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.

Ambrose Lace


Ambrose Lace intersected with Gustavus Vassa in two ways, although they probably never actually met. Lace was one of the most prominent slave traders and merchants in Liverpool in the last half of the 18th century. Lace operated to the Bight of Biafra, first as a ship captain on the Edgar and then as an investor in slaving voyages. His business was centered at Calabar on the Cross River, which at the time was one of the primary ports from which enslaved Africans left for the Americas, Calabar, which today is the capital of Cross River State in Nigeria, is located in what Europeans referred to as the lower Guinea coast, separated from the Bight of Benin by the Niger River Delta. The merchants that dominated the trade in this area were predominantly from Bristol and Liverpool, as was Lace. Lace's commercial dealings were the first of his connections with Vassa, who would have become aware of the activities of the major slave traders in the course of his increasing interest in combating the slave trade. Vassa's second connection with Lace, and indeed other prominent slave traders, was through the Parliamentary inquiry into the slave trade that began in March 1789 and continued over the next couple of years. Vassa regularly attended those sessions and would have witnessed Lace's testimony and heard his account of the slave trade and events in the Bight of Biafra. Based on Lace's surviving correspondence, none of which Vassa ever saw, it is clear that Lace perjured himself before Parliament in relation to his involvement in the terrible massacre at Calabar in 1767. Lace was clearly one of the leading conspirators in that incident, but he denied before Parliament that he knew anything about it. Without doubt, his testimony and that of other slave traders was the subject of extensive discussion and debate in the pubs and coffee houses of London. Vassa's interest in abolition makes it certain that he would have been aware of these discussions and most likely participated in them.

By the 1760s, the two most important wards in Calabar were Old Town and Duke Town. Old Town was led by the Robin John family which had established strong ties to English merchants and was strategically located on the Calabar River, the main tributary of the Cross River, at the narrowest point so that all traffic passing along the river could be taxed. The family was a relentless supplier of Africans who had been captured for the British ships that ventured to the Cross River. Other wards of Calabar were also active in the trade, especially Creek Town, located further inland in the Cross River Delta on Creek River. Duke Town or New Town was situated on the Calabar River at the confluence with the Cross River and was under the leadership of the Duke family. The two commercial houses of the  Robin John family and the Duke family became fierce competitors, each collecting different taxes and tolls on visiting European ships and attempting to secure a monopoly position in the trade.

In June 1767, Ambrose Lace was involved in what became known as the massacre at Old Calabar. At the time, European merchants referred to the town as "Old Calabar" rather than simply Calabar to distinguish the place from Elem Kalabari in the Niger Delta, which Europeans called New Calabar. The two ports had no connection other than the European nomenclature. In a bid to intimidate their adversaries, the Old Town traders kidnapped a prominent Liverpool ship captain and held him hostage for 29 days until he agreed to pay a hefty ransom. Infuriated, the merchant refused to engage in any further business with the Robin Johns family. The captains of the English ships then conspired with the Duke family to attack their Old Town adversaries, inviting them to board the English ships, and then ambushing them. 300-400 men from Old Town, led by Amboe Robin John, Little Ephraim Robin John, and Ancona Robin Robin John, rowed to the English ships in ten canoes. Amboe, Little Ephraim, and Ancona first boarded the Indian Queen, where they stayed the night. The next morning, Captain James Bivins arranged for the Africans to deliver a letter to Ambrose Lace. From there, they took letters to Captain James Maxwell, Nonus Parke, and Bivins. When the Robin Johns boarded Bivins’s boat, Lace instructed Bivin and his men to lock the men in the ship cabin. The crewmen, and all of the other ships, aside from the Edgar and the Concord, opened fire on the Old Town canoes. The Duke Town traders joined in the attack. Amboe was subsequently beheaded. Little Ephraim and Ancona were captured and taken prisoner. Along with 336 other enslaved Africans, the men endured the 45-day Middle Passage to the island of Dominica. Only 272 survived the journey. They were later resold into slavery in Virginia.

Little Ephraim and Ancona wrote numerous letters to slave traders involved in Calabar, pleading for their assistance in escaping. That included Ambrose Lace who had participated in the massacre, and most certainly helped to organize it. Perhaps hoping to atone for his sins or perhaps to secure a future trading partner, Lace looked after another member of the family, Robin John Otto Ephraim, in Liverpool. He enrolled him in school for two years before sending him back to Calabar. Lace considered the boy his protégé, hoping that “when his Fathers gone…the son will be a good man,” that is be his agent in Calabar.

The case of the massacre at Old Calabar came to the attention of various abolitionists in England, including Thomas Clarkson, while Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, who had issued the landmark ruling in the Somerset vs. Steward case of 1772, became involved in the efforts to free the men. On October 14, 1774, Little Ephraim and Ancona finally sailed for Old Calabar. Following multiple petitions and the efforts of British abolitionist, Clarkson convinced Members of Parliament in the House of Commons to launch a hearing into the massacre at Old Calabar in 1790. Lace was questioned during this time and denied involvement, which his surviving correspondence contradicts. He describes the chain of events leading up to the massacre in the following way:

The principal people from Old Town came on board my ship, where the duke (the principal man of Old Town) was to have met them; they came on board about half past seven in the morning; at about eight I was going to breakfast with a person who called himself the king of Old Town; there were four of the king’s large canoes alongside of my ship, where the other canoes were I cannot tell: I was just pouring out some coffee, when I heard a firing. I went upon deck along with the king, and my people told me my gunner was killed; immediately the king was for going overboard; I then told him to stay where he was; he told me he would not, he would go in his canoe, which he did; his son who was with him in my ship he left behind, but called to him in his own language to stay with me, which he did; the firing, by what I can recollect, might be for ten or fifteen minutes, but I cannot be certain as to the exact time. The canoes were most of them then got astern of my ship within about 300 or 400 yards; I had not time to make observations of the two parties, I wanted to defend myself after I was fired into; I was no further molested, the canoes were all gone.

RELATED FILES AND IMAGES

REFERENCES



This webpage was last updated on 2020-08-20 by Carly Downs

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A letter from Ambrose Lace to Thomas Jones, regarding the two merchants from Calabar, dated 11 November 1773. Floyd E. Risvold Collection: American Expansion & Journey West, Spink Shreves Gallery, Dallas, Africa and Slavery, Lot 900.

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“Calabar – Showing different wards: Creek Town, Duke Town, Old Town, Henshaw Town.”  Map of the Cross River Estuary, Calabar River (1820), Unknown Author.  

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