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.

Joseph Banks
Alexander Blair
Dr. Charles Irving
James Keir
Dr. James Lind
James Watt
James Phillips
Constantine John Phipps
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach
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.

James Phillips

1745 - 1799

James Phillips was born in Cornwall, England in 1745, the son of a Quaker in the copper and iron trade. He was an international bookseller, publisher, printer, and an important member of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (SEAST). Phillips grew up in a Quaker family and was subsequently enrolled in a Quaker school in Rochester, Kent, and later moved to London. 

His aunt, Mary Hinde (nee Phillips), owned a stationary business in George Yard, London bequeathed to her by her late husband. When she retired in 1775, she gave the business to Phillips, thus introducing him to the field of printing and bookselling. By 1783, he was mainly publishing dictionaries and bibles for fellow Quakers but also account books, stationary, French translations and educational works. As the American War of Independence came to an end, some people thought that the British economy could survive without the African slave trade, which had languished during the war. The former North American colonies had already begun discussions of outlawing the slave trade. Quakers in Philadelphia, who had long opposed the slave trade, called upon their British Friends to act against the slave trade. Many Quakers believed it to be sinful to hold a man as slave on the basis that all men were creations of God. When the London Society of Friends organized a 23-person committee in June of 1783 to discuss the issue, Phillips was one of its committee members.

The books, papers and pamphlets that Phillips published for the Committee included the 15 page The Case of our Fellow Creatures, the Oppressed Africans, Respectfully Recommended to the Serious Consideration of the Legislature of Great Britain by the People Called Quakers, which was prepared by William Dillwyn and John Lloyd, two members of the group. After the initial printing of 2,000 copies sold out, Phillips printed an additional 10,000 copies for further distribution. In 1784, Phillips published Joseph Woods' Thoughts on the Slavery of the Negroes on behalf of the Committee with an initial print run of 2,000. Woods was a Quaker merchant whom the Committee tasked with sending abolitionist articles to newspapers around Britain. Woods argued that all Britons were complicit in the crime of slavery through consumption of slave-produced commodities and therefore were morally obligated to oppose the slave trade and pursue the issue of emancipation. Copies of the pamphlet were sent to notable individuals such as the Bishop of Chester and the Rev. James Ramsay, and various groups that showed interest in abolishing the slave trade. Phillips then publish Thomas Clarkson's Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African, Translated from a Latin Dissertation, which Was Honoured with the First Prize in the University of Cambridge, for the Year 1785, with Additions. Phillips' publishing house was located on Lombard Street in London.

In 1787, Phillips was a founding member of the abolition committee formed in London as the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, or SEAST. Under the leadership of Granville Sharp and Samuel Hoare, SEAST sought to inform the public on the cruelties of the slave trade.. Phillips was responsible for printing and distributing circular letters to possible supporters of the committee. The first important pamphlet was Clarkson's A Summary View of the Slave Trade. 

For its official seal, SEAST asked Josiah Wedgwood, a successful businessman whose pottery industry near Birmingham revolutionized the manufacture of pottery and dishes. Phillips and Wedgewood had previously known each other through business ties. Wedgwood created a medallion that depicted the image of an enslaved man in chains with the words “Am I not a Man and Brother?” The medallion became the logo of the abolition movement and was distributed widely throughout Britain in publicizing the antislavery cause. 

Phillips introduced Gustavus Vassa to Wedgwood, who corresponded with each other. In one letter, Vassa asked Wedgwood, asking him to purchase The Interesting Narrative. This solicitation is noteworthy as it is may be the first time Vassa publicly referred to his birth name Olaudah Equiano. Although the relationship between Phillips and Vassa remains unknown, it is clear they knew each other as SEAST endorsed Vassa’s autobiography, and many SEAST members subscribed to The Interesting Narrative. Furthermore, they shared mutual acquaintances such as Clarkson, Sharp and Hoare. 

Phillips continued printing and publishing abolitionist literature, although none of the editions of Vassa's Interesting Narrative, such as William Cowper’s poem The Negro’s Complaint in 1788, but in the early 1790s he had a paralytic stroke, described as gout or palsy, from which he never recovered. He did rejoin the committee briefly in 1794, but the work of the committee was put on hold because of the French Revolutionary War, and thus no meetings took place for almost ten years thereafter. Nonetheless, Phillips remained an active voice in the antislavery cause until his death in 1799. His reason for his death is not documented, but his health was said to have rapidly worsened after his stroke. He was 55 years old when he died. 

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

REFERENCES

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

Clover, David. "The British Abolitionist Movement and Print Culture: James Phillips, Activist, Printer and Bookseller," Society for Caribbean Studies Annual Conference, Warwick University, July 2013.

The Library of the Religious Society of Friends. 1783. "The Case of our fellow-creatures, the oppressed African," The Abolition Project. http://abolition.e2bn.org/source_36.html

Vassa, Gustavus. The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano (London, 1794)



This webpage was last updated on 2021-10-07 by Kartikay Chadha

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Frontpage of William Dillwyn and John Lloyd, The Case of our Fellow Creatures, the Oppressed Africans, Respectfully Recommended to the Serious Consideration of the Legislature of Great Britain by the People Called Quakers, published by James Phillips (1783)

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Frontpage of Thomas Clarkson, An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African, published by John Phillips (1786)

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