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.



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


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.

Dr. Charles Irving

(d. 1780s)

Dr. Charles Irving was a naval surgeon and inventor from London, who employed Gustavus Vassa on several occasions. He was well-known for his invention of an apparatus designed to make sea water drinkable, although there is some debate as to whether he stole the distillation method from Dr. James Lind or if he merely adjusted the method to be more efficient. The device could also be used to transform harsh alcoholic liquids into palatable spirits. In 1770, the technology was adopted by the Royal Navy, and he was awarded £5,000 by the government. It is likely that Irving got into medicine, either through an apprenticeship with a surgeon; by training at an English hospital or private medical school; or by studying at a European University. He was not licensed by the Royal College of Physicians based in London and would have been unable to set up practice in England. He first hired Vassa in 1768 as a hairdresser in Pall-Mall. In 1772, Irving employed Vassa to help him with his water distillation apparatus, likely having him assist with the operation of the device on two ships on Captain James Cook’s second voyage of exploration in the Pacific Ocean. In 1773, Irving joined the crew of the HMS Racehorse on an Arctic Expedition led by Constantine Phipps to test the device at sea, along with Vassa, who acted as his assistant. The Arctic expedition intended to explore a possible sea route to the Pacific eastward past Scandinavia and Russia but failed to do so. The expedition proved that there was no passage through the ice, ultimately could not reach the North Pole and otherwise achieved very little scientifically. The expedition was overshadowed by Pacific voyages during the same period. Upon returning to London, Vassa continued to work for Irving. He may have assisted Irving with several other experiments concerned with the collection and preservation of zoological and botanical specimens as well as some survey work at two or more locations in the Svalbard Archipelago.

In November of 1775, Irving and Alexander Blair enlisted Vassa as the overseer of a “model plantation” scheme to produce castor oil and cotton on the British-controlled Mosquito Shore, south of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Rio Grande de Matagalpa. 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, owned a successful soap manufactory in Tipton. The Mosquito Shore was an ideal location for the plantation as Ricinus Communis, the plant from which castor oil is extracted, grew wild on the coast. Vassa was hired due to his fluency in Igbo, as he accompanied Irving to Jamaica on the Morning Star to recruit fellow Igbo men and women from an array of newly arrived captives from West Africa. Vassa apparently believed that Irving’s plan was to create a plantation of enslaved Africans who would work under ameliorated conditions, with the opportunity to eventually become free workers. The plantation would be supervised by Vassa. Irving envisioned his scheme as a model for the immigration of settlers and the establishment of a beachhead to conquer the Spanish colonies in the interior. Because of torrential rains, the Matagalpa experiment was a failure, and Vassa became disillusioned. In June 1776, Vassa abandoned the plantation and worked on a ship that traveled down the Central American coast in search of mahogany. After spending a short time in Jamaica, Vassa made his way back to London According to Vassa’s testimony, the conditions on the Mosquito Shore took a turn for the worst after he left, and the Igbo slaves drowned attempting to escape. Vassa felt responsible for the deaths of the workers, which further propelled him toward the abolitionist cause.

On April 30, 1776, two Spanish vessels of its coast guard seized Irving and Blair’s boat 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. Following the failure of Mosquito Shore venture, Irving was involved with the British invasion of Nicaragua in 1879-1780, mapping a possible route inland from Bluefields and recruiting Miskitu mercenaries for the invasion. His last known whereabouts were in Jamaica. Vassa erroneously reported that he died from eating “poisoned fish,” probably a metaphorical reference to his wish that Irving would come to no good, but in fact Irving married a widow and inherited her plantation upon her death and otherwise appears to have prospered until his own death sometime in the 1780s.

A known associate of Irving’s was Scottish inventor, James Watt, whose “watt steam engine” was instrumental in bringing the changes accompanied with the industrial revolution to Britain and the rest of the world. Watt occasionally stayed with Irving when he was in London on business. There is also some evidence to suggest that Irving may have supervised an engineering project for the engineering and manufacturing firm of Boulton & Watt.

Irving associated with many other important anti-slavery activists in London, although his views on the abolition of slavery are not certain. He was a free-thinking reformer, having helped to arrange the return of four enslaved Miskitu leaders to Central America in 1775 and even providing passage on his ship for their voyage. Vassa described Irving as a tolerant and supportive employer and friend who played an important role in his intellectual development, encouraging him to attend night school and continue with his studies in the practical arts.


Duffill, Mark. “Letter to Paul E. Lovejoy on Dr. Charles Irving,” unpublished report, October 21, 2009.

Duffill, Mark. “Report on Dr. Charles Irving’s Distillation Apparatus,” unpublished report (n.d.).

Duffill, Mark. “Report on Dr. Charles Irving and James Watt,” unpublished report, 2009.

Duffill, Mark. “Vassa Report No. 2,” unpublished report, July 24, 2008.

Duffill, Mark. “Vassa Report No. 3,” unpublished report, September 6, 2008.

Duffill, Mark. “Vassa Report No. 4,” unpublished report, September 13, 2008.

Duffill, Mark. “Vassa Report No. 10,” unpublished report, November 25, 2008.

Lovejoy, Paul E. “Alternatives to Revolution and Insurrection – Olaudah Equiano and the Abortive Plantation Scheme of Dr. Charles Irving on the Mosquito Shore,” in Rina Cáceres Gômez and Paul E. Lovejoy eds., Revolución, Independencia Y Emancipación: La Lucha Contra La Esclavitud (San José: UNESCO, 2005).

Lovejoy, Paul E. “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African,” Slavery and Abolition 27:3 (2006), 317-347.

Savours, Ann. “A Very Interesting Point in Geography: The 1773 Phipps Expedition towards the North Pole,” Unveiling the Arctic 37:4 (1984), 402-428.

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


Charles Irving’s apparatus for distillation of seawater.