first half of the book in his own anti-slavery tract in 1774. Other prominent British abolitionists such as Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson, found his favourable descriptions of Africans helpful to inform their own arguments against the slave trade. Sharp utilized his 1772 pamphlet during the Somerset case, delivering copies of it to Lord Mansfield to convince him of the evils of slavery. His influence on Thomas Clarkson was profound. Clarkson read Benezet’s writings when researching his essay on slavery. He indicates that prior to Benezet he was wholly ignorant of the horrors of the slave trade and it was his writings that influenced him to take up the abolitionist cause. Benezet even wrote to Queen Charlotte in 1783, to ask her to consider the injustices inflicted upon the enslaved. Gustavus Vassa quoted Benezet numerous times in his autobiography. He used evidence from Benezet’s publications to support his accounts of the punishments for adultery and the means of procuring slaves in Africa that went beyond his personal experience. He also cites Benezet’s account of Guinea to support his argument concerning the declining population of the enslaved in the West Indies.

One of Benezet’s most notable accomplishments was his role in convincing Quakers to establish a non-denominational school for blacks, called the Negro School at Philadelphia, in 1770. He spent that last two years of his life teaching at this school. In 1775, he became the president of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first anti-slavery society in the Americas. He died on May 3, 1784. In his will, he bequeathed his estate to support the education of blacks. When Vassa travelled to Philadelphia in 1785, he visited the school. Back in London, in October 1785, Vassa presented an address of thanks to Benezet and the Quakers of Philadelphia for their role in the fight against slavery, specifically mentioning Benezet’s tract, A Caution to Great Britain and her Colonies, concerning the Calamitous State of the enslaved Negroes.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

REFERENCES

Brendlinger, Irv. A. To Be Silent…Would be Criminal: The Antislavery Influence and Writings of Anthony Benezet (Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press Inc, 2006).

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

Jackson, Maurice. Let this Voice be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).



This webpage was last updated on 2020-08-18 by Carly Downs