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.

Michael Henry Pascal
Guerin Family
Robert King
King Gustavus Vasa
Ambrose Lace
John Annis
Richard Baker
King Gustav III
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.

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.

Robert King

(b. 1735)


Robert King was born in Philadelphia some time before 1735. He was a prominent merchant stationed in Montserrat and was Gustavus Vassa’s slave master from 1763 to 1766. Not much is known about his personal life, aside from him having two sisters who resided in Philadelphia, who apparently were Quakers. After sailing with Lt. Michael Henry Pascal for eight years, Pascal sold Vassa to Captain James Doran in London. Doran subsequently took Vassa to Montserrat, which would be his home for the next three and a half years. In mid-May of 1763, Doran in turn sold Vassa to Robert King, whom Doran described as the “very best master on the whole island.” King claimed to be a Quaker, although his involvement in the slave trade casts some doubt on his commitment to the Society of Friends. At the time, most Quakers saw slavery as a serious moral issue, sometimes excommunicating members who were slave dealers or owners. King was not the only Quaker to disobey the society’s rules, for many of those who lived in Montserrat saw slavery as an economic necessity in order to remain competitive in the Caribbean market. As a merchant, King dealt with a variety of goods including rum and sugar, among other things, which he purchased throughout the Caribbean with the help of his six employees and a small fleet of vessels. His vessels made many trips throughout the year, particularly to his hometown of Philadelphia, where he had connections with an unknown mercantile house. Vassa became involved in all aspects of King’s business, acting as a clerk, a barber, and a deckhand, making him invaluable.

According to Vassa, King was a model slave master. He describes him as kind, charitable, and humane. At one point, King even offered to put Vassa through school and train him as a clerk upon their return to Philadelphia. His incentive for treating Vassa in such a way was due to his belief that hospitable treatment produced the most productive slaves, as well as increased their longevity and fertility. He was often criticized by fellow owners for treating his slaves so well. He did not believe in physical punishment, and if one of his captives disobeyed or otherwise displeased him, he would merely threaten to sell them. Due to this reputation of being a “man of feeling,” those under his control appear to have served him faithfully. If he came across individuals who had been mistreated or shortchanged by their owners, he was known to supply them with food and drink and would intercede on their behalf to recoup the money that they were owed.

One of King’s employees, Captain Thomas Farmer, an Englishman who commanded a Bermuda ship, became aware of Vassa’s experience serving on trading sloops and urged King to allow him to join his crew. King initially refused, for fear that Vassa would escape, but eventually gave in and allowed Farmer to employ him for short trips. He became an indispensable member of the crew and was allowed to serve on longer voyages. This gave Vassa the leverage to demand better lodgings, more food, and a meager pay for his services. In 1764, Farmer took command of King’s ship the Prudence, bound for Philadelphia with a cargo of enslaved Africans. Prior to departure, King and Farmer threatened to sell Vassa, having heard rumours that he was planning on running away. Fortunately, Vassa was able to regain their trust and convince them otherwise.

In 1765, Vassa made another trip to Philadelphia on board King’s ship. Vassa was equipped with 42 gallons of rum and another of sugar, which he sold upon arrival in Philadelphia. That same year, King promised Vassa that if he were to raise £40, the amount that he had paid for him, he could purchase his freedom. With this in mind, Vassa utilized his increased mobility on the ship and access to various goods to start his own business, selling tumblers, glasses, and gin in Montserrat. In 1766, King purchased a much larger ship, the Nancy, which provided Vassa with extra room to store his merchandise. He was then able to sell more goods and eventually saved enough money for his purchase price. King was good on his promise and granted him his freedom. Vassa’s freedom was made official on July 11, 1766, when King wrote and signed his Certificate of Emancipation. While Vassa wanted to return to England, he continued to work for Farmer and King, no longer as a captive but as an employee. When Farmer died, Vassa saw no more reason to stay in the West Indies and in the spring of 1767, bid farewell to King before returning to England. Upon leaving, King provided Vassa with a character reference for future employment, dated July 26, 1767, which indicated that he had behaved well and was discharged with honesty and assiduity. After Vassa was gone, King suffered a number of hardships, including a flood that destroyed his home and property and almost took his life. King’s name is mentioned in a motion signed by Terry Legay, President in Council in Montserrat, on April 4, 1767, in reference to an act for cleansing and repairing the houses affected by the flood. Little else is known about his life following Vassa’s departure. According to Carretta, it is likely that Robert King was the same individual involved in a legal action launched against Walter Tulliedeph on April 13, 1769, “for Slaves other livestock and Plantation” in Montserrat.

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This webpage was last updated on 18-April-2020, Fahad Q

Robert

Frontispiece from the first edition of volume 2 of Gustavus Vassa’s autobiography. Drawing depicts the wreck of Robert King’s ship the Nancy that Vassa had assumed command.