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.

Boston King
George Whitefield
John Marrant
Nova Scotians
Quakers
Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon
The Huntingdonians
Wesleyan Methodists
Phillis Wheatly
James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw
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.

Phillis Wheatly

(c. 1753 - 1784)

Phillis Wheatly was the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry. She was born and raised in West Africa until the age of seven or eight when she was sold into slavery and transported to North America. Upon her arrival in 1761, Whitley was eventually enslaved to John Wheatley and his wife Susanna, who taught her how to read and write. The Wheatley family supported Phillis in her education and encouraged her to pursue poetry when they noticed her talent.

In 1773, at the age of 20, Phillis joined the Wheatleys’s son Nathaniel on a trip to London, seeking publication of her work. During her time in London, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, grew interested in Phillis’ poetry. She served as the patron for Wheatley’s volume of works, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston, In New England, thus securing its publication in 1773. Wheatley never met Hastings because of the Countess’s illness, but Wheatley did become associated with the Huntingdonian Methodists, and Wheatley dedicated her volume of poems to the Countess. Some of their correspondence is extant. The publication of her collection made Wheatley the first African American and first enslaved person to publish a book of poetry. She was also the third American woman to publish poetry.

Wheatley exhibited vigorous support for the American war for independence. In 1775, she sent Continental Army’s commander, George Washington, one of her many poems honouring him. This led to Washington inviting her to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to which she accepted, visiting him in March 1776.

16 years later, Gustavus Vassa published his Interesting Narrative, with the support of Selina Hastings, much like Wheatley. Both writers were sold into enslavement during childhood and brought to North America. They wrote about their experience of the Middle Passage, but with predominantly polarizing accounts. On various occasions, Vassa wrote about the horrors of slavery and stood firmly as an abolitionist. Wheatley, on the other hand, seldom wrote about her personal experience of enslavement. In one of the few instances where she speaks about her experience, she wrote “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land/ Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too/ Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.” However, in another account she said “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate,/Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat/What pangs excruciating must molest/What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?”

Once her book was published in November 1773, Phillis was formally emancipated by the Wheatley family. Following the death of both Susanna and John Wheatley, Phillis met and married free Black grocer, John Peters in 1778. Together, they had three children, two of whom died during infancy. The couple endured a constant battle with poverty, causing Wheatley to be forced to find work as a maid. Though she continued to write, many cite the rapidly developing tensions with the British and the eventual Revolutionary war as being a cause in a lack of support of Wheatley’s poetry. She made numerous attempts to get a second volume of her poetry to no avail. After her husband was imprisoned on debt related charges, Wheatley fell deeper into poverty and died due to illness in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 5, 1784.

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REFERENCES

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

Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, EG: A. Bell,1773).



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

Phillis

Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773), frontispiece. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington.