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.

James Watt

(1736 – 1819)

James Watt was a Scottish mechanical engineer, inventor, and chemist, best known for having improved Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine, invented in 1712. He is popularly credited with the invention of the steam engine. He was born on January 19, 1736 in Greenock, Renfrewshire to parents James and Agnes Watt. He was the sole surviving child of five, the three eldest having died in infancy and the youngest having drowned at the age of 24. His mother came from a respected family and was well educated. His father was a shipwright, ship owner and contractor. From a young age, Watt was chronically ill. As a result, he was home schooled for the first few years of his education. When he began attending a formal school, he struggled to meet standards; however, by the age of 13, he had excelled far ahead of his classmates and demonstrated exceptional skill in mathematics.

His father's workshop provided him with ample opportunity to experiment with the manufacture of mechanical parts and nautical instruments. He enjoyed watching his father work and took interest in recreating what he saw, as such he became highly skilled at making models like pulleys, pumps, capstans, barrel-organs, and cranes. He was fascinated by science, geometry and mechanics, and later took interest in geology, botany, astronomy, and anatomy. In 1753, when he was 17, his mother passed away. Her death disrupted family life in Greenock. In June of 1754, at 18 years old, he was sent to Glasgow to find an apprenticeship with a mathematical instrument maker. When he first arrived in Glasgow, he had significant difficulty as a foreigner finding work. He spent a year apprenticing with working under a mechanic who referred to himself as an optician, until his work caught the attention of Dr. Robert Dick, a Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Recognizing his brilliant mind, the Professor Dick suggested he travel to London to receive further training, where he . On June 7, 1755, Watt set out for London. It took him three weeks before he secured a job with Mr. John Morgan of Cornhill in 1755, although he did not receive compensation for his labour. Determined to prove his worth, Watt worked endless hours and his health ultimately suffered. He experienced painful bouts of rheumatism and was forced to leave London on account of his poor health. In August of that year, he travelled backreturned to Glasgow, where he . Having completed an apprenticeship in London, he hoped to set up his own shop but was denied permission. It was not until he ran into his old friend, Dr. Dick, that he was able to secured work at the University of Glasgow, repairing astronomical instruments. In 1759, he went into business with John Craig, an architect and businessman named John Craig. Craigwho provided the capital for a workshop that eventually moved to needed for expansion and the business began to grow and Watt was able to open a larger shop in Saltmarket.

In July of 1765, he wed his cousin, Margaret Miller. The couple had two children. In that same year, his business partner passed awaydied. At this time, he had already begun experimenting with the steam -engine. Of course, Watt did not actually invent the steam engine, but dramatically improved its the efficiency from the existingof the Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser. In 1763, the University of Glasgow asked him to repair a model Newcomen engine, which provided him with the opportunity to experiment with its mechanics. After much experimentation, in May of 1765, he made the fortunate discovery that uponthe condensationing of the steam by cold in a separate vessel, turning more thermal energy could be converted into mechanical energy. Recognizing the genius of this improvement, Watt invested significant capital into pursuingin a patent on the engine. . Strapped for resources, in 1767, he was forced to supplement his income by working as a land surveyor. In 1768, he entered into a partnership with British physician, chemist, and inventor, John Roebuck, the founder of the Carron Works. In 1769, his patent for "A New Invented Method of Lessening the Consumption of Stream and Fuel in Fire Engines" was finalized. The partnership between Watt and Roebuck disintegrated in 1772 when Roebuck went bankrupt. Matthew Boulton, English engineer and the manufacturer of the Soho Works in Birmingham, took over Roebuck's share in Watt's patent. The partnership between Boulton and Watt would ultimately last 25 years. In September of 1773, Watt learned his wife Margaret, pregnant with their third child, was terminally ill. She passed away soon after, his unborn child did not survive. Eager to return to his work on the steam engine, Watt moved to Birmingham in 1774. Boulton and Watt made rapid progress on the engine and in 1776, two engines were installed, one at the Staffordshire colliery and another in the shop of famous ironmaster, John Wilkinson. That same year, Watt married his second wife, Ann MacGregor who gave birth to two more of his children. From 1778 to 1780, distinguished chemist and industrialist, James Keir, assumed a management and consultant role at the Soho Company while Boulton and Watt were away perfecting their steam engine business. While it is unknown if Keir and Vassa ever met, Keir and Alexander Blair were partners in 1778 in Tipton Chemical Works, a soap manufactory that produced nitric and hydrochloric acids, red and white lead, and alkali, among other chemicals. 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. Blair and Irving hired Gustavus Vassa as the overseer of the Mosquito Shore project; however, Vassa abandoned the scheme in June of 1776.

Over the following decades, Watt made a number of adjustments to the engine. In 1790, he completed the engine with the addition ofadded a pressure gauge. In 1795, Watt and Boulton purchased a property on the Birmingham Canal, which became the Soho Foundry. Five years later, in 1800, Watt retired. The famous patent subsequently expired and Boulton and Watt's sons took over the partnership. Watt continued to experiment with various inventions until his death on August 25, 1819. His famed improvement to the steam engine is recognized as the "mechanical workhorse of the Industrial Revolution."

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REFERENCES

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

Marshall, Thomas H. James Watt (Birmingham: Leonard Parsons Ltd., 1925).

Muirhead, James Patrick. The Life of James Watt (New York, NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1859).



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

James

Portrait by Henry Howard (c. 1797), National Portrait Gallery, London.