TRAVELS OF GUSTAVUS VASSA THE AFRICAN



Vassa traveled extensively, having come from the interior of the Bight of Biafra, in the heart of Igboland, and taken to the coast, probably leaving via the slave port of Bonny in 1754. By his own account, he was taken to Barbados and then to Virginia, where he was bought by British naval officer, Captain Michael Henry Pascal (d. 1786) from a tobacco planter by the name of Campbell and taken to England. His subsequent travels are identified in this section of the portal.


CHRONOLOGY

This section provides an overview of Vassa’s travels from the time of his enslavement through the year of his death in 1797. For ease of reference, the section is divided into a chronological table of Vassa’s life events.

Illustration by Swain (c. 1835), Hulton Archive, Getty Images, Seattle.
Image taken from Carl B. Wadstrom’s “An Essay on Colonization,” (1794), London.
Drawing of Westminster by H. J. Brewer (1884), Parliament Online Collection: the Old Palace of Westminster, London.




Maps

Oliver and Ogborn Map

This map provides an overview of Vassa's travels. The map was prepared by Miles Ogborn, School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London. It was drawn by Edward Oliver, a cartographer also at the School of Geography. The map is discussed in greater detail in Miles Ogborn, "Global Historical Geographies, 1500-1800," in B.J. Graham and C. Nash, eds., ... Modern Historical Geographies (London: Longman Harlow, 2000). The map is published online on Brycchan Carey's website, "Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African." http://www.brycchancarey.com/equiano/index.htm



Vassa's Middle Passage

1753-1754

Born in what is now southeastern Nigeria, Olaudah Equiano was enslaved at the age of 11, according to his own testimony, and after being sold several times was taken to the port of Bonny in 1753. It appears that he boarded the slave ship Ogden, along with 243 other enslaved Africans. The captives on the ship then underwent the infamous Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. As depicted in this map, the ship arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados on May 9, 1754. Shortly after, on May 21, Olaudah was taken to Virginia on the Nancy. ... When he arrived on June 13, he was sold to a local tobacco planter known as Mr. Campbell, who apparently lived near the Potomac River not far from where Washington D.C. would later be built. A short time after his arrival, Michael Henry Pascal, a British naval officer who was trading in tobacco, arrived at Campbell's estate as a guest, probably to buy tobacco. Olaudah made an impression on Pascal, who subsequently purchased him, most likely in August or early September, for £30-40. In mid September 1754, Pascal's ship, the Industrious Bee, sailed from Virginia for England, passing by Newfoundland on route. It was at this time that Pascal gave his young slave the name Gustavus Vassa, the name that would thereafter refer to the boy who had been named Olaudah Equiano as an infant. The ship arrived in Falmouth on December 14, 1754, after a thirteen-week passage, thereby ending a Middle Passage that crossed the Atlantic twice. Vassa’s graphic account of the Middle Passage in The Interesting Narrative remains one of the most dramatic pieces of abolitionist literature to this day.



The Seven Years War

Because he was enslaved to British naval officer Michael Henry Pascal, Vassa was an involuntary participant in the Seven Years War, a global conflict that spanned the years 1756 to 1763. This map documents Vassa's travels as Pascal's enslaved servant during the period leading up to the outbreak of war until its termination. In 1755, Pascal was appointed lieutenant of the HMS Roebuck, a ship that was used to transport soldiers, and Vassa was onboard by August 6. Under Lt. Pascal, Vassa received training as a powder boy and also acquired schooling on board ship that was provided on naval vessels. ... He left the HMS Roebuck in 1756 after the formal outbreak of war with France. Pascal was transferred to the HMS Preston in December, on which he served until November 1757, whereafter he was transferred to the HMS Jason. In 1758, Pascal was assigned briefly to the HMS Royal George, one of the largest ships in the British Navy, and then was re-assigned to the HMS Namur, under the command of Admiral Edward Boscawen, which subsequently left England as the lead ship in a fleet of 17 ships bound for Canada to lay siege to the city and fort at Louisbourg, the French fort on the coast of Cape Breton that controlled the entrance to the St. Lawrence River and Quebec. The siege lasted through June and July 1758. Following their return to London, on April 14, 1759, Pascal continued as an officer on board the HMS Namur under Admiral Edward Boscawen. The ship sailed to Gibraltar where Boscawen organized an operation resulting in the Battle of Lagos Bay in mid August 1759, one of the most important British victories in the war. After this success, Pascal was appointed captain of the fireship Aetna. Vassa then accompanied Pascal on his return to London, where they remained in the fall of 1760 through the winter of 1761. On April 12, 1761, the HMS Aetna joined the fleet to attack the fortified island of Belle-en-Mer off the French coast, which lasted until June 8. The Aetna then patrolled the Basque Road, to blockade the French port of Rochefort. The war was effectively over. Pascal and Vassa arrival in Deptford on December 10, 1762, but instead of freeing Vassa as he had promised during the war, Pascal therein sold him to Captain James Doran, who set sail for Montserrat in the Caribbean on December 30, 1762.



Circum Caribbean World

Vassa was inextricably connected with the Caribbean during the 18th century. He first arrived in the Americas in Barbados in December 1754. Nine years later he was sold to a merchant based in Montserrat, and while enslaved and for a year or more after his emancipation he was involved in inter-Caribbean trade that took him to various islands, as well as Savannah, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Less than a decade later, he was employed in a plantation scheme on the Mosquito Shore of Central America, first having helped to purchased enslaved Africans in Jamaica for that scheme. ... His observations on slavery are remarkably detailed and nuanced, which was an underlying feature of his involvement in the campaign to end the slave trade and ultimately undermine slavery. Hence at a time when the circum Caribbean was playing a major role in the slave trade, Vassa was intimately connected, first as a victim, later as an unwilling participant, and finally as a vocal critic. Vassa first encountered the West Indies during the Middle Passage in June 1754, when the slave ship Ogden stopped in Bridgetown, Barbados, from where he was sold to Virginia. He did not set foot in the Caribbean again until 1763, after he was sold to Captain James Doran in London. Doran in turn sold him to merchant Robert King of Montserrat with whom he was associated for the next four years, after being sold to Merchant Robert King in 1763 and remaining in King's employ for a year after his emancipation in 1766. While enslaved to King, Vassa spent much of his time on ships commanded by Captain Thomas Farmer, an employee of King’s who commanded one of his Bermuda ships. During this time, Vassa travelled with Farmer to various islands in the Caribbean, such as Saint Eustatius, Santa Cruz, and St. Kitt’s. In 1764, Farmer became captain of King’s ship, the Prudence, which was used to transport enslaved persons from the Caribbean to British North America. In 1766, Vassa purchased his freedom from King but continued to work for him. While sailing on his ship, the Nancy, Vassa revisited St. Kitt’s where he met abolitionist, James Ramsay. He continued to travel to and from various Caribbean islands such as Jamaica and the Bahamas. The latter of the two was the site of a shipwreck in which Vassa was involved in 1767. Later that year, Vassa officially left Monserrat for London. In April 1771, he returned to the Caribbean while working as a steward under William Robertson on the Grenada Planter, a ship bound for Madeira, Barbados and Grenada. The following year, he set sail for Jamaica and Nevis while employed by Captain David Watt on the Jamaica. In 1775, Vassa accompanied Dr. Charles Irving to Jamaica on the HMS Morning Star to purchase newly arrived enslaved Africans who were identified as Igbo and would be employed on a model plantation on the Rio Grande de Matagalpa on the Mosquito Shore in what is now Nicaragua.



Vassa's European and Mediterranean Travels

Vassa’s earliest known trip to the Mediterranean was during his time enslaved to Michael Henry Pascal. Vassa accompanied Pascal on the HMS Namur when it was sent to Gibraltar to patrol the Mediterranean Sea in 1759. In 1768, Vassa later enlisted as a hairdresser on board the Delaware under Captain John Jolly. He visited Villefranche-sur-Mer and Nice in France and Livorno on the coast of Tuscany. Vassa's ship then proceeded to the Ottoman port of Smyrna (Izmir), which was a Greek city and free port in Anatolia that allowed ships from Christian Europe into the Ottoman Empire. ... The following year, he returned to Smyrna and then visited Genoa in Italy. Throughout 1774, Vassa continued his travels across the Mediterranean while employed as a steward on the Anglicana under Captain John Hughes. The ship was destined for Smyrna. In September 1774, Vassa joined Captain Richard Strange on board his ship, the Hope. During 1775, while working for Strange, Vassa visited Gibraltar for a second time, as well as Cádiz, and Málaga on the Costa del Sol.



Arctic Expedition

On May 17, 1773, Vassa was hired by scientist and inventor Dr. Charles Irving to act as his assistant aboard the HMS Racehorse, during Constantine John Phipps’s Arctic Expedition that attempted to find a northeast passage to the Far East. Irving patented a water distillation device that could transform salt water into fresh water that was being adopted by the British Navy to solve the problem of drinking water at sea. Irvin joined the Arctic Expedition to test the device at sea and to undertake a number of scientific observations and experiments. This map visualizes their voyage to the Arctic. ... On June 11, 1773, the HMS Racehorse along with its companion ship, the HMS Carcass, arrived at the Shetland Islands, passing to Greenland. Days later on June 15, the expedition reached the southern coast of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway at a latitude of 78 degrees north, and from there went as far north as 81 degrees before getting caught in the ice. After a difficult time of freeing the two ships from the ice, the expedition returned to England, reaching Deptford on September 30.



Mosquito Shore

Vassa was hired in November 1775 by Dr. Charles Irving and industrialist, Alexander Blair, as the overseer of a “model plantation” to produce castor oil and cotton on the British protectorate over the Miskitu kingdom that was known as the Mosquito Shore, south of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Rio Grande de Matagalpa. The Mosquito Shore is located on the Caribbean coast of present-day Honduras and Nicaragua. As illustrated in the map, on November 13, Vassa and Irving along with Alexander Blair disembarked from Gravesend for Jamaica with the intention of purchasing enslaved Africans for the scheme. ... Their ship, the Morning Star, arrived in Kingston, Jamaica two months later in the middle of January 1776. After Vassa helped select the enslaved Africans, who were described as his "own countrymen," that is, Igbo, the Morning Star went to Cabo Gracias a Dios and then south along the coast to the Rio Grande, discharging Vassa and the enslaved workers. The ship then went north to Black River, now Rio Tinto, which was where the British official who had the title of Superintendant, resided, but offshore two ships of the Spanish Guarda Costas seized the Morning Star. The loss of the ship and its contents cost Irving and Blair approximately £3,700, and the plantation on the Rio Grande was destroyed in torrential rains. Vassa subsequently left the Mosquito Shore with the intention of returning to Jamaica. He worked his way down the coast eventually finding employment on the sloop the Indian Queen reaching the coast of Costa Rica almost as far as Cartagena before they arrived in Jamaica. Vassa had a dispute with the ship captain regarding money that was owed to him and returned to England on another ship, the Squirrel, commanded by Captain Stair Douglas. He arrived in Plymouth on January 7, 1777.



Vassa's London

Many important events in Vassa’s life transpired in London, including his baptism in 1759, the publication of The Interesting Narrative in 1789, and his death in 1797. One of the significant locations depicted in the map is that of St. George Hospital, where Vassa received treatment after contracting chilblains and smallpox in November of 1757. He was baptized on February 9, 1759 at St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster. Vassa returned to London in 1767 after his emancipation, and first worked for Dr. Charles Irving in February 1768. During part of this time, he lived with the Guerins, the cousins of his former master, Michael Henry Pascal. ... They resided in the London suburb of Greenwich. Vassa was trained by a hairdresser in Coventry Court, Haymarket, from September 1767 to February 1768. While living in London, Vassa continued his education, which he had begun on board British naval vessels during the Seven Years War. He also worked on various ships that took him away from London, principally to the Mediterranean and also North America. He published the first edition of The Interesting Narrative in 1789; he had it printed for himself on Union Street, adjacent to Middlesex Hospital in the Fitzrovia section of London between Marylebone and Saint Pancras in Middlesex. The book was registered at Stationers’ Hall. In the fall of 1790, Vassa was residing with the founder of the radical London Corresponding Society, Thomas Hardy and his wife Lydia, at No. 4 Taylors Building on St. Martin’s Lane near St. Martin-in-the-Fields. While living there, he prepared the third edition of the Interesting Narrative. He was able to lease Plaisterers’ Hall, one of the livery companies in the City of London, sometime in late 1790 or shortly thereafter, which is where he wrote his will on May 28, 1796. Vassa leased the building for investment purposes and rented it out to various commercial enterprises. He also resided on John Street, Tottenham Court Road, in Middlesex, and at the time of his death he was living on Paddington Street in Marylebone. He was buried in the church yard of Whitefield Tabernacle on Tottenham Court Road in 1797.



Vassa's Book Tour

As a first-time author and being black, Vassa may have faced difficulty in securing a publisher, but he decided to publish The Interesting Narrative himself. He apparently did this at No. 10 Union Street near the Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia. Vassa subsidized printing costs by selling subscriptions for the book in advance of publication. Subsequently, he kept the book in print through nine editions by collecting subscribers on his book tours, to whom he sold his autobiography at a discounted rate, investing that money not only in the cost of printing but in other ventures as well, most notably leasing Plaisterer's Hall in the City of London. ... Between 1789 and 1794, he travelled to many places in England, Scotland and Ireland, signing and selling copies of his narrative. The first book tour took him to Cambridge on July 9, 1789. It is possible that he met Susannah Cullen, whom he married on April 7, 1792, on that trip because she lived in nearby Soham.
Vassa returned to London for the 1789-90 session of the abolition inquiries in Parliament. When the session came to a close and Parliament was subsequently dissolved in preparation for elections, Vassa travelled to the Midlands to seek supporters for abolition and to sell his book. By mid-June, he was in Birmingham, where he spent at least two weeks collecting subscribers for the second edition of his narrative. He travelled north to Manchester and then southeast to Sheffield, where he stayed with the Reverend Mr. Thomas Bryant, a member of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. In the fall of 1790, he returned to London where he lived with Thomas Hardy and his wife, Lydia, at No. 4 Taylor’s Buildings, St. Martin’s Lane. He took this time to prepare the publication of the third edition of The Interesting Narrative, which he put on sale at 4 shillings.
He spent much of 1791-92 travelling throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland. He first visited Nottingham and then Halifax, among other places. In February 1791, he stopped in Derby. He spent March 1791 with Law and Susannah Atkinson, a wealthy couple whose family home at Kirkheaton was on the outskirts of Huddersfield in Yorkshire. The Atkinsons purchased 100 copies of The Interesting Narrative. Vassa was in Leeds in the middle of April 1791 and then York. From there he journeyed to Ireland in May of 1791. His first stop was Dublin, where he arranged to publish the fourth edition of his autobiography. He stayed in Ireland for approximately eight months and spoke fondly of the Irish, particularly those in Belfast. He even included separate English and Irish subscription lists. After several months in Dublin, he went to Belfast. Here he may have crossed paths with African autobiographer, Wolfe Tone, founding member of the United Irishmen and eventual Republican hero, who was visiting Belfast at the same time. He was acquainted with Samuel Neilson, another radical African figure and editor of the Northern Star, who promoted the Interesting Narrative at local bookstores and other commercial establishments. In Belfast, he met his friend, Thomas Atwood Digges, who provided him with a letter of introduction to Mr. O’Brien in Carrickfergus. Vassa sailed from Ireland to Scotland at the end of January 1792 and was back in London by February, where he again stayed with Thomas and Lydia Hardy.
After his marriage in Soham in April 1792, Vassa and his wife sailed to Scotland, arriving on April 10, only three days after their wedding. The couple travelled to Paisley, Glasgow and then Edinburgh by early May. That summer they made their way to Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth, stopping in Durham and later in Hull in the fall of 1792. In late August through early September of 1793, Vassa continued his book tour. In June, he stopped in Longnor to visit Reverend Joseph Plymley. From Shropshire, he went south to Tewkesbury, where he met his Quaker contacts. After his visit to Gloucester in July, he returned briefly to London and then went to Bristol and Devizes.
Back in London he published the seventh edition of his autobiography, adding a list of Bristol subscribers. He returned to Soham for the birth of his first child, Anna Maria, who was born on October 16, 1793. He renewed his tour the following year. He spent at least four months selling his autobiography in the southeastern English counties. He first visited Suffolk in February and then Norfolk and Essex, spending much of his time in Norwich. In Norwich, he planned to publish the eighth edition of his autobiography. In Lynn and Ipswich, he gathered subscribers for the ninth and last edition of The Interesting Narrative. By the end of his tour, Vassa had also been to Newcastle, Bridgnorth, Sudbury, Worcester, Tewkesbury, Colchester, and Elland, as well as other places not mentioned here.