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.

Sons of Africa

(d. 1780s)


The group consisted of Gustavus Vassa, Ottobah Cugoano [John Stuart], George Robert Mandeville, William Stevens, Joseph Almaze, Broughwar Jogensmel [Jasper Goree], James Bailey, Thomas Oxford, John Adams, George Wallace, Yahne Aelane [Joseph Stuart], Cojoh Ammere [George Williams], Thomas Cooper, William Greek, and Bernard Elliot Griffiths. The Sons of Africa sought to make known the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and to abolish the institution of slavery in the British colonies. They were deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement and worked intimately with the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a non-denominational group founded in 1787 by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. The Sons of Africa referred to Clarkson in their letters as a “constant and generous friend.” They kept in close contact with other British abolitionists, such as James Ramsay, Peter Peckard, and MP Sir William Dolben. They were closely allied with the Society of Friends, that is, the Quakers, who had deemed slavery a moral issue and were excommunicating members of their religious affiliation who refused to publicly denounce the slave trade.

The Sons of Africa used their literacy and educational background to petition the government and to conduct lectures on the need to put an end to slavery. They engaged in writing campaigns, publishing letters in widely circulated newspapers across Britain, in hopes of bringing an understanding of the brutality of the slave trade to the forefront of the public consciousness. Upon learning of the notorious Zong massacre in which 133 enslaved Africans were murdered in order to claim insurance, Vassa brought the case to Granville Sharp’s attention. Due to their affiliation with leading abolitionist groups, as well as the success of Vassa's and Cugoano’s autobiographies detailing their lived experiences of enslavement, the group was able to reach a large audience. Together, the Sons of Africa and the Society for the Abolition of the Slavery held public meetings to lecture about slavery and, in particular, the inhumane conditions on slave ships. They wrote letters to MP Sir William Dolben and accompanied him to see a slave ship in person, which ultimately led to the passing of the Slave Act of 1788, which sought to improve the conditions on these ships by limiting the number of captives that could be transported at a given time. The passing of this bill was one of the group’s greatest achievements.

Due to his public persona, Vassa became an important spokesperson for the group. He personally consulted with Dolben and led several delegations of the Sons of Africa to the Houses of Parliament to persuade MPs to abolish the slave trade in the British colonies. Among the members of Parliament, he met the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Prime Minister. Under his guidance, abolitionist, James Ramsay, developed a proposal to confront Members of the Parliament by providing them with copies of an address condemning the slave trade.

On December 15, 1787, Vassa along with others associated with the Sons of Africa, wrote a letter entitled, “the Address of Thanks of the Sons of Africa to the Honourable Granville Sharp Esq.” In the letter, the Sons of Africa, on behalf of their fellow countrymen unlawfully held in slavery, expressed their gratitude to Sharp for his role in advancing the abolitionist cause. The Sons of Africa referred to themselves as “we, who are a part, or descendants of the much-wronged people of Africa,” suggesting the Vassa and others believed that one need not have been born in Africa in order to identify as a son of Africa. It was not until the emergence of the anti-slavery activist movement and groups like the Sons of Africa, that Africa began to be seen as more than just a place but also an idea, greatly contributing to the development of an African diasporic public, social and political identity.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

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REFERENCES

Adi, Hakim & Sherwood, Marika. Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787 (London, EG: Routledge, 2003), 26-28.

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

Gerzina, Gretchen. Black England: Life Before Emancipation (London, EG: Allison & Busby, 1999), 172–173.



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

Sons

Painting of slave ships in London, Royal Museums Greenwich.