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
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.

Alexander Blair

(d. 1815)


Alexander Blair was a co-investor in Dr. Charles Irving’s scheme of 1776, which sought to establish a plantation to produce castor oil and cotton on the British-controlled Mosquito Shore, south of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Rio Grande de Matagalpa. Ricinus Communis, the plant from which castor oil is extracted, grew wild on the coast, which made the Mosquito Shore an ideal location for the plantation. It is possible that Blair was the son or grandson of Dr. Alexander Blair of Port Royal who owned a plantation in Jamaica, which would explain his wealth and connections in the West Indies. This may be the reason that Irving chose him as his partner for the Mosquito Shore venture. Blair and Irving co-owned the Morning Star, which was used to transport captives to the plantation and for trade. They hired Gustavus Vassa as the overseer of the Mosquito Shore project, hoping that they could leverage his fluency in Igbo to recruit his fellow countrymen to work on the plantation. At the time, Vassa thought that slavery could be reformed and apparently believed that Irving’s plantation would provide enslaved Africans with ameliorated conditions and the opportunity to eventually become free workers. On April 30, 1776, two Spanish vessels of its coast guard seized the Morning Star at Black River (modern Rio Tinto). The loss of the ship and its contents cost Blair and Irving an estimated £3723. Blair and Irving petitioned the British government to seek compensation for the “violent outrage” committed against them and to regain ownership of the ship. Vassa became disillusioned and ultimately abandoned the project in June of 1776. The plantation was a dismal failure.

Blair and Irving’s interest in castor oil likely stemmed from its use in the manufacturing of soap. Blair, along with the distinguished chemist James Keir, purchased the Tipton Chemical Works in 1778 at Tipton in Staffordshire to produce nitric and hydrochloric acids, red and white lead, and alkali, among other chemicals, which were used for manufacturing soap. The factory was established at the former site of Bloomsmithy Mill in an area later referred to as Black Country, due to the heavy pollution from the concentration of factories and coal mines in the region. The location in Black Country allowed them to take advantage of inexpensive fuel and the convenience of the canal for the manufacture of alkali and soap. The factory became a show place in the district due to the scale of production, which was considered second only to the Soho Engineering Works, which Keir managed for Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

Blair was involved with at least two other partnerships, one with Scottish chemist and entrepreneur, James Keir, and another with soldier and mathematician, James Glenie. Keir had lived much of his life in West Bromwich and was both a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Lunar Society. He is credited for inventing modern-day soap and for revolutionizing the Stourbridge Glass Industry and the Soho Company. Blair and Keir may have taken part in the attack on the French Island of Guadeloupe during the Seven Years War and served together in the 69th Regiment of Foot in the West Indies (Barbados & Martinique). Blair served in the British Army from 1761 to 1762, then in Ireland in 1768.

In addition to his operation of the Tipton Chemical Works, Blair partnered with Keir in 1794 to develop the Tividale Colliery, which was also located along the Birmingham Canal in South Straffordshire in the Black Country. The coal mine supplied fuel for the alkali works and geological specimens for Keir to study. In 1811, Keir turned over the Tipton operations to Blair, while Blair’s two sons took over the company until June 3, 1815, when the partnership between Blair and his sons ended and the factory ceased to be associated with their names. Blair also invested in the timber business with James Glenie. The two secured a contract importing ship timber and masts from New Brunswick; however, the business failed and Glenie went bankrupt.

Blair married a prominent London heiress Mary Johnson, the daughter of Dr. Alexander Johnson “of the Hague,” with whom he had three surviving children; Mary Margaret and twins, Alexander and Richard. He lived with his family at Castle Bromwich in Warwickshire from 1787 to 1789. In a letter to her mother in 1819, Maria Edgeworth indicates that Blair died in 1815, after having spent $10,000 a year in high London Society, gambling his money away and leaving his widow with a modest £400 a year. Unbeknownst to Keir, Blair apparently embezzled thousands of pounds from Tipton Chemical Works to pay off his gambling debts, nearly destroying the company in the process. In the end, embarrassed by his poor life decisions, he became estranged from his children. Blair’s daughter went on to write a scathing novel about her father.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

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REFERENCES

Blair, Alexander, "Mr Blair's Letter, relating to the Capture of the Morning Star." The Chronicle (London, EG), 1777.

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

Duffill, Mark. “Letter to Paul E. Lovejoy regarding Alexander Blair and Dr. Charles Irving,” unpublished report, May 29, 2007.

Duffill, Mark. “Report on Alexander Blair, Dr. Charles Irving, James Keir,” unpublished report (n.d.).

Duffill, Mark. “Report on Alexander Blair,” unpublished report (n.d.).

Schranz, Kristen M. “James Keir (1735-1820): A Renaissance Man of the Industrial Revolution.” in Jenny Uglow, ed., In the Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 1730-1810 (London: Faber & Faber, 2002).

Sullivan, Janet C. “Paying the Price for Industrialization: The Experience of a Black Country Town, Oldbury, in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” PhD Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2014.



This webpage was last updated on 2020-06-12 by Carly Downs

Alexander

Black Country, West Midlands, West of Birmingham, 19th Century.