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
Robert Lowth
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.

Robert Lowth

(1710 – 1787)

Robert Lowth was born on 27 November in 1710 in Hamsphire, England. Lowth is known for his studies of English grammar, religious poetic structures, and imagery in Shakespearean works. He received his early education at Winchester College, an all-boys boarding school. He later studied at the University of Oxford, where he would obtain his Bachelor of Arts, his Master of Arts and become a Professor of Poetry in 1741.

While Lowth was studying at Oxford, he was associated with the Anglican Church and was eventually named vicar of Ovington, Hampshire. This position would foreshadow his success in the Church. Lowth became the archdeacon of Winchester in 1750, and then rector of East Woodhay in 1753, after resigning as Professor at Oxford the preceding year. In 1766, Lowth became the Bishop of St. David’s and was quickly appointed Bishop of Oxford. He kept this position for eleven years, until he was chosen to become the Bishop of London.

Gustavus Vassa wrote to Robert Lowth in 1787, while he was the Bishop of London. Vassa was enacted by his then-employer, Matthias McNamara (year to year), to write to Lowth in hopes of becoming ordained to serve as a missionary in Africa. This letter is significant as it is one of the first times Vassa publicly declared himself to be African and born in Africa. He writes: “That your memorialist is a native of Africa and has knowledge of the manners and custom o the inhabitants of that country. […] That your memorialist is desirous of returning to Africa as missionary, if encouraged by your Lordship, in hopes of being able to prevail upon his countrymen to become Christians.” McNamara also wrote a letter of reference for Vassa addressed to Lowth. However, Lowth declined to ordain Vassa, likely because of McNamara’s unsavory political reputation. 

Apart from his religious duties, Lowth received a Doctor of Divinity in 1754 for his work in Hebrew poetry. He had many of his sermons published and even wrote book about William Wykeham, a 15th century Bishop, titled “Life of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester.”  His last work was published in 1787, titled “Isaiah: A new Translation with Preliminary Dissertation, and Notes, Critical, Philological, and Explanatory.” This work is celebrated for being the best existing translation of the prophecy of Isaiah. Robert Lowth died on November 3rd, 1787.

Vassa on Robert Lowth in The Interesting Narrative 9th.ed.

However, the Governor, understanding that I was of a religious turn, wished to know what religion I was of; I told him I was a protestant of the church of England, agreeable to the thirty-nine articles of that church; and that whomsoever I found to preach according to that doctrine, those I would hear. A few days after this, we had some more discourse on the same subject; when he said he would, if I chose, as he thought I might be of service in converting my countrymen to the Gospel-faith, get me sent out as a missionary to Africa. I at first refused going, and told him how I had been served on a like occasion by some white people the last voyage I went to Jamaica, when I attempted, (if it were the will of God) to be the means of converting the Indian prince; and said I supposed they would serve me worse than Alexander the coppersmith did St. if I should attempt to go amongst them in Africa. He told me not to fear, for he would apply to the Bishop of London to get me ordained. On these terms I consented to the Governor’s proposal to go to Africa, in hope of doing good, if possible, amongst my countrymen; so, in order to have me sent out properly, we immediately wrote the following letters to the late Bishop of London:

To The Right Reverend Father in God, ROBERT, Lord Bishop of London.

THE MEMORIAL OF GUSTAVUS VASSA, SHEWETH,

THAT your memorialist is a native of Africa, and has a knowledge of the manners and customs of the inhabitants of that country. That your memorialist has resided in different parts of Europe for twenty-two years last past, and embraced the Christian faith in the year 1759. That your memorialist is desirous of returning to Africa as a missionary, if encouraged by your Lordship, in hopes of being able to prevail upon his countrymen to become Christians; and your memorialist is the more induced to undertake the same, from the success that has attended the like undertakings when encouraged by the Portuguese through their different settlements on the coast of Africa, and also by the Dutch; both governments encouraged the blacks, who by their education are qualified to undertake the same, and are found more proper than European clergymen, unacquainted with the language and customs of the country. Your memorialist’s only motive for soliciting the office of a missionary is, that he may be a means, under God, of reforming his countrymen and persuading them to embrace the Christian religion. Therefore your memorialist humbly prays your Lordship’s encouragement and support in the undertaking.

GUSTAVUS VASSA.

(Pg. 220- 222)

With these letters I waited on the Bishop, by the Governor’s desire, and presented them to his Lordship. He received me with much condescension and politeness; but, from some certain scruples of delicacy, and saying the Bishops were not of opinion in sending a new missionary to Africa, he declined to ordain me. My sole motive for thus dwelling on this transaction, or inserting these papers, is the opinion which gentlemen of sense and education, who are acquainted with Africa, entertain of the probability of converting the inhabitants of it to the faith of Jesus Christ, if the attempt were countenanced by the legislature.

(Pg. 223)

It is righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. - Destruction shall be to the workers of iniquity - and the wicked shall perish by their own wickedness. - May the worthy Lord Bishop of London be blessed for his pathetic and humane sermon on behalf of the Africans, and all the benevolent gentlemen who are engaged in the laudable attempt to abolish Slavery, and thereby prevent many savage barbarities from being daily committed by the enslavers of men, to whom the Lord has pronounced wrath, anguish, and tribulation, &. to the sons of Britain first (as having the Gospel preached amongst them) and also to the nations-.

(Pg. 334-335, 6 – Appendix E)

The letter “To the Reader” appears in eds. 5-9.

In ed. 4 only, immediately following the title page, is “TO THE MOST REVEREND FATHER IN GOD, ROBERT, Lord Archbishop of Dublin, &c. This edition of my Narrative is humbly Inscribed (as a small Token of my Gratitude for his unequalled Beneficence) BY HIS GRACE’S MOST OBLIGED, AND MOST OBEDIENT, HUMBLE SERVANT, GUS-TAVUS VASSA. Dublin, 30th Max 1791.” (Note 1, pg. 237)

 

Prepared by Renée Lefebvre, 21 June 2021

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

REFERENCES

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, I. The Bishop’s Grammar: Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

deTombe, Jon. “Both Political and Poetical: Robert Lowth on Enthusiasm.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 54:3 (2021), 595-611.

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



This webpage was last updated on 2021-09-24 by Kartikay Chadha

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Robert Lowth by John Keyse Sherwin, after Robert Edge Pine, line engraving, circa 1777. National Portrait Gallery, London.

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