ESTABLISHING CONTEXT



Establishing context is important in understanding the significance of Equiano's World and the role that Gustavus Vassa played in the abolition movement. Vassa's autobiography does not always clearly establish context, and sometimes his own misunderstandings cloud an appreciation of his own evolution as an intellectual and political activist. Vassa's rendition of the notorious "Middle Passage" has to be understood in context, for example. Similarly, Vassa's exploration of different religions is worthy of reflection, while his role in the abolition movement has spawned an important scholarly literature. That Vassa's slavery overlapped with the Seven Years War requires an understanding of where he was and when, and the impact that his risky adventures had on him. His role in the first Sierra Leone colonization scheme and his importance in the abolition movement also require some discussion. Finally, Vassa's involvement in the radical politics of London in the early 1790s help to establish the context in which his autobiography was received.

Context

The Seven Years' War

1756 - 1763

The Seven Years’ War was a global conflict that took place from 1756 to 1763 after a century-long struggle which involved five European superpowers as well as many of the middle powers. It affected Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. Conflict ensued after Austria expressed its desire to regain Silesia, a historical region of Central Europe, from Prussia. France formed a coalition with Austria, which grew to include the Electorate of Saxony and most of the smaller German states, as well as the Russian Empire, Spain and Sweden. The opposing coalition consisted of Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and a few other German states. This was the culminating point in a century of turmoil between France and Great Britain, who fought over dominance in North America and elsewhere. England officially declared war on France in 1756, after the French besieged St. Philips Castle on the island of Minorca, the British base in the Mediterranean. The two powers waged war on land and sea in nearly all parts of the world. As Britain grew more and more powerful, it eventually toppled France’s supremacy in Europe, forever altering the European balance of power. The Seven Years’ War ended in 1763 with the signing of two treaties, the Treaty of Hubertusburg, which allocated Silesia to Prussia, and the Treaty of Paris between France, Spain and Great Britain.

The Seven Years’ War was of great significance due to the massive investments of money, resources, and men. In Britain, race or enslaved status did not matter. The British government became increasingly reliant on black soldiers to defend their North American colonies, often in areas where slavery was widespread. Thousands of enslaved and free black men served the British army as foot soldiers and laborers on land, while many more were sailors aboard private ships of war and naval vessels. Black seamen had long secured employment aboard British ships that sailed the Atlantic. They found increased opportunities during wartime, shielding British America from foreign invasion, protecting its trade, and hampering that of its enemies.

There is little information documenting the experience of black soldiers during the war, but Vassa’s autobiography is an important, if not the most important, account of black naval experience during the Seven Years’ War. It is likely the only memoir of this time published by any 18th century writer of African descent. Vassa became involved in the War because he had been sold to Michael Henry Pascal, an officer of the British Royal Navy. Pascal arrived in Falmouth on December 14, 1754, scarcely six months before war broke out between Britain and France. Tensions between the European superpowers had been on the rise since the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in which Austria had lost the historical region of Silesia to Prussia. In May 1754, there were a series of military confrontations along the border separating British and French colonies in North America, further fuelling the friction between Britain and France. The most noteworthy of these confrontations took place in June of 1755, when Admiral Boscawen’s squadron overtook three French ships off of Cape Race, Newfoundland. Shortly after, an order was issued to British naval commanders that allowed them to block French shipping, but not until the following May was the war officially underway.

Serving as Pascal’s personal servant during the Seven Years’ War, Vassa had the opportunity to experience military action on both sides of the Atlantic, in Canada and in the Mediterranean. From August 1755 to December 1762, the two men spent much of their time aboard various naval vessels. In June of 1755, Pascal was appointed second or third lieutenant of the H.M.S. Roebuck, a fifth rate 40-gun frigate. The ship was used to transport troops, which included moving soldiers from large garrisons in Scotland. Both the H.M.S. Roebuck and the H.M.S. Preston, a ship that Pascal would command in January 1757 as first lieutenant, were used at points in the English Channel to blockade Le Havre. The H.M.S. Preston was a 50-gun fourth rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy. Vassa was given naval training and was tasked to haul gunpowder to the gun decks. In March of 1757, Vassa was briefly on board the H.M.S. Savage, during which time he participated in an operation to recover the H.M.S. St. George off the south coast of England. While onboard the H.M.S. Preston in 1757, he and others were sent to the Elbe estuary to retrieve William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the third son of King George II, and his crew, and evaculate them to Britain. In December of 1757, Pascal was re-assigned to the H.M.S. Royal George as sixth lieutenant. The H.M.S. Royal George was a 100-gun first-rate ship, the largest Royal Navy ship at that time. Vassa joined him on January 12, 1758.

On January 27, 1758, Pascal became the sixth lieutenant of the H.M.S. Namur, the flagship to be used in Admiral Boscawen’s impending assault on French Canada. The Namur was a 90-gun second rate ship that was instrumental in various naval victories for the British during the Seven Years’ War. Vassa accompanied Pascal on the expedition to North America. In his autobiography, Vassa gives a first-hand account of the voyage to Nova Scotia. He recounts the successful landing of British troops on Cape Breton, the events leading up to the siege of Louisburg, and the fall of the fortified city to the British. Vassa explicitly mentions Colonel James Wolfe, Captain George Balfour and Commander Laforey. Colonel James Wolfe was a British national hero, well known for his victory over the French in 1759 and for the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec in which he was a major general. Captain Balfour and Laforey were in command of the boats involved in the capture of the French ships, the Prudent and the Bienfaisant in the Louisbourg Harbour on July 26, 1758. Vassa speaks of his encounter with George Balfour, one of the naval heroes of the Louisbourg victory, indicating that Balfour was “pleased to notice me, and liked me so much that he often asked my master to let him have me.” Vassa describes the arrival of the Canadian winter, the preparations for the defence of British positions on Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, and the blockade of the St. Laurence River. In Vassa’s account of the victory of Louisbourg, he recounts the time that General Wolfe was on board his ship. He indicates that he “often honoured me, as well as other boys, with marks of his notice; and saved me once a flogging for fighting with a young gentleman.” He confirms the popular perception of Wolfe as a well-liked, affable man. While Vassa does not provide a date for this encounter, it may have been May 28, 1758, when Major General Amherst and Brigadiers General Lawrence and Wolfe were all on board the H.M.S. Namur. Vassa refers to frequent interactions with the General, at least some of which might have occurred as Wolfe returned to Britain on the Namur. The siege of Louisbourg set the stage for Wolfe’s victory in Quebec, where he died in battle. Following the Quebec victory, Pascal and Vassa sailed back to Britain on the Namur. Vassa describes an encounter between the Namur and several French ships west of the English Channel in turbulent weather. On April 14, 1759, the Namur and a fleet of ships sailed for Gibraltar, where Admiral Boscawen joined the crew on an operation in the Gulf of Lyons. Soon after, in 1759, the Battle of Lagos Bay ensued. Vassa describes in great detail his observations from the middle gun deck. He recounts that Lieutenant Pascal was wounded in battle, although he recovered quickly. Due to his heroic efforts, Pascal was appointed “master and commander” of the H.M.S. Aetna. The ship was used in the capture of the French island of Belle-Isle. Pascal was tasked to deliver various materials of war to the troops who were set to storm the Palais and the citadel. The ship was then sent to Basque Road, where Commodore Sir Thomas Stanhope’s men blockaded the French in the port of Rochefort. The ship remained at this port until the summer of 1762 when it was sent back to Portsmouth. Upon Vassa’s arrival in Deptford on December 10, 1762, he was sold to Captain James Doran, who was sailing to Montserrat in the West Indies. The war came to an end in 1763. While still enslaved during the Seven Years’ War, Vassa’s status as an officer’s servant afforded him some privileges. He was able to travel the world extensively and attended school on board the naval vessels where he learned to read and write.

Vassa’s account of the siege of Louisbourg from his autobiography:

Our hand forces laid siege to tile town of Louisbourgh, while the French men of war were blocked up in the harbour by the sleet, the batteries at the same time playing upon them from the land. This they did with such effect, that one day I saw some of the ships set on fire by the shells from the batteries, and I believe two or three of them were quite burnt. At another time, about fifty boats belonging to the English men of war, commanded by Captain George Balfour of the Aetna fire-ship, and another junior captain, Laforey, attacked and boarded the only two remaining French men of war in the harbour. They also set fire to a seventy-gun ship, but a sixty-four called the Bienfaisant, they brought off. During my stay here I had often an opportunity of being near Captain Balfour, who was pleased to notice me, and liked me so much that he often asked my master to let him have me, but he would not part with me; and no consideration could have induced me to leave him. At last Louisbourgh was taken, and the English men of war came into the harbour before it, to my very great joy; for I had now more liberty of indulging myself, and I went often on shore. When the ships were in the harbour we had the most beautiful procession on the water I ever saw. All the admirals and captains of the men of war, full dressed, and in their barges, well ornamented with pendants, came alongside of the Namur. The vice-admiral then went on shore in his barge, followed by the other officers in order of seniority, to take possession, as I suppose, of the town and fort. Some time after this the French governor and his lady, and other persons of note, came on board our ship to dine. On this occasion our ships were dressed with colours of all kinds, from the top gallant mast head to the deck; and this, with the firing of guns, formed a most grand and magnificent spectacle.

As soon as every thing here was settled Admiral Boscawen failed with part of the fleet for England, leaving some ships behind with Rear-admirals Sir Charles Hardy and Durell. It was now winter; and one evening, during our passage home, about dusk when we were in the channel, or near soundings, and were beginning to look for land, we descried seven sail[s] of large men of war, which flood off shore several people on board of our ship said, as the two fleets were (in forty minutes from the first fight) within hail of each other, that they were English men of war; and some of our people even began to name some of the ships. By this time both fleets began to mingle, and our admiral ordered his flag to be hoisted. At that instant the other fleet, which were French, hoisted their ensigns, and gave us a broadside as they passed by. Nothing could create greatest surprise and confusion among us than this: the wind was high, the sea rough, and we had our lower and middle deck guns housed in, so that not a single gun on board was ready to be fired at any of the French ships. However, the Royal William and the Somerset being our sternmost ships, became a little prepared, and each gave the French ships a broadside as they passed by. I afterwards heard this was a French Squadron, commanded by Mons. Conslans; and certainly had the French men known our condition, and had a mind to fight us, they might have done us great mischief. But we were not long before we were prepared for an engagement. Immediately many things were tossed overboard; the ships were made ready for fighting as soon as possible; and about ten at night we had bent a new main sail, the old one being split. Being now in readiness for fighting, we wore ship, and stood after the French fleet, who were one or two ships in number more than we. However we gave them chase, and continued pursuing them all night; and at daylight we saw six of them, all large ships of the line, and an English East Indiaman, a prize they had taken. We chased them all day till between three and four oclock in the evening, when we came up with, and passed within a musquet shot of, one seventy-four gun ship, and the Indiaman also, who now hoisted her colours, but immediately hauled them down again. On this we made a signal for the other ships to take possession of her; and, supposing the man of war would likewise strike, we cheered, but she did not; though if we had fired into her, from being so near, we must have taken her. To my utter surprise the Somerset, who was the next ship astern of the Namur, made way likewise; and, thinking they were sure of this French ship, they cheered in the same manner, but still continued to follow us. The French Commodore was about a gun-shot ahead of all, running from us with all speed; and about four o'clock he carried his foretop mast overboard. This caused another loud cheer with us; and a little after the topmast came close by us; but, to our great surprise, instead of coming up with her, we found she went as fast as ever, if not faster. The sea grew now much smoother; and the wind lulling, the seventy-four gun ship we had passed came again by us in the very same direction, and so near, that we heard her people talk as she went by; yet not a shot was fired on either side; and about five or six o'clock, just as it grew dark, she joined her commodore.

We chased all night; but the next day they were out of sight, so that we saw no more of them; and we only had the old Indiaman (called Carnarvon I think) for our trouble. After this we stood in for the channel, and soon made the land; and, about the close of the year 1758-9 we got safe to St. Helen's. Here the Namur ran aground; and also another large ship astern of us; but, by starting our water, and tossing many things overboard to lighten her, we got the ships off without any damage. We stayed for a short time at Spithead, and then went into Portsmouth harbour to refit; from whence the admiral went to London; and my master and I soon followed, with a press-gang as we wanted some hands to complete our complement.


RELATED FILES AND IMAGES
REFERENCES

Bollettino, Maria A. “Slavery, War, and Britain’s Atlantic Empire: Black Soldiers, Sailors, and Rebels in the Seven Years’ War,” The University of Texas at Austin ScholarWorks (2009).

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

Corbett, J. S. The Seven Years War: A Study in British Combined Strategy. (London, EG: The Folio Society, 2001).

De Bruyn, Frans and Regan, Shaun (eds.). The Culture of the Seven Years’ War: Empire, Identity, and the Arts in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2014).

Duffill, Mark. “Gustavus Vassa and the Seven Years War. A Revised Commentary, Part I,” published October 25, 2010.

Duffill, Mark. “Gustavus Vassa and the Seven Years War. A Revised Commentary, Part II,” published January 28, 2011.

Lavery, Brian. The Ship of the Line, Volume 1: The Development of the Battlefleet 1650-1850. (London, UK: Conway Maritime, 2003).

The

Painting by Richard Paton (1771) of the capture of the French ships, the Prudent and the Bienfaisant in Louisbourg Harbour, July 26, 1758. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

View Image in Full screen