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.

Quakers


Quakers, which refers to members of the Society of Friends, constituted a religious movement guided by the belief that every individual, man or woman, possesses the inward light of salvation. The group was given the name “Quakers” as they were often physically moved by the Holy Spirit and hence “quaked.” The origin of the movement dates to 1647 when George Fox, the son of a Leicestershire weaver, pronounced a revelation that declared that God is in everyone. Fox referred to his followers as the “Friends of Truth.” During the mid-seventeenth century the number of Quakers grew rapidly. Meetings of Friends extended beyond England across the Atlantic. Persecution of Quakers became common in 1660, when the monarchy was restored. The reestablishment of the Church of England resulted in the attempted suppression of religious expression outside the Church. Quakers were criticized for their pacifist tendencies and refusal to pay tithes to the priesthood. They possessed no formal hierarchical structures, detailed liturgies or rituals. They rejected formal worship and believed biblical teachings to be secondary to individual divine inspiration. They preached that believers could communicate directly with God and refuted the notion of the necessary mediation by a church or authority figure. Due to their belief in spiritual equality, Quakers refused to bow to any individual, no matter social standing or political position. For these reasons, the Church saw Quakers as detractors. In response to the attempted suppression, Quakers established the annual Meeting for Sufferings in London. In 1689, the Toleration Act was introduced, which largely eliminated their persecution and, as such, their numbers never exceeded 60,000. In the coming decades, their numbers dropped substantially to 20-30,000. Despite declining membership, Quakers had a profound economic, moral and political influence. They were known as honest businessmen who produced high-quality goods and had strong social and economic ties. Their transatlantic structure allowed for a substantial communication and distribution network based out of London. This position gave them a critical voice in regard to controversial moral issues, the most notable of which was slavery.

While Quakers believed in spiritual equality, they did not immediately take a moral stand against slavery. Scottish Quaker and theologian, Robert Barclay, indicated that salvation was attainable, but not guaranteed, to all individuals. George Fox insisted that enslaved Africans and their slave masters were “all of one Blood & of one Mold.” Fox, along with his companion William Edmundson, travelled to the West Indies to preach to enslaved Africans. Between 1710 and 1717, various Meetings of Friends were held to debate the morality of slavery. In 1727, during one of their central meetings in London, it was decided that slavery was not consistent with Quaker principles; however, their official stand against slavery was not made public until the 1750s when it appeared in Books of Extracts. Quakers ruled that all Friends must separate themselves from the slave trade or face expulsion from the Society. Not all Friends took this ruling seriously.

Robert King, a prominent merchant in Montserrat and Gustavus Vassa’s slave master from 1763 to 1766, identified as a Quaker, although his involvement in the slave trade casts some doubt on his commitment to the Society of Friends. King was not the only Quaker to disobey the society’s rules. Many of those who lived in Montserrat saw slavery as an economic necessity in order to remain competitive in the Caribbean market. That said, Vassa describes King as a model slave master, kind, charitable, and humane. King allowed Vassa to join the crew of Captain Thomas Farmer, an Englishman who commanded a Bermuda ship. His time serving under King and Farmer brought him in 1765 to Philadelphia, equipped with rum and sugar to be sold. While stationed in Philadelphia, he sold his goods mostly to Quakers whom he found to be among the few honest white businessmen. He grew to respect the Quakers and chose to deal with them in preference to others. Vassa’s positive experience dealing with Quakers piqued his interest in their religion. In 1766, he attended a Meeting of Friends in Philadelphia and subsequent services and weddings out of curiosity. He also visited a free school erected for every denomination, created by Anthony Benezet, a Quaker writer who was influential in the abolitionist movement and is cited in his autobiography. Benezet’s favourable descriptions of Africa and Africans in his essay, Some Historical Account of Guinea, informed leading abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson’s writings against the slave trade.

In 1783, an informal group of six Quakers organized a petition against the slave trade, which was signed by over 300 Quakers and given to the Parliament. The group was horrified by the Zong massacre of that year in which more than 130 enslaved Africans were killed on a slave ship in order to make an insurance claim. In 1787, they formed a small, non-denominational group with nine Quakers and three Anglican members so as to gain greater Parliamentary support. The group came to be known as the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Quaker members included John Barton, William Dillwyn, George Harrison, Samuel Hoare, Joseph Hooper, John Lloyd, Joseph Woods, James Phillips, and Richard Phillips. The group was invaluable in achieving the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1807.

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REFERENCES

Angell, Stephen W., and Ben Pink Dandelion.

The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies

(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013).

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

D’Anjou, Leo. Social Movements and Cultural Change: The First Abolition Campaign (Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Publishing Co., 1996).



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

Quakers

Portrait of George Fox, possibly by R. Sawyer (n.d.), National Portrait Gallery, London.