Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Phillis Wheatley Boston’s Slave Girl Poet—Focus on Black History 2021

This portrait is often identified as Phillis Wheatley.  I have my doubts. 

On September 1, 1773 Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral was published in London thanks to the patronage of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntington.  It created a considerable stir.   The author was one of the earliest female poets whose work was issued in England.  The Puritan goodwife Anne Bradstreet had been the first resident of the Colonies of either sex to be published when The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America was issued without her knowledge or consent back in 1650.  Less than a handful of women had appeared in print since.  Even more noteworthyPhillis Wheatley was a 20 year old Boston slave who had recently visited Britain in company with her master who was eager to display her accomplishments.

All ready famous in New England, word spread across Europe.  In Paris Voltaire himself, the very embodiment of the Age of Reason, wrote that she, “became the most famous African on the face of the earth” and her work was proof that Blacks could write credible verse.  Continental Naval Hero John Paul Jones later sent her some of his own writing efforts to be considered by “Phillis the African favorite of the Nine (muses) and Apollo.”  He was just one of many Yankee notables to be astonished and impressed with her work.

Not bad for a lass who was born in West Africa in 1753 in what is now Gambia or Senegal, and sold by a local Chief to Arab slavers who put her and her mother on the auction block on the coast. Peter Gwin, master of the Phillis on the account of her owner Timothy Finch.  The girl was a sickly child about 7 years old when acquired by master tailor John Wheatley to be groomed as a body servant to his wife Susannah.

Whatever their original intentions, the quick witted, bright-eyed child soon became a family favorite and pet.  The Wheatleys were widely read and famously liberal.  They—and subsequently Phillis—attended the Old South Meeting House which became a hot bed of Patriot fervor and the launching pad for the Boston Tea Party.

Early on the Wheatley’s teen age daughter Mary began to tutor the child and was soon joined by her brother Nathaniel. 

 By the age of 12, Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. At the age of 14, she wrote her first poem, To the University of Cambridge, in New England, a tribute to Harvard College which she could never dream of attending.   Her master and mistress were kind and her household duties no more onerous than those expected of their own children.   In fact they seemed to have regarded her as a virtual daughter and taken great pride in her precocious achievements.

For her part Phillis shared the interests and passions of the family—the style of liberal Christianity that was taking hold in Boston  and shedding the harsh edges of Calvinist Puritanism, the Enlightenment ideals embraced by educated elite of the city, and the Patriot cause.  All of it would become the subject matter of her poetry.

Wheatley circulated Phillis’s work among his acquaintances and Patriot cohorts and she frequently recited at her mistress’s teas and other social gatherings.  

The image from the front piece of her book is presumably the most reliable image of the young poet.

Phillis acquired a local fame in Boston, which proved to be a dangerous thing.  Many could not believe that a Black girl could write such accomplished poems and suspected skullduggery if not worse.  It had been more than 100 years since the Salem Witch trials and they had become an embarrassment but anti-witch laws remained in effect.  Janet Horne had been burned in Scotland as recently as 1727.  Plenty of people still believed in witchery and Boston had a long history of mob violence.  African natives suspected of maintaining occult pagan practices from their tribal homes were especially vulnerable.    After all, hadn’t the Black slave Hecuba been at the very heart of the Salem accusations?    To some witchcraft was the only explanation for a Black teenager penning highly literate verse. 

The Wheatley family, prominent Patriots, had enemies of their own in rapidly polarizing Boston.  If they could be proved to be foisting a fraud for nefarious purposes on the citizens, it could discredit the whole Patriot movement.

The potential scandal grew to such serious proportions that the Wheatley family agreed to allow Phillis to be examined by a panel of some of Boston’s most distinguished residents in 1772.  The panel was actually carefully balanced.  On one hand it included the city’s most liberal Minister, the crypto-unitarian Rev. Charles Chauncey; merchant, smuggler, and Patriot leader John Hancock and on the other Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and his Lt. Governor Andrew Oliver.  A fifth member, Scottish born merchant John Erving could be considered a neutral party. 

After a close examination under which Phillis proved poised and erudite, proved that she could read and write with ease, and was able to intelligently converse on complicated theological issues, the panel issued a unanimous statement agreeing that she was the true author of the works attributed to her.   Armed with the endorsement, John Wheatley sought a Boston publisher for Phillis’s work but no local printer would touch it.  Despite the testimony of the elite, the rough and tumble—and highly maniputableBoston mob of apprentices, port idlers, and street toughs had exploded at less provocation than a Black poetess.

Wheatley’s work was often directed to famous people.  As early as 1768, she wrote To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, praising King George III for repealing the Stamp Act.  She was then only 15 years old.  Two years later she saluted the popular evangelist George Whitefield in a poem that was printed as a broadside and particularly praised.   Much of her work reflected Christian themes. 

But there were also often threads that seem to reflect her West African ancestral sun worship.  She frequently referenced the Sun, often couched in terms from classical antiquityAurora, Apollo, Phoebus, and Sol—particularly as personal inspiration.  She also used the common literary device of the Sun as a homonym for the SonChrist.   Later those pagan references were chastised in An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley by another enslaved poet, Juppiter Hammon.

What is missing from Wheatley’s work was much of the personal.  Nowhere are their girlish yearnings apart from religion.  There is no contemplation of the wonder of nature, except for the Sun and Moon and certainly no hint of love or romance.  Wheatley wanted to be seen as a woman of the mind not of the heart.

Even more striking is the absence of much mention of her condition of servitude.  She touched on in only twice, once seeming to look on it as a blessing for saving her from paganism. 


Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there's a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”

Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join t’ angelic train. 

Of course Wheatley’s personal experience in the bosom of a supportive and even loving family was far different than the norm.  Even there other slaves had to take up the menial chores that would have been expected of her while her master and mistress lavished a superior education on her and encouraged her to write.    But in another poem she made a reference to slavery as “a cruel fate” more as an observation of others than a statement of her own condition.  

In 1773 Phillis, always in delicate health, suffered from asthma that Boston physicians could not treat.  Apparently that was the main reason that John Wheatley sent his son Nathaniel to sail with her to London.  But he also sent her collected poems and the prestigious testimonial in hopes of securing a British publisher. 

Phillis Wheatley made quite a splash in London which was often enchanted by charming exotics.  She was granted an audience with the Lord Mayor of London and introduced in fashionable salons.  She also met Benjamin Franklin, then the Colonial Agent in London.  An audience with King George, who she had once honored in verse, was arranged, but she had to return to Boston with her master before the appointment could be kept.  She also corresponded with several distinguished personages.  In a letter to the Rev. Samsom Occom, a Mohegan from Connecticut who became a prominent Presbyterian minister, she praised his beliefs of how the slaves should be given their natural born rights in the Colonies.  She also corresponded with the philanthropist John Thornton who promoted her work in influential circles.

                                            The title page from Wheatley crowning achievement.

Those circles may have included the Countess of Huntington, whose personal chaplain had been George Whitefield.  Wheatley’s ode to the Evangelist had been used in an oration at his funeral and was widely circulated in England.  That is how the Countess came to underwrite Wheatley’s book without ever having met her.  She hoped the two could meet when the bookseller and publisher Archibald Bell issued her volume.

Alas, before the two could meet and before the Royal audience, Wheatley received word that her mistress had fallen seriously ill and had requested her to come home.  While she was at sea the book appeared in London to wide acclaim.  Copies would soon be sent to Boston.

The Wheatleys manumitted Phillis that October, not long after her book appeared in Boston book stalls.  Some scholars believe that for legal reasons the emancipation was not technically completed until John Wheatley’s death in 1778.  At any rate, Phillis continued to live with the family, supported by them, and given some pittance in wages.  She also had a modest independent income from the sale of her book.

Susannah Wheatley died in 1774, a stunning blow to Phillis.

Meanwhile the furor over the Stamp Act had energized and radicalized the Patriots.  After the Boston Tea Party in December 1774 Boston Harbor was closed to trade and the city was occupied by British troops.  Phillis was deeply supportive of the cause and wrote about it in verse, particularly Columbia which gained the admiring attention of none other than George Washington with whom she corresponded.  In 1775 while Washington was conducting his Siege of Boston she sent him her poem To His Excellency, George Washington to which he warmly responded. In March 1776 she was able to personally visit her hero at his headquarters at Cambridge.  The next month Thomas Paine published her patriotic verse in his Pennsylvania Gazette.

It was probably the high point of Wheatley’s life.  Things were about to go downhill in a hurry.

Both John Wheatley and his daughter Mary died in 1778 without apparently making provision for Phillis in his will.  Nathaniel was married.  Phillis was without a home and any immediate prospects.  She completed enough new work to submit a second volume of poetry but with the loss of her patrons could not afford to get it printed or to secure the advance subscription that could have made it possible.  Boston was still suffering from the loss of most of its trade due to the war and in a deep depression rendering many of her supporters unable to afford even the modest cost of a subscription.  Many of the poems intended for the book were subsequently published in newspapers or as broadsides, but they brought little, if any income.

About that time Wheatley a married a handsome, charismatic free Black named John Peters.  He was a noted dandy and very ambitious.  He operated a grocery, acted as a pettifogging lawyer to other Blacks, and had several other business schemes.  Some of Wheatley’s friends thought he was a braggart, blowhard, and schemer.  Whatever he was, he was not a good businessman or at least he could not succeed in economically depressed Boston.  Soon after Phillis lost a first child in infancy, the couple was so destitute that they often went actually hungry. She lost a second child.

Phillis found work as a scullery maid in a boarding house, the kind of physical labor that she had never performed as a slave.  Then, while she was pregnant for the third time, her husband abandoned her.  On December 5, 1784 Phillis Wheatley Peters died after childbirth.  She was 31 years old or thereabouts.  The child survived her by only hours.

Most of her known poems were finally collected and issued in the 1830.

The Wheatley statue in Boston, part of a collective monument to Massachusetts women that also includes life size bronzes of Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone.

The poem in which Wheatley addressed slavery more directly than her famous apology for it was written to a noted English abolitionist.

To The Rt. Hon. William, Earl Of Dartmouth

Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,

Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:

The northern clime beneath her genial ray,

Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:

Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,

Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,

While in thine hand with pleasure we behold

The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold.

Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies


She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:

Soon as appear’d the Goddess long desir’d,

Sick at the view, she languish’d and expir’d;

Thus from the splendors of the morning light

The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.

No more, America, in mournful strain

Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,

No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,

Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand

Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.


Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,

Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,

Whence flow these wishes for the common good,

By feeling hearts alone best understood,

I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d

That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:

Such, such my case. And can I then but pray

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?


For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,

And thee we ask thy favours to renew,

Since in thy pow’r, as in thy will before,

To sooth the griefs, which thou did’st once deplore.

May heav’nly grace the sacred sanction give

To all thy works, and thou for ever live

Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,

Though praise immortal crowns the patriot's name,

But to conduct to heav’ns refulgent fane,

May fiery coursers sweep th’ ethereal plain,

And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,

Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.


—Phillis Wheatley

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