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.



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.



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.



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.



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
Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon
The Huntingdonians
Wesleyan Methodists
Phillis Wheatly
James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw
Robert Lowth


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.



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.



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.

James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

(1705 - 1775)

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, often referred to as James Albert, was a formerly enslaved man, best known for his autobiography, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw.His memoir wasthe first of its kind to be published by an African person in Britain.In his narrative, he recounts his life in West Africa prior to being sold into slavery, as well as his experiences in America as an enslaved and a free man.

Gronniosaw was born in 1705 in what he refers to as Bournou in Zaara. It is possible that Bournou was Borno, a kingdom in what is now northeastern Nigeria. One of the provinces of Borno at the time was Zaria, usually known as Zazzau. Gronniosaw was the youngest of six children and the grandson of the king of Zaara. Borno was an area with a strong Muslim influence in which locals were known to mix their Islamic faith with non-Muslim practices. It is possible that Gronniosaw was born a Muslim but converted to Christianity during enslavement. At 15 years old, Gronniosaw was captured and sold by a Gold Coast Ivory merchant to a Dutch captain. He was later brought to Barbados where he was sold to an American known only as Mr. Vanhorn from New York, in 1730. The American took him to New York and resold him to Theodorus Frelinghuysen, a Calvinist minister in New Jersey. While in New Jersey, Gronniosaw was taught to read and learned the principles of Calvinist practice. When Frelinghuysen died in 1747, his will granted Gronniosaw his freedom.

While dates are unclear, by his own account, Gronniosaw subsequently travelled to the Netherlands where he worked as a cook on a ship during the Seven Years War. He later enlisted in the British army in hopes of earning enough money to relocate to England. He served in Martinique and in Cuba before he was discharged and sailed to England. Upon arriving in Portsmouth, he was cheated out of the majority of his savings by his landlady and was forced to relocate to London in 1763. That same year, he met and married his English wife Betty, a white widow and textile worker. Together, they had two children in addition to one from Betty’s previous relationship. When Betty lost her job due to the financial crisis, the family was forced to move to Colchester. There, Gronniosaw found employment as a builder with a Quaker named Osgood Hanbury. Due to the seasonal nature of building work, the family once again faced financial hardship. They moved to Norwich where they received financial aid from another Quaker by the name of Henry Gurney, who paid their rent. During this time, one of Gronniosaw’s children passed away. At first, the Quaker Meeting House refused to bury her as she was not baptised but later allowed her to be buried in the churchyard under the condition that the minister not be involved in the service.

The family pawned their possessions and moved to Kidderminster, where Betty found employment as a weaver. Gronniosaw’s remaining children; Mary, Edward, and his newborn son Samuel, were baptised on Christmas day in 1771 by Benjamin Fawcett, a Calvinist minister and associate of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. Soon after, Gronniosaw received a letter and donation from Hastings. He thanked her for the donation on January 3, 1772, stating that it arrived “at a time of great necessity.” Gronniosaw’s fifth child, James Jr., was also baptised by Fawcett on June 25, 1774.

In 1772, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, As Related by Himself,began production. The memoir was supported by the Countess of Huntingdon, and is often considered the first “slave narrative.” Over the years, the Countess was introduced to a number of black authors through her personal chaplain, George Whitefield. Whitefield preached in a number of cities in North America and England. His open-air sermons exposed many black authors, such as Gronniosaw, Phillis Wheatley, Gustavus Vassa and John Marrant, to his brand of Calvinist Methodism which was known as the “Huntingdon Connexion.” While it is unknown whether Vassa and Gronniosaw ever met in person, it is clear that they shared a mutual interest in methodism. By the time Vassa published the first edition of his autobiography in 1789, Gronniosaw’s memoir had been published at least ten times in Britain and America. Vassa’s style of writing in his autobiography was likely influenced by the way in which Gronniosaw wrote about his own life experiences and religious conversion. Both Vassa and Gronniosaw describe their quest for knowledge through the anecdote of “talking to books.” When recollecting a scene from his youth, Gronniosaw indicates in his memoir that he was under the impression that his master was having a conversation with a book, on account of him moving his lips while reading. However, he was left “greatly disappointed” when he found that a book would not speak to him. Similarly, Vassa indicates that he often talked to books, placing his ear against them, in hopes of the book answering back, only to be left disappointed by the silence. The trope of the “talking book” subsequently became a literary tradition utilized by black authors like Vassa, Marrant, Cugoano, and John Jea. Gronniosaw died in Chester in September of 1775. Little is known of the final years of his life.



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Adams, Beatrice J. Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History, Volume 1(New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016).

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

Caretta, Vincent. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century(Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2003).

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “The Trope of the Talking Book,” in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Gronniosaw, James Albert Ukawsaw. A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince as Related by Himself(Bath: Thomas Lord, 1772).

Potkay, Adam. “Olaudah Equiano and the Art of Spiritual Autobiography,” American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies27:4 (1994), 667-692.

Taylor, Yuval. I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, Volume 2(Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1999).

This webpage was last updated on 19-May-2020, Kartikay Chadha


Painting of Eastgate Street, Chester by John Gresty (1865) in Gretsy’s Illustrated Chester: Consisting of Eight Large Chromo Lithographic Views from Photographys,&c. : with a Plan of the City, Descriptive Letterpress, a Useful Business Directory & a Breif Sketch of Eaton Hall.