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.



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.



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.



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
Robert Wedderburn
Mary Wollstonecraft
Law Atkinson and Susannah Atkinson


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.



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.



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.



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.

Mary Wollstonecraft


Mary Wollstonecraft, born April 27, 1759 in Spitalfields, London, was an early feminist, author and moral philosopher. She is widely recognized for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argued against common beliefs that only men should have an education by asserting that women are deserving of equal treatment. Wollstonecraft’s arguments differed from other feminist authors at the time, as she called for political change and the reformation of education systems to allow woman to show themselves as capable as their male counterparts. 

Mary’s father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was a violent drunk, whose financial recklessness would cause the family to move many times in her early years. Mary would sleep in front of her mother’s, Elizabeth Dixon Wollstonecraft, door to protect her from Edward, who would often physically abuse her. In 1785, Mary worked as a governess in Ireland where she taught the children of the Kingsborough family. These experiences are what inspired her views in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). In 1788, she moved to London and taught herself German and French. She worked as a translator and a review-writer for the popular London publisher Joseph Johnson (1738 – 1809). With his help, Wollstonecraft was able to support herself and live independently. Johnson, in return, published many of Mary’s works, including Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and Mary: A Fiction (1788). It is through Johnson that Mary met William Godwin, who would later marry Wollstonecraft and write a controversial memoir about her following her death. 

Mary was one of the few and perhaps the first to write a review of Vassa's The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Critiquing Vassa’s work through the lens of gender relations and feminism, Wollstonecraft’s review is mixed. She posits that the “activity and ingenuity… in Vassa’s character place him on par with the general mass of men, who fill the subordinate stations” She praised “the whole account of his unwearied endeavors to obtain his freedom [as] very interesting” but suggested that “the narrative should have closed when he became his own master.”  

Wollstonecraft published her first novel in the 1788, Mary, A Fiction, and then an anthology, The Female Reader; Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse; Selected from the Best Writers and Disposed under Proper Heads; for the Improvement of Young Women (1789), which she compiled under the name of "Mr. Cresswick, teacher of Elocution.” In 1790, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Men in defense of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event 

In 1792, after writing A Vindication of Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft left England for Paris to educate herself on the French Revolution. Here, she wrote a historical account of the French Revolution: An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, to be published in December 1794, and fell madly in love with Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828), an American businessman. While in Paris, Mary was associated with the Girondins, a political faction that worked to dismantle the French Monarchy. Originally part of the Jacobin movement, the Girondins, or Girondists, dominated from May to June 1793. Their reign ended in a mass execution of Girondins leaders and is said to mark the beginning of the Reign of Terror. It is to be noted that Mary staunchly disagreed with the beliefs of the Jacobins, who refused equal rights to women. After Wollstonecraft came under suspicion by the Jacobins, and Imlay heard of what was happening to the Girondins, Imlay lied to officials that they were married to protect her from imprisonment and possible execution. 

In May 1794, Mary gave birth to Fanny Imlay, the first of two daughters she would have. Gilbert left Paris shortly thereafter with promises of returning for his child and Mary. However, Imlay did not keep his word and failed to send letters to Mary during this time. In 1795, Wollstonecraft returned to London to reconnect with Imlay, leading her to discover he was living with another woman.  Distraught, she attempted suicide. Her attempt was unsuccessful, and she made a full recovery. Soon after, she embarked on a business trip to Scandinavia for Imlay, still under the impression that she could win him back. When she returned, Imlay rejected Wollstonecraft again, and she attempted suicide for a second time by jumping into the River Thames. She was rescued by a passerby and made a full recovery.

Wollstonecraft reunited with Joseph Johnson and began working for him again. Johnson’s social circle was soon introduced to her, and here she met William Godwin, a political philosopher. Wollstonecraft and Godwin fell in love, and she quickly became pregnant, and on 29 March 1797, they were married. Godwin published Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798. This memoir revealed shameful secrets about Mary’s life to the public, such as her suicide attempts and her illegitimate child. Despite having Wollstonecraft’s best interests at heart, Godwin smeared her reputation for years to come. Wollstonecraft is, however, posited to be the inspiration behind many famous authors and their works. She gave birth to her second daughter on 30 August 1797 but died on 10 September of septicemia, a clinical term for blood poisoning, which she contracted when the placenta broke and became infected. Her child, Mary, would subsequently marry the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and in 1818 publish the Gothic novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, an early example of science fiction.  



Berges, Sandrine and Coffee, Alan M. S. J., eds., The Social and Political Philosophy of Mary Wollstonecraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Falco, Maria J., ed., Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996)

Ferguson, Moira, “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery,” Feminist Review 42 (1992), 82–102

Halldenius, Lena, Mary Wollstonecraft and Feminist Republicanism (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2115)

Taylor, Barbara, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Vassa, Gustavus. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited with an introduction and notes by Vincent Carretta, reprint of 9th edition (London and New York: Penguin, 2003). 

Wollstonecraft, Mary. “Review of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself,” Analytical Review (May 1789)

This webpage was last updated on 2021-10-08 by Kartikay Chadha


Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, oil on canvas, circa 1797. [National Portrait Gallery, London.]

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