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.

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.

Matthias McNamara
Horatio Nelson
Edward Despard
James Wolfe
Robert Hodgson
King George I of Mosquito Shore
King George II of Mosquito Shore
King George III
William Pitt
Sir William Dolben
Thomas Wallace
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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.

Matthias McNamara


Matthias McNamara was the Lieutenant-Governor and then Acting Governor of the short-lived Province of Senegambia, Britain’s first formal colony in Africa, established in 1765 and disbanded officially in 1783. He was born into a wealthy Catholic family of Ardcloney, near Killaloe in County of Clare, Ireland. His mother was Mary O’Callaghan. He had five siblings, of note was his brother, Daniel McNamara, who became a lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, and earned a reputation as a Catholic activist. It is likely that his family’s wealth came from its involvement in West Indian slavery.

At the termination of the Seven Years War, the British consolidated its claims to coastal outposts in the region of modern Senegal and Gambia. The colonial status for what was named the Province of Senegambia was modelled on British possessions in the Americas but never had a resident settler or merchant community large enough to implement the official mandate in West Africa. In 1774, McNamara was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of James Island under Senegambia’s governor, Charles O’Hara, whom he succeeded in November 1775, a position that McNamara held until his dismissal and recall in 1778. Many high-ranking officials were confused by his appointment, as McNamara was not a well-liked man. The Chief Justice of Senegambia, Edward Morse, described him “as a man without education, extremely brutal, vulgar, and avaricious, but possessed of an uncommon share of natural parts” (Morse to Lord Townshend, 12 August 1782, CO 267/20). In his classic A History of the Gambia (1966), J.M. Gray described McNamara as a “singularly unlovable and unpleasant person – conceited and a venomous backbiter.” As Acting Governor, he was arrogant, short-tempered, irresponsible, and deceitful. He was guilty of imprisoning his adversaries in the “black hole” under the stairs at James Island, one of whom being Captain Joseph Wall of Goree Island, his senior military officer, and his predecessor’s second in command. The two did not get along and things came to a head when Wall refused to obey McNamara’s orders, at which time McNamara arrested him and placed him in solitary confinement for ten months in a six by eight-foot cell. Upon his release, Wall brought two actions against MacNamara, one for false imprisonment and the other for embezzlement. After two months, a British court found that McNamara’s justification for Wall’s confinement was “frivolous, groundless, and vexatious.” Wall was awarded £1000 in damages, and he subsequently assumed McNamara’s position in Senegambia, where he committed equally heinous acts and was ultimately executed in London in 1805.

McNamara’s problems were far from over. In June 1777 he was charged with assault, subornation of perjury, and illegal trading, following a series of diplomatic clashes with France during his administration of Senegambia. His case came before the Board of Trade in London, and upon his conviction on all counts he was officially relieved of his duties on August 28, 1778. During his time in Senegambia, McNamara was actively involved in the slave trade. This, combined with his propensity for stealing the goods of officers whom he had detained illegally, allowed him to amass a considerable fortune.

A curious incident happened in London during the period of McNamara’s downfall. In 1777-1778 several letters appeared in newspapers, signed with the name “Gustavus Vassa,” that were critical of the British government for its actions in the colonial war in North America that led to the creation of the United States. The letters are not in Vassa’s writing style and therefore were likely written by someone else. That someone else may have been Matthias McNamara, whose disgraceful return to London after his dismissal in Senegambia as well as the scandalous revelations in the courts as a result of the civil suits may have prevented him from professing his political views on the North American crisis in public. During this time, Vassa had been working as a barber in the Haymarket, where he developed a relationship with McNamara, which may have influenced McNamara in adopting Vassa’s name for the purpose of publishing letters in newspapers.

Despite his embarrassing legal situation, McNamara maintained a life of splendor in London, with a large household staff. By March 11, 1779, Vassa’s letters show that he was working for McNamara as a servant in his home, for how long is not known. McNamara took note of Vassa’s religious dedication and recommended that he go to Africa as a missionary. At first, Vassa was hesitant due to his disastrous experience as part of Dr. Charles Irving’s failed Mosquito Shore plantation scheme; however, he had a change of heart and allowed McNamara to submit a letter on his behalf to the Bishop of London. In his letter, McNamara described Vassa as a respectable man with good moral character. Vassa’s application was ultimately rejected likely due to a combination of the Bishop being reluctant to send another missionary to Africa, especially during the war, as well as Vassa’s poor choice of character reference. Thereafter, Vassa left McNamara’s employment, after which time not much is known about McNamara. His will shows that he died a wealthy man with two plantations in the Caribbean on Granada and Tortola, property in Senegambia and London, as well as family connections to estates in Ireland. He left his African property to his mistress, Willima, whom had given birth to his children in Senegambia.

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REFERENCES

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

Fagan, Patrick. “MacNamara, Daniel (1720-1800), Lawyer and Roman Catholic Activist,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

Gray, J. M. A History of the Gambia (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 1966).

Lovejoy, Paul E. “The Province of Senegambia – An Early British Colony in Africa (1765-83),” in Lovejoy and Suzanne Schwarz, eds., Slavery, Abolition and Colonialism in Sierra Leone (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2014), 109-26.



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

Matthias

Map of Senegambia (1707) by Guillaume Delisle, Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division, Washington.