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
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.

Sir William Dolben

(1727–1814)

Sir William Dolben, III Baronet was born on January 12, 1727 in Finedon, Northampshire to parents, Sir John Dolben, II Baronet and Elizabeth Digby. His father was the rector of Burton Latimer and the vicar of Fined. As a young man, Dolben excelled in school. At 17, he was appointed student of the house and awarded the DCL degree at Westminster School. He went on to attend Christ Church at Oxford. Shortly after graduation, on May 17, 1748, Dolben married Judith English, the heir of Hugh Pearson of Hampnett. To the marriage she brought a fortune of £30,000. Dolben became a Baron on November 20, 1756 after his father’s passing. From 1760-1761, he served as high sheriff of Northamptonshire. In 1766, he became a verderer of Rockingham Forest. On February 3, 1768, Dolben was appointed to represent the University of Oxford in the House of Commons. He had previously been nominated as an MP for Northamptonshire but had lost his seat during the dissolution. Dolben was respected in the house and independently held a seat for 26 years.

Dolben was instrumental in the movement to abolish slavery. He was dedicated to improving the conditions and treatment of enslaved persons, specifically those who were shipped along the Middle Passage to the West Indies. With William Pitt’s support, Dolben piloted a bill in 1788 that sought to regulate the space allotted to enslaved persons transported on slave ships. Through this initiative, the House of Commons heard testimony surrounding the brutality of the slave trade, much of which dealt with the dehumanizing conditions endured by enslaved Africans on the trip across the Atlantic. Dolben knew that this testimony would “shock the humanity and rouse the indignation of …every man of feeling in the country.” His argument received overwhelming bipartisan support, which forced King George III to issue a Royal order to have the Privy Council conduct an investigation into the slave trade. On July 10, 1788, with just two votes, an amended version of the bill was passed, titled the Slave Trade Regulation Act. The legislation, widely referred to as the Dolben Act, specified that slave ships were prohibited from carrying more than five enslaved persons for every three tons, up to a maximum of 201 tons, and no more than one additional enslaved person per ton over that capacity.

Shortly after the bill was passed, a number of letters were published in various newspapers signed by Gustavus Vassa and others under the name “Sons of Africa.” The first letter appeared in The Public Advertiser on June 19, 1788 and was addressed to the British Senate. In the letter, Vassa indicated that he had attended the debate and that he wanted to recount his own sufferings to those in attendance. He thanked the Senate for its efforts to limit the horrifying conditions of the Middle Passage and noted Dolben in particular. He signed the letter, “Gustavus Vassa, the African.” On July 15, 1788, Vassa and others wrote a letter to Dolben, which was published in The Morning Chronicle and the London Advertiser. In the letter, they thanked Dolben for introducing the Slave Trade Regulation Act. The letter was signed by Gustavus Vassa and other persons identified as Africans. On March 21, 1788, Vassa sent a petition on behalf of his African brethren to Queen Charlotte, in which he requested her support for the abolition of the slave trade. In this letter, he thanked his future subscribers, which included Dolben. Dolben continued to be an ardent supporter of the abolitionist cause. He developed a close relationship with William Wilberforce and supported a number of bills that Wilberforce proposed in the 1790s concerning abolition.

Dolben’s first wife, Judith, passed on January 6, 1771. Shortly after, he married his second cousin, Charlotte Scotchmer, on October 14, 1789. The couple had no children. Dolben died at Bury St. Edmunds on March 20, 1814 at the age of 87. He was buried at the Finedon church. His only surviving son from his first marriage, John English Dolben, succeeded him into baronetcy.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

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REFERENCES

Aston, Nigel. "Dolben, Sir William, third baronet (1727–1814), politician and slavery abolitionist," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published on 23 September 2004.

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

Sapoznick, Karlee A. The Letters and Other Writings of Gustavus Vassa (Olaudah Equiano, the African): Documenting Abolition of the Slave Trade (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2013).

Schwarz, Suzanne. Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995).



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

Sir

Portrait by unknown artist, (n.d.), National Portrait Gallery, London.