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
Michael White
Thomas Steele
Mr. M’Intosh (William Macintosh)
Augustus Keppel
John Mondle
George Pitt
Captain Charles O’Hara
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.

Thomas Steele

1753-1823

Thomas Steele was born on 17 November 1753 to Thomas Steele and Elizabeth Madgwick in Chichester, Sussex, England. His father held the post of Recorder of Chichester. Steele received his education at Westminster School in London and at Trinity College in the University of Cambridge in 1771. The following year, Steele began studying law in London at the Middle Temple, also known as the Honorable Society of the Middle Temple. Steele, like his father, was involved in local politics, and held various political positions after becoming a member of parliament for Chichester in 1780. In 1782, he became Secretary to the master of Ordnance, and a year later, Secretary of the Treasury. He held this position until 1791 when he became Commander of the Board of Control and Jr. Paymaster General. In 1797, he was granted the additional title of King’s Remembrancer as part of the Exchequer, a sort of courts dealing with government financing dating back to the 12th century.

Steele was one of Vassa’s original subscribers. It can be inferred that Steele became aware of Vassa through his efforts in the first, disastrous Sierra Leone project initiated by Granville Sharp and Henry Smeathman. The Treasury Board, of which Steele was Secretary at the time, provided financial support for the project. When Equiano was dismissed from the Committee of the Black Poor, he wrote to the Treasury to ask for reimbursement for his expenses, which were provided. Steele’s name on Vassa’s list of subscribers, alongside others, indicated that important members of the government recognized Vassa’s role in the abolition movement. 

Steele married Charlotte Amelia in September of 1785, and together they had two daughters and a son. He passed away in December 1823.

Vassa on Thomas Steele in The Interesting Narrative 9th ed.

Equiano’s note, lacking in eds. 1-8.1 He then told the agent before me, he was informed by Mr. Steele, M.P. [Thomas Steele (1753-1823), joint secretary to the Treasury Board, 1783-91, member of Parliament, and one of Equiano’s original subscribers] that the said expedition had cost 33,000L and he desired that the things might be had. [The government expended 15,679A 13 s. 4 d. on the Black Poor (PRO T 29/60, 29 July 1789).
(Carretta, Penguin ed., pg. 300, note 645)

[Equiano’s note, lacking in eds. 1-8.1 Witness Thomas- Steele, Esq. M.P. of the Treasury, and Sir Charles Middleton, Bart. &. I should publicly have exposed him, (even in writing falsely of me last March) were it not out of respect to the worthy Quakers and others.
(pg. 300, note 647)

 

Prepared by Renée Lefebvre, 14 June 2021

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

REFERENCES

Namier, Lewis, and John Brooke. The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1754-1790 (London: Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, 1964).

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



 



This webpage was last updated on 2021-12-08 by Kartikay Chadha

Image

National Portrait Gallery, London Caricature of Thomas Steele by James Gillray, published by Samuel William Fores; hand-coloured etching, published 2 June 1787 

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