ASSOCIATES



Gustavus Vassa was acquainted with a number of prominent individuals, and he probably knew others for which there is no documentary evidence. This section highlights the individuals he knew or he possibly knew. It is divided into seven categories below: 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.

Igbo Family
Susannah Cullen
Joanna Vassa Bromley
Reverend Henry Bromley
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.

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.

Susannah Cullen

(d. 1796)

Susannah Cullen was Gustavus Vassa’s wife. She was an English woman of Scottish descent whom he apparently met on his book tour in Cambridgeshire in 1789. She subscribed to the 1790 and 1791 editions of his autobiography and may have been introduced to him by another subscriber, named Peter Peckard. Susannah came from humble beginnings, her parents, James and Ann, were people of moderate means and came from the cathedral town of Ely, also in Cambridgeshire. Her marriage was apparently seen as a respectable union, despite Vassa's former enslaved status. They were married on April 7, 1792, which Vassa announced in the 5th edition of his autobiography. The marriage was also reported in London newspapers such as Gentleman's Magazine. In its April 19-21 edition, the General Evening Post noted “Gustavus Vassa (Equiano Olaudah), the African, well known in England as the champion and advocate for procuring a suppression of the Slave Trade, was married at Soham, in Cambridgeshire to Miss Cullen, daughter of Mr. Cullen of Ely, in the same County, in the presence of a vast number of people assembled on the occasion.” Vassa even stated that he was promoting the interracial unions that he advocated. The wedding took place at St. Andrew’s Church. Shortly after, Susannah accompanied Vassa on his book tour through Scotland, visiting Paisley, Glasgow and Edinburgh, during which time he gave lectures, met fellow abolitionists, and collected subscribers for his autobiography. After the tour, the couple settled in Soham.

On October 16, 1793, Susannah gave birth to their first child Ann Mary (Maria). It is not known if Vassa returned to Soham to witness the birth, although her baptism may have been delayed until January 30, 1794 to ensure his presence. On April 11, 1795, Susannah gave birth to their second daughter, Joanna, who was also baptized at St. Andrew’s Church, Soham on April 29, 1795. Susannah died in 1796 at the age of 34 after a long illness.

In her will dated December 12, 1795, Susannah left her estate to Vassa, which consisted of the rights to two acres of pasture between Sutton in the Isle of Ely and the County of Cambridge, which she inherited from her older sister, Mary Cullen, upon the death of their mother, although Vassa never received this bequest because the mother lived until 1820. It is presumed that Susannah's mother and aunt looked after the daughters. The older daughter, Ann Mary, died on July 21, 1797, just six months after Vassa's own death, perhaps as a result of the measles, and was buried in Chesterton in the rural district of Huntingdonshire in Cambridgeshire. Her surviving sister, Joanna, subsequently married but apparently had no children.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

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REFERENCES

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

Osborne, Angelina. Equiano’s Daughter: The Life of & Times of Joanna Vassa, Daughter of Olaudah Equiano, Gustavus Vassa, the African (London, EG: Krik Krak, 2007).



This webpage was last updated on 2020-06-12 by Carly Downs

Susannah

St. Andrew's Church, Soham.

Photo Credit: John Salmon, licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.