In recent years the Plaisterers’ Company, along with many other livery companies, has been taking a hard look at the make-up of its membership and seeking to find ways to encourage increased diversity in age, gender and ethnicity. It has been pleasing to see the small but steady change that has been taking place and the Company is committed to this increasing.
An unexpected visitor to the Hall in 2017, Professor Paul Lovejoy from York University, Toronto Canada, an expert on what is now called the African Diaspora, opened up an interesting but forgotten aspect of the Company’s history in the second half of the 18th Century. He was looking for Plaisterers’ Hall. He found it but it was, so far as he was concerned, in the wrong place. What he was actually looking for was the Company’s second Hall rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 on the ‘old site’ on the corner of Addle Street and Philip Lane. This site just north of Wood Street Police station will shortly be marked by a blue plaque.
Why was he looking for it?
Because on 28 May 1796 Gustavus Vassa, also known as Olaudah Equiano, set his hand and seal to his Last Will and Testament in Plaisterers’ Hall. So unfolded the interesting history of a man who, though less well known than William Wilberforce and others, played a key part in the abolition of the slave trade.
In the Yearbook for 2017-18 Nigel Bamping wrote a piece on Olaudah Equiano entitled ‘THE PLAISTERERS AND THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY’. What follows is an extract, which hopefully will be of interest.
Who was Gustavus Vassa?
His story begins in Igboland, part of what is now Nigeria, then part of the Kingdom of Benin. In around 1745, a son was born to a provincial elder whose name was Equiano. The boy was called Olaudah. Raised in relative wealth, the father owned slaves, the boy had an easy time in his early years. By the mid-1700s, the slave trade between Africa and the Americas was at its height and the risk of capture was real. Slavers were working their way further and further inland so older children in the village were given the task of “look out” whilst the adults were working in the fields. One fateful day, the traders arrived and Olaudah, together with his sister, were not quick enough in their attempt to escape and were captured. They were separated and Olaudah was initially sold to an African who treated him well. Before long however, he was sold on and with others was marched to the coast. What greeted him there was a shock as he described later:
“The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast, was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror, when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled, and tossed up to see if I were sound, by some of the crew; and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions, too, were differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke, (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief. Indeed, such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment, that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.”
Placed in a slave ship bound for Barbados, he experienced the full horrors of the ‘Middle Passage’ as it was called. As he said:
“The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought in a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The wretched situation was again aggravated by the chains, now unsupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”
He arrived, alive, in Barbados but the respite was short-lived. He soon found himself en route to the English colony of Virginia (named after Queen Elizabeth I – the Virgin Queen). Here he was sold to a British Naval Officer, Captain Henry Pascal for £40.
During his voyage from Africa he had been named ‘Michael’, his first owner had called him ‘Jacob’. Pascal decided to name him Gustavus Vassa after the King of Sweden but Olaudah was having none of it saying he preferred to be Jacob. Eventually he gave in and he answered to the name Gustavus Vassa for the rest of his life, using it, as we have seen, in his Will.
When Pascal returned to England he took Gustavus with him and he served as Pascal’s valet. Consequently, he experienced the British Navy during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) during which he trained in seamanship. He served in Canada and in the Mediterranean. Pascal realised that he was an able boy and during the time that he was not at sea, arranged for him to be cared for by the Guerin family, relatives of Pascal, who taught him to read and write and to do basic arithmetic.
During this time he also became a Christian, being baptised in February 1759 at St Margaret’s Westminster with Pascal’s cousins acting as Godparents. In 1763, Pascal sold Gustavus to a Captain James Doran, who is possibly related to Past Master Robin Doran. Doran may well have been from Liverpool, a major trading and slave port, but at the time he owned the ‘Charming Sally’ based at Gravesend, Kent.
Having been baptised and Pascal having had the benefit of Gustavus’ prize money, he had had some expectation of being freed but it was not to be. Doran sailed for the West Indies with the boy on board. On arrival in Montserrat in the Leeward Islands, Gustavus was sole to an American Quaker Merchant from Philadelphia named Robert King. Although still a slave, King gave him opportunities to improve his skills and alongside working on King’s ships, Gustavus began a small business trading fruit, glass and trinkets. This was not an easy time for him. As he said: “I was often a witness to cruelties of every kind, which were exercised on my unhappy fellow slaves. I used frequently to have different cargoes of new Negroes in my care for sale; and it was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredations on the chastity of the female slaves; and these I was, though with reluctance, obliged to submit to at all times, being unable to help them.”
However, a change in his fortunes was approaching. After 4 years working for King, the proceeds of his business activities had enabled him to save £40 and he purchased his freedom in 1766.
What was Gustavus to do with his new found freedom? Wisely, initially, he decided to stick with what he knew, the sea. In 1773, he served on board ‘HMS Racehorse’, a former French Privateer, which, under the command of Commander Constantine Phipps attempted, unsuccessfully, to find the North West Passage through the Arctic to India. On that voyage he met Dr Charles Irving who subsequently made his fortune through discovering how to distil fresh water from sea water. In 1775, Irving invited Gustavus to participate in an expedition to establish sugar cane plantations on the ‘Mosquito Coast’ (what is now Nicaragua and Honduras). The venture failed and by the early 1780’s, Gustavus had returned to London.
He had managed to earn sufficient money to live modestly and through his involvement in the Methodist Church began to be influenced by the Wesleys and George Whitefield. This undoubtedly caused Gustavus to refine his views on slavery and he became involved with Granville Sharp who was one of the initial protagonists for the abolition of slavery.
In 1781, a little-known event occurred which, with hindsight, can be appreciated as one of the initial catalysts leading to abolition.
An over-capacity slave ship, ‘The Zong’ was en route to the West Indies. The crew had mis-navigated and water supplies were running low. The crew threw 130 slaves overboard and another 10, in despair, threw themselves overboard. It is thought that over 60 had perished from diseased and neglect.
The ship was owned by a syndicate of Liverpool merchants who decided to make an insurance claim on the basis of ‘general average’ under principles of Maritime Law that ‘cargo jettisoned at sea to save the remainder, can be eligible for compensation’. The Insurers refused to pay and litigation ensued. Gustavus got to hear of the dispute and, on 19th March 1783, visited Sharp to tell him about it. As the litigation was still in progress, Sharp got involved. Although the owners failed in their claim, Sharp was unsuccessful in persuading the authorities to take criminal action for murder.
All of this led Gustavus to meet many of the others who, over the next decade, led the abolitionist movement, including other freed slaves. This led him to establish the ‘Sons of Africa’ – all freed slaves living in London who began to speak out against the slave trade.
By 1786, Gustavus was sufficiently well-known to be appointed as a Commissary for the expedition to establish Sierra Leone as a ‘Province of Freedom’ particularly for ‘the black poor of London’. Granville Sharp was also involved and one of the first settlements was called Granville Town. Gustavus was far from happy with the way the settlement was being run and soon returned to London. In 1788, he was part of a delegation to present a petition against the save trade to Queen Charlotte and also a petition to the House of Commons to support William Dolden’s bill to improve conditions on slave ships. This was a turning point for Gustavus. He realised that one of the most compelling arguments against slavery was his own story. So it was that in 1789 ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, The African written by Himself’ was published.
As was not uncommon at the time, publication was financed by ‘subscribers’. Gustavus was undoubtedly fortunate to have amongst the subscribers for the first edition The Prince of Wales, The Bishop of London and other Bishops and an impressive list of Peers and MPs as wells as Josiah Wedgwood and John Wesley.
It can truthfully be said that the remainder of Gustavus’ life was almost completely overtaken by the book and its contribution to the abolition of slavery. The book was published in London, Dublin, Edinburgh and New York and also printed in Dutch. By 1794, it had achieved its 9th Edition. He toured the UK and the now independent Colonies of the USA publicising the book and its cause. It is highly likely that it was on one of these tours that he met Susannah Cullen from Soham, Cambridgeshire. Whilst not completely unheard of, a marriage between a black man and a white woman was extremely uncommon in the 1790s, but marry they did on 7th April 1792 and they settled in Cambridgeshire. The union was quickly blessed with two daughters – Anna Maria born in 1793 but who sadly died 4 years later, and Joanna born in 1795.
The most attentive of my readers will have noticed that Gustavus had taken up residence at Plaisterers’ Hall the year before his marriage, he kept it, probably as a convenient ‘pied a terre’ when he was in town and there is no evidence that he moved his family to London.
Susannah sadly died in February 1796 after a long illness at the age of 34. Gustavus himself would outlive his wife by just over a year, dying on 31st March 1797 in Paddington Street, W1, aged 52. His burial was recorded at Whitefield’s Methodist Church (now the American International Church) in Tottenham Court Road, although his grave is not marked.
Shortly afterwards the elder child died leaving one surviving daughter, Joanna to be cared for by her grandmother, Anne Cullen, who had almost certainly cared for both children following the death of their mother.Joanna was the beneficiary of Gustavus’ estate, valued at £950 (in excess of £90,000 at current value). This included goods and furniture situated at Plaisterers’ Hall, which was presumably sold following his death. In August 1821, she married The Revd Henry Bromley (a congregationalist Minister). They married at St James Clerkenwell in London and then moved to Appledore in Devon where Henry was the Minister at the Independent Chapel. After five years they moved to Clavering in Essex. They ministered there for 18 years until concern about Joanna’s health caused Henry to resign. It appears that Joanna spent most of her remaining years in London whilst Henry took roles in London and Harwich.
Joanna died on 10th March 1857, but Henry was not present. Victorian England was a small world and it is perhaps appropriate that at this point the Plaisterers should re-appear in the form of Past Master and former Lord Mayor, Thomas Kelly. A model of Victorian philanthropy, Thomas Kelly was a promoter and contributor to the setting up of one of the new suburban cemeteries, Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington – where Joanna Bramley (neé Vassa) was laid to rest.
In recent years there has been some controversy over Gustavus’ early years with some academics arguing that he was born in South Carolina rather than Africa. I have found his story, as told in the autobiography, sufficiently compelling to believe it.
What cannot be argued with, is his significant contribution to the eventual abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire by the late 1830s, following the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in August 1833. The Plaisterers’ Company can make the modest claim to have assisted Gustavus in his quest.
What would Gustavus Vassa make of 21st century London or his homeland in Nigeria? I fear he would consider that there was unfinished business and he would be right.
I will leave Olaudah Equiano to have the last word, being the final paragraph of the Narrative: “My life and fortunes have been extremely chequered, and my adventures various. Even those I related are considerably abridged. If any incident in this little work should appear uninteresting and trifling to most readers, I can only say, as my excuse for mentioning it, that almost every event in my life made an impression on my mind, and influenced my conduct. I early accustomed myself to look at the hand of God in the minutest occurrence, and to learn from it a lesson of morality and religion; and in this light every circumstance I have related was to me of importance. After all, what makes any event important, unless by its observation we become better and wiser, and learn ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God’. To those who are possessed of this spirit, there is scarcely any book or incident so trifling that does not afford some profit, while to others the experience of ages seems of no use and even to pour out to them the treasure of wisdom is throwing the jewels of instruction away.”
The Interesting Narrative and other Writings: Olaudah Equiano, published by Penguin
Afterword by Nigel Bamping
In July 2020 the Guardian newspaper ran an article on Black History which recorded the contribution of Olaudah Equiano and in the same month Past Master Alderman Alison Gowman informed me that the Museum of London (of which she is a Trustee) recorded the acquisition of a copy of his book as follows:
An historic item of great importance is a copy of Olaudah Equiano’s famous book about his life as a slave,
‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’, first published in 1789. Equiano was a leading Black campaigner for the abolition of slavery, and self-published his book for subscribers. Our copy is a third edition from 1790, complete with the author’s portrait at the front. From notes on the fly-leaves, it seems that it was originally in the library at Spains Hall, Essex, currently the home of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, but at the time, the seat of the Ruggles-Brise family, who were clothiers made good.