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.

John Annis


John Annis was a friend of Gustavus Vassa who had experienced slavery in the Caribbean. He spent many years enslaved under William Kirkpatrick on the island of St. Kitts. Later in his life, he was able to secure his freedom and travel to England. While he had been discharged from slavery, Kirkpatrick was a dishonest man and sought to re-enslave him. Kirkpatrick went to England in search, enlisting various ship captains to try and kidnap Annis and return him to St. Kitts. His first attempts proved unsuccessful, however.

In late 1773, Vassa had returned to London following his expedition to the North Pole under Constantine John Phipps. It was likely during this time that Annis and Vassa first met. Shortly thereafter Vassa joined the crew of Captain John Hughes’ ship, the Anglicania bound for Smyrna in Turkey. Vassa subsequently recommended Annis for a position as a cook on Hughes’ ship. Unfortunately, Kirkpatrick learned that Annis was on board while the ship was docked at Union-stairs, an area downriver from Westminster. On April 4, 1774, with the help of six men, Kirkpatrick kidnapped Annis and placed him on a return ship bound to St. Kitts. Vassa knew that Hughes and Kirkpatrick conspired against Annis, as Hughes made no attempt to rescue him nor did he pay him his outstanding wages. Thus, Vassa sought to secure Annis’s freedom.

Vassa enlisted leading abolitionist, Granville Sharp, to help rescue Annis. Sharp had become well-known in London’s African community for his legal aid in the case of James Somerset, an enslaved African who had been brought from Jamaica to England, and upon escaping servitude, was imprisoned on a return shop to Jamaica. Sharp’s contribution to the case proved invaluable. In a landmark decision, Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of King’s Bench, ruled that Somerset was a free man and that a slave master could not forcibly remove an enslaved person from England. While the Mansfield ruling did not abolish slavery, it denied slave masters the right to exercise their claims of ownership, as enslaved Africans could obtain their freedom by escaping captivity. In light of Mansfield’s decision, Kirkpatrick’s actions were clearly illegal. Sharp sought a legal judgment against Kirkpatrick as well as the captains who had conspired in his kidnapping; however, he was released on bail the following morning. The lawyer that Vassa hired on behalf of Annis was negligent. He took payment for his services yet did nothing for months, while Annis was returned to the Caribbean. Neither Vassa nor Sharp were successful in regaining Annis’ freedom. They later learned that after Annis had reached St. Kitts, he was treated with the utmost cruelty. He was chained, cut, and flogged until he died.

The Annis affair was significant for Vassa. It marked his first contact with leading abolitionist and thereafter life-long friend, Granville Sharp, who was an important influence on Vassa’s views regarding slavery. Prior to meeting Sharp, Vassa was a reformist, he did not seek to abolish slavery as an institution but merely ameliorate the conditions for those who were enslaved. He saw the kidnapping of Annis as an isolated event, not indicative of the horrors of the slave trade but rather of a uniquely cruel master. Slavery was thus unjust for Annis but not necessarily for all individuals. In 1776, Vassa was clearly reformed-oriented and willingly participated in the plantation scheme of Dr. Charles Irving and Alexander Blair on the Mosquito Shore of Central America. Vassa subsequently resigned his position as overseer of the plantation on the Rio Grande de Matagalpa due to disillusionment.

John

Aerial shot of St.Kitts Island.