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.

William Wilberforce

(1757 - 1833)

William Wilberforce, a politician and prominent abolitionist, was born on August 14, 1759 in the Wilberforce house in Hull, England, to parents, Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce. His paternal grandfather, William Wilberforce, was twice mayor of Hull, and established the family fortune through the maritime trade, while also acquiring property in Yorkshire. After the passing of his grandfather and uncle, Wilberforce inherited a small fortune in 1777, allowing him to lead a lifestyle free of financial pressures.

Wilberforce enrolled in St. John’s College, Cambridge, in October 1776, and graduated with his BA in 1781 and his MA in 1788. While at Cambridge, he became interested in pursuing a career in politics, rather than heading the family business. At the age of 21, he was elected to his first position in public office as a member of the parliament for Hull. As a free thinker, he adopted independent stances on an array of political issues. He resolved himself to be a “no party man,” and supported both the Tory and Whig political factions who were in opposition at the time.

Despite his ever-changing political leanings, Wilberforce grew in popularity during his early years in parliament. In 1780, he became an MP for the region of Yorkshire. While in office, he befriended the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and the two became popular political figures in the early 1780s. Pitt would often stay with Wilberforce at his house in Wimbledon, and they vacationed in France together in the fall of 1783.

After his conversion to Evangelism in 1784, Wilberforce’s life changed dramatically. He questioned if one could simultaneously serve God and his nation in parliament, especially if the two were unaligned. He sought spiritual advice from John Newton, the leading evangelical clergyman at the time, who strongly encouraged him to remain in politics “with increased diligence and conscientiousness” (Bodl. Oxf., MS Wilberforce c. 49, fol. 14). His conversion had an observable effect on his political leanings, as he began to use his parliamentary position to advocate reform by introducing many radical bills – one of which advocated for the reduction of sentences for women convicted of treason.

It was in 1787 that Wilberforce met abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, who illuminated him on the horrifying reality of the Atlantic slave trade, and later recruited him into the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade formed in 1787. As Wilberforce was a member of Parliament and could better champion the cause of abolitionism in this political arena, his presence in the committee was vital. While Clarkson was in charge of travelling across England to accumulate evidence and mobilize public opinion in favor of abolitionism, Wilberforce was tasked with presenting the evidence in the House of Commons. His first speech on Tuesday, May 12, 1789 was applauded by the abolitionist community. Evidently, Wilberforce was an eloquent public speaker, and after having witnessed his acclaimed anti-slavery speech, author James Boswell wrote, "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.” Wilberforce continued to openly lobby for abolitionism for the remaining years he served as a member of parliament.

In 1791, he took on an endeavor outside of politics and helped to establish the Sierra Leone Company in Freetown, Sierra Leone alongside fellow abolitionists, Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and John Clarkson. This corporate body aimed to resettle Black Loyalists who had initially settled in Nova Scotia after the American Revolutionary War, and to ultimately create a peaceful utopia for formerly enslaved Africans who could live with freedom.

In the years leading up to his retirement, Wilberforce continued to lobby in parliament for total abolitionism in all of the British Isles. Though a bill that banned all British subjects from participating in the slave trade within the colonies of France was passed in 1806, slavery was not formally abolished in all of the British empire until 1807. After actualizing his life mission, Wilberforce retired from Parliament in 1825, and wrote his famous treatise, Appeal on Behalf of the Negro Slaves, following his retirement. He died on July 29, 1833, the same year that the Slavery Act abolishing the institution of slavery was passed. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and a small monument was erected in his honor.

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REFERENCES

Belmonte, Kevin. Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce (Colorado Springs, CO Navpress Publishing Group, 2002).

"Sickly shrimp of a man who sank the slave ships.” The Sunday Times (London, EG), March 25, 2005.

Wolffe, John. "Wilberforce, William (1759–1833), politician, philanthropist, and slavery abolitionist," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published May 21, 2009. https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb- 9780198614128-e-29386



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

William

Portrait by Anton Hickel (n.d.), Wilberforce House, Hull.