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.

Law Atkinson and Susannah Atkinson

(1759-1835) and (1768-1794)

Law Atkinson was born on March 13th of 1759, named after his mother, Ann Law (1738-1816). He was the first of five children born to Ann and Joseph Atkinson (1732-1807). Law was a wealthy businessman involved in the woolen industry. He and his brother, Thomas, owned Colne Bridge Mill outside of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. The mill was targeted by the Luddites, a radical, secret organization of textile workers who opposed the mechanization of their industry in 1812. The Luddites destroyed another of the Atkinson mills, and sent letters to a local newspaper threatening to kill Thomas. In February 1818, Colne Bridge Mill burned down, killing 26, including 17 children who had been locked inside the building when their supervisor left for the night. 

Susannah Atkinson was likely born in 1768 to Thomas and Susannah Atkinson, making her maiden name also Atkinson. Not much is known about her life, other than that she was extremely religious as seen through her letters to Vassa. She married Law on 29 May 1788 in Westminster, London, and was documented as a minor before the church. Law and Susannah lived first in Kirkheaton and later in Moldgreen, where Law owned several woolen and cotton mills.

The Atkinsons were both supporters of the abolitionist movement, despite Law using cotton picked by enslaved people in his factories. They shared a friendship with Vassa, and Law subscribed to 100 copies of The Interesting Narrative. It is likely that the Atkinsons even hosted Vassa while he was on a book tour in March 1791. In the same month, Susannah wrote to Vassa, describing him as a “much valued friend” and thanking him for the portrait that he had given them. This letter alludes to forthcoming visits from Vassa, although none have been documented. Vassa mentioned the Atkinsons in a letter published on April 16 in a Leeds newspaper, thanking them for their kindness. 

In February 1794, Susannah Atkinson died while travelling to Welbeck Street, where she lived before marrying Law. Her official cause of death was not publicized. At only 26 years of age, she was buried in Bunhill Fields in London. Law remarried a year later to Elizabeth Edwards, the daughter of John Edwards, a wealthy manufacturer in the cotton spinning industry who was also an abolitionist. Elizabeth gave birth to Edwards Atkinson in 1797, who would soon be joined by four other siblings, Charles (1799-1857), Elizabeth (1800-1875), Charlotte (1802-1862), and Lucy (1805-1889). 

In his later life, Law was brought to court twice. He was first sued by James Carrol regarding the repossession of goods, in which Law lost in the Court of Common Please in Dublin in 1811. Law was also accused of tampering with a seal from a great coat but was acquitted in Dublin in 1813. Law declared bankruptcy in 1818 and was forced to auction off Celbridge woollen factory and its surrounding lands that he owned with two business partners, Jerimiah and Thomas Houghton. Law and his partners were able to recuperate from this blunder, and in 1833, Law was elected clerk to the Huddersfield Infirmary. 

Elizabeth and Law Atkinson had a long, happy marriage until Elizabeth’s death in March of 1834. She was buried in the St John the Baptist Churchyard. Law died on March 7th of 1835, following Elizabeth exactly one year to the day, and was buried beside her. A memorial to Law, Elizabeth and their five children can be found on their family vault in the churchyard. A plaque on the wall of the church memorialized Law’s first wife, Susannah, but it was destroyed in a fire in the church in 1886. It was never replaced.


Prepared by Renée Lefebvre, 24 January 2021



Hern, Bill. May 2020. Olaudah Equiano and the Atkinson Family. The Equiano Society.

Orme, Daniel. March 1789. Olaudah Equiano ('Gustavus Vassa'). National Portrait Gallery, London.

Widdal, Christine. 2018. Tragic Fire at Atkinson's Mill, Colne Bridge. March 2.

This webpage was last updated on 2021-11-15 by Kartikay Chadha


Probable copy of the portrait gifted to Law and Susannah Atkinson by Vassa.

Olaudah Equiano ("Gustavus Vassa") by Daniel Orme, stipple engraving, March 1789. National Portrait Gallery, London.

View Image in Full screen