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.

Lord Mansfield

(1705 – 1793)

William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, was a prominent judge whose ruling in 1772 that a slave master could not legally force an enslaved person in England back to the colonies played a key role in ending slavery in England. Murray was born on March 2, 1705, at Scone Abbey, in Perth Scotland, to parents, David Murray and Margery Scott. He was the fourth son of fourteen children. He began his education at Perth Grammar School; however, moved to London at 13 to attend Westminster school. He was a bright student and in 1719 became a king’s scholar. He began post-secondary schooling in 1723 at Christ Church in Oxford and graduated with a B.A. in 1727. In 1730, he received an M.A. and was called to the bar by Lincoln’s Inn. He made rapid advances in his career as a barrister and in 1737 acted as counsel for the City of Edinburgh in the infamous “Porteous affair,” in which a bill had been proposed to punish the citizens responsible for the lynching of Captain Porteous by disenfranchising the city. Murray successfully reduced the penalty to a mere fine and Provost disqualification, in turn he was granted the Freedom of the City and a diamond. In 1738, he represented a series of merchants who were petitioning the House of Commons for the actions of Spanish vessels at sea.

On September 20, 1738, Murray married Lady Elizabeth Finch, the sister of the Earl of Winchilsea and granddaughter of the Earl of Nottingham. While they had no children of their own, they often took care of Murray’s nephew, the illegitimate daughter of Rear Admiral Lindsay. In 1741, he became the advisor for the Duke of Newcastle, and in 1742 he was appointed solicitor general and elected to parliament. A year later he was chosen as the chief spokesman for the ministry in the House of Commons. On April 9, 1754, Murray became attorney-general to the Duke of Newcastle. Upon the death of Sir Dudley Rider, he claimed the vacant chief-justiceship and a peerage, and in November of 1756, was sworn in as a Lord Chief Justice of the king’s bench, a position that he held until 1788. In 1774, Murray was awarded the title of Earl of Mansfield in the county of Nottingham, and thereafter he was usually referred to as Lord Mansfield.

In 1772, leading abolitionist and friend of Gustavus Vassa, Granville Sharp, took up the case of James Somerset, an enslaved African who had been brought from Jamaica to England by his slave master, and upon escaping servitude, was imprisoned on a return ship to Jamaica. The case raised an important question as to whether slaves could lawfully be kept in England, on which there was no consensus. Sharp brought the case to Murray and after months of legal debate, was able to convince him to issue a writ of habeus corpus. Murray ordered that the slave master return Somerset to England so that he may be brought before the court. Unable to settle the case out of court, Murray issued his landmark decision on June 22, 1772. The “Mansfield Decision” held that a slave master could not legally force an enslaved person in England to return to the colonies, regardless of how the individual arrived in England in the first place. Murray’s decision was based on the grounds that he believed slavery to be “so odious” that nothing could “be suffered to support it but positive law.” With this, Somerset was deemed a freeman. While the ruling did not abolish slavery, it undermined it by denying slave masters the right to exercise their claims of possession, as enslaved Africans could legally obtain their freedom by escaping captivity. Following the decision, advertisements promoting the sale of enslaved individuals and notices of escaped captives ceased to appear in British newspapers; however, not all individuals saw the celebration as justified, as long as slavery was legal in any of the British colonies, formerly enslaved Africans would remain in a precarious position. Nonetheless, the Mansfield decision set a precedent and was used in 1778 to declare slavery illegal in Scotland.

This ruling was quite significant to Vassa, as prior to the decision, even if he had paid for his freedom, his legal status could still have been challenged, and as a result, he could have been liable to reclamation by his former slave master, Robert King. As a result of his work on this case, Vassa recruited Sharp in 1774 to help him free another enslaved man, by the name of John Annis, who had been kidnapped by his former slave master and placed on a ship back to the West Indies. This was likely the first time Sharp and Vassa met.

In 1774 and 1775, Murray issued decisions on two cases of great significance, that of Campbell vs. Hall and that of Fabrigas v. Mostyn. The first of which dealt with a landowner from Grenada who sought to recover the money he had paid to a customs officer. The decision was of constitutional importance as it set restrictions on the King’s authority in the British colonies, noting that such authority was irrelevant unless a representative assembly was granted. The second case concerned the false imprisonment of a native Minorquan by the late governor of the island. The case raised an important question as to whether an English court had jurisdiction to try a crime committed in a ceded colony of the British Crown where English law did not yet exist.

As his health began to decline, he resigned from his position in parliament on June 4, 1788. His final years were devoted to the study of horticulture and religious meditation. He died of old age on March 20, 1793 and was buried in the North Cross, Westminster Abbey. He died a celebrated judge whose impartiality and patience ranked him among the greatest. A monument was erected in his honour in 1801 in Westminster Abbey.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES
REFERENCES

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

Poser, Norman S. “Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason,” (Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).

Rigg, James M. “Murray, William, first Earl of Mansfield,” in Sidney Lee et al., ed., Dictionary of National Biography (London, EG: Smith, Edler, and Co., 1894).



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

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Portrait by Jean Baptiste Van Loo (1737), National Portrait Gallery, London.