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.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

(1752 – 1840)

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was born on May 11, 1752 in Gotha, Germany, to parents Heinrich Blumenbach, an assistant school headmaster, and Charlotte Eleonore Hedwig Buddeus, the daughter of a notable government official. He is well known for his research relating to biodiversity, commonly known as "race." He was a key figure in the early development of physical anthropology, the study of the origin, evolution, and diversity of people.

Blumenbach completed his early education in Gotha in 1769 and went on to pursue further education in medicine at the University of Jena, and later at the University of Göttingen. While at the university of Göttingen, Blumenbach studied with the language expert and naturalist Christian W. Büttner, who lectured on culture and natural history, and inspired a young Blumenbach to explore such areas of study.

Blumenbach graduated in 1775, and formally published his MD thesis, De generis humani varietate native (On the Natural Variety of Mankind) , in 1776. His dissertation was regarded as the first influential exploration of race, wherein he proposed that natural variations exist among human beings, and such variations can be studied objectively using comparative anatomy. In particular, through comparing anatomical features of human craniums, Blumenbach posited that while all human beings share a common ancestry, they could be divided into five classifications: Americans, East Asians, Sub-Saharan Africans, Indo-Europeans/North African Peoples, and Pacific peoples. He viewed the pale skinned Caucasian race as the original race and attributed the variations among humans in skin tone, and physique, to environmental factors. Though earlier naturalists, like Georges-Louis Leclerc and Carl Linnaeus, had also created typologies of the human species; they were heavily influenced by racial biases, subjective observations, and travel narratives that were not always reliable. Blumenbach claimed that his racial classifications derived from anatomical observations of racial difference, and reliable reports. Following the completion of his doctorate, Blumenbach became a curator and inspector for the natural history museum of Göttingen in 1777 and later obtained a professorship in medicine at the University of Göttingen in 1778.

Blumenbach is often referred to as the "father of physical anthropology," because he took a broad-based anatomical approach to studying human variation. He was the first individual to propose a five-part classificatory model of humanity. This view was largely derived from Thomas Bendyshe's translations of Blumenbach's key anthropological texts, which were originally written in Latin and German. Bendyshe was a pro-slavery, white supremacist from England. Modern studies have found that his interpretations of Blumenbach's racial theories were largely misinformed and overly simplistic.

While Blumenbach was not an outspoken abolitionist, he did oppose the slave trade. In two of his papers, Observations of Bodily Conformation and Mental Capacity of the Negroes (1799) and Contributions to Natural History (1805), he speaks of "the good disposition and faculties" of formerly enslaved Africans, such as Ignatius Sancho, Gustuvas Vassa, and Phillis Wheatley. In the latter paper, he concluded that "negroes, in regards to their mental facilities and capacity, are not inferior to the rest of the human race." To prove his point, he collected books written by authors with West African ancestry such as Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, and Gustavus Vassa. In 1790, Blumenbach wrote a lengthy review of Vassa's autobiography in which he deemed Vassa to be "[Yet] another virtuous Negro, who shows himself to be a useful and pleasant writer (Weider ein braver Neger, der sich als nützlicher und angenehmer Schriftsteller zeigt) ." Furthermore, Blumenbach summarizes parts of Vassa's autobiography in his review, and compliments Vassa's attentiveness and eagerness for knowledge: "He [Vassa] describes the history/narrative of his hitherto 44 years life, that admittedly contain some bitter [...] revolting experiences, but also a lot of remarkable things [···] particularly on his travels to the four parts of the world and due to his natural eagerness for knowledge and attentiveness, as well as the education and skills that he had earned, especially in nautical knowledge." That same year, Blumenbach included Vassa in his book Beyträge zur Nturgeschichte. He quotes two large passages from Vassa, one in which he describes his experience trying to convert a Miskitu elder to Christianity, and another in which he recollects military action at sea. Blumenbach used these examples to illustrate that Blacks were just as intelligent and devout as "many of their white brothers."

In 1806, Blumenbach indicated that he and Vassa had met in person. It is likely that the two met at some point between December 1791 and March 1792. During this period, Blumenbach was in England. Blumenbach's Göttingen colleague, Georg Friedrich Benecke, translated Vassa's autobiography to German in 1792. It is possible that Blumenbach personally informed Vassa about the German edition during their visit. Blumenbach may have also wished to meet Vassa so that he could observe his anatomical features or perhaps to ask him about his travels to the Arctic and his interactions with other non-Europeans. Vassa's success as a writer would have been of great interest to Blumenbach, as it illustrated how one's environment can influence one's intellect, regardless of race. It is also plausible that Vassa, aware of Blumenbach's interest in his autobiography, was first to make contact. The two men had acquaintances in common. Blumenbach had aided in the planning of Joseph Bank's exploratory missions. Banks was the President and founder of the Royal Society, the leading scientific association in Britain during this time. De Generis III was dedicated to Banks. Banks was well acquainted with Constantine John Phipps, an explorer of some acclaim. In 1773, Phipps embarked upon an exploration of the Arctic Ocean, along with the naturalist; Dr. Charles Irving, and Irving's assistant, Gustavus Vassa.

Blumenbach continued to teach at the University of Göttingen into his late years, and later published his textbook, Handbuch der Vergleichenden Anatomie (Handbook of Comparative Anatomy) in 1805, considered by many to be the most influential text on physiology and comparative anatomy. He died on January 22, 1840 in Göttingen. His skull collection is presently held at the University of Göttingen.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES
REFERENCES

Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich. "Review of the Biography of Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa)," Göettingische Anzeigen von Gelehrten Sachen (1790), 674-678.

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

MacCord, Kate. "Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840),"  Embryo Project Encyclopedia (2014).

Michael, John S. "“Another virtuous Negro”: G. Vassa and J. F. Blumenbach likely met in 1792," His Admirable Collection of Skulls: The Study of Skulls and Race: 1730-1930, published February 6, 2020. 
http://michael1988.com/?p=1038

Michael, John S. “Nuance Lost in Translation: Interpretations of J. F. Blumenbach’s Anthropology in the English Speaking World,” NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 3 (2017), 281–309.

Thomas, Helen.  Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 141.

Detailed information on Blumenbach is available at Blumenbach Online: http://www.blumenbach-online.de/index.php?id=2&L=1



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

Johann

Sketch by Hugo Bürkner (1853) in Ludwig Bechstein, ed., Zweihundert Bildnisse und Lebensabrisse berühmter deutscher Männer (1870).