Sample text for Glory, passion, and principle : the story of eight remarkable women at the core of the American Revolution / Melissa Lukeman Bohrer.


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Chapter 2

Breaking the Chains of Silence:

Phillis Wheatley

In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.

-- PHILLIS WHEATLEY

Africa, 1761

The fire blazed out of control, casting a majestic red throughout the village as men, women, and children fled in terror. She struggled to keep up as her mother yelled her name, falling back every few minutes, only to be pulled forward. The crackle of the fire and the smell of burned flesh kept the terrorized seven-year-old girl going, but she reached a point when she suddenly couldn't go any farther. That is when it reached up and pulled her on, the hand she thought was her mother's. It was too late when she realized it was not. It was a different hand, a white hand, one that would take her from her family, her home, her country, and her freedom.

Phillis stood shackled to the man in front of her as she was forced to board an enormous schooner. All around her, hundreds of Africans pressed forward, every step carrying them farther away from home and closer to hell. She had looked for her mother earlier, but could not find her then, and still could not see her now.

She clutched her frail little hands in front of her and lowered her head. The wooden plank beneath her creaked and tilted, while the rough water below churned ominously. She had never been on a boat before, much less to sea. Her grandfather had told her all sorts of scary stories, though, and fear filled her heart. The bright sky -- where she had stared at the stars with her father only the night before; where she had watched her mother bow to the rising sun every morning of her short life -- slowly faded from view as she descended the stairs to the middle deck of the ship. She lifted her head one last time before the hope-filled sky.

Phillis was crammed with nearly seventy-five other girls in a room measuring only thirteen by twenty feet and only three feet, eight inches high. The ship was damp and cold; the smell of body odor and salt filled the air. The others were so close, she could feel their skin rub up against her own. The damp, choking darkness of the room suffocated her every time she tried to breathe. She curled into a little ball in the corner, where she would remain for nearly a month, thinking of her family. The ship pushed off, and the cabin filled with screams, the little girls falling on top of each other, the boat creaking loudly. Phillis looked up and caught one last glimpse of Africa, and felt an awful certainty that she would never see her parents again.

*

The sad and dreadful history of the African slave trade began in 1442, when a small Portuguese ship captured twelve blacks on a raid off the Atlantic coast of Africa. The slaves were carried back to Lisbon to become the slaves of Prince Henry the Navigator. Soon after, another expedition successfully captured 235 prisoners and carried them back to Portugal as well. By the early 1500s the slave trade was well under way, with the court at Lisbon eagerly pushing the profitable business with Africa. At that point in history both England and France looked down upon human cargo as trade, and Spain and Portugal commanded the field. By 1492, however, with Columbus's discovery of America, the idea of slave labor quickly began to take hold. Columbus and the colonists first focused on the Native Americans, a people they saw as inferior, whose lands were ripe for the taking. Many Native Americans revolted or died from the harsh labor, the brutal treatment, or white man's diseases against which they had no immunity. When this happened, the colonists looked to Africa. Charles V, king of Spain, granted a license to import slaves from Africa to the New World, and by 1540 ten thousand slaves a year were being carried in chains across the Atlantic to the West Indies, while others were taken to South America and Mexico.

The Portuguese monopoly on the slave trade began to break up when the English decided to get involved. In 1562 Admiral John Hawkins led three ships to the coast of Guinea, later called the Slave Coast: for his services, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth two years later. The Dutch pushed the Portuguese off the African coast in 1642, and by the 1700s the English and French had become the two leading nations in the trafficking of slaves. In the late 1700s Europeans were operating forty slave stations on the African coast, the great majority coming from West Africa, along the three thousand miles of coast from Senegal in the north to Angola in the south.

North America became involved late in the game when, in 1619, a Dutch ship entered Jamestown in the colony of Virginia and sold twenty slaves in exchange for food and goods. By that time a million blacks had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Caribbean. But not until 1730, when staple agriculture -- such crops as cotton, rice, and tobacco -- began to spread, did North America import sizable numbers of slaves, linking the two countries both politically and economically. The years from 1730 to the outbreak of the American Revolution saw a surge of imports: by 1776 the slave population had climbed to more than 500,000. American traders did not have their own posts in Africa, so they used those of the English. Rhode Island was the colony most active; her ships made about a thousand voyages to Africa in one century, bringing over 100,000 slaves to America. New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts actively "plied the trade" as well, although relatively few slaves were brought to the northern colonies.

The Atlantic slave trade, as it came to be known, referred to the voyage of a trader from Europe to Africa, from Africa to the Americas, and from the Americas back to Europe, with the trip from Africa to the Americas being called the Middle Passage. But while this passage was fraught with danger and death, both for the slave and the trader, the ordeal for the kidnapped slave often began weeks or months before she set foot on the deck of the ship. Slaves brought to the coast from the interior of Africa were forced to march hundreds of miles to the sea in shackles; men, women, and children were bound in iron, their feet in fetters, their necks fastened to one another by rope or twisted thongs. Skeletons littered the earth surrounding the Gambia River.

Those who survived would sometimes have to wait many weeks at the mouth of the river, chained to the ship that waited, patiently, for enough human cargo to justify its setting sail. Many perished during this brutal wait; food and drink were scarce, conditions on the ship a nightmare. The physical conditions aboard a slave ship were not fit for animals, much less humans. The ships, steeped in filth, reeking with the vile stench of human excrement basting in heat, perspiration, fish, and sea mixed together, sat at the docks ready to greet their cargo.

And then the most dangerous, brutal part of all: the Middle Passage, the sea voyage across the Atlantic in a slave ship where men, women, and children were packed like sardines into the lower recesses, not an inch separating one from another. Slaves were forced down into the lower decks, beaten, flogged, and starved. Many died of dysentery, measles, smallpox, yellow fever, dehydration, or a variety of "fevers" that spread through ships like wildfire due to the unsanitary conditions. The Spanish contracts relating to slavery usually made an allowance for a death rate of up to 40 percent during the three-to-four-month voyage. A slave named Olaudah Equiano, in an account of his time on board a slave ship, described the stench as "so intolerably loathsome it was dangerous to remain there for any time," bringing on a "sickness among the slaves of which many died." He continued by saying, "This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains...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." Men, women, and children were split up, so that even if a family had remained together through their kidnapping, by the time they were aboard the ship, they would be separated. Many children, like Phillis, had been taken from their parents and placed on one of these ships all alone. The African slave trade to the Americas lasted for more than three and a half centuries.

Boston, 1761

Susannah and John Wheatley arrived at the dock just as the slave ship Phyllis finished unloading. A handsome, aristocratic couple, they had seen the advertisement for "Slaves to Be Sold" in the Boston Evening Post the night before, and Susannah had decided it was time to purchase a young slave girl, one who would care for her in old age. The slaves she already owned were older, not as malleable, she thought. She had cultivated in them neither love nor loyalty; and there was now no chance of their being anything other than domestics. But a young girl -- that was a different story. A young girl could be loyal if treated right, if raised to know only Susannah as a mother figure; then, in old age, she would not be alone. She had children of her own -- two, in fact -- but children grow up, marry, leave home. Susannah wanted the assurance of having someone by her side when the time came.

The Wheatleys lived in an imposing mansion on Boston's residential King Street (the same King Street that would host the Boston Massacre ten years later). John, one of Boston's wealthier merchants, had begun as a tailor and had prospered with his own business. They shared two teenage children, Mary and Nathaniel. The Wheatleys were well established in Boston's upper social circles, having both wealth and Christianity on their side.

They were standing toward the front of the crowd, near the auction block, where they had a clear view of the platform lined with black men, women, and children. It was a sweltering July afternoon, and the crowd was growing impatient for the auction to begin. It was Susannah who first caught sight of the little girl, standing with the others but hidden by the larger girls in front of her. She stood at the end of the line, off to the side, wrapped only in a dirty little carpet about her waist, her two small hands holding it up. She appeared so frail and sickly, her arms and legs thin as a skeleton, her long black hair matted around her face, her eyes facing downward, that it seemed an effort for her simply to stand. The sight tugged at Susannah's heart as she made her way over to inquire.

After receiving no information from the slave master, a man too busy to be bothered with details of the child's life, Susannah bent down to look into the child's eyes: there was a desperation and fear in them, a sadness she had never seen before. She asked the girl her name, but did not receive an answer. An auctioneer, watching Susannah with bemused interest, answered that the child's name was Phillis, pointing to the ship she had just arrived in. Susannah understood immediately: the little girl's real name was unknown, her history lost. (Phillis would never regain her memory of life before her abduction, except to describe her mother as bowing to the morning sun at the start of each day. Historians have only guessed that she was an African of the Kaffir tribe who inhabit the country between Cape Colony and Delagoa Bay, or that she was an inhabitant of the Gambia River colony, or that she was possibly even from Senegal.)

"Can you speak, child?" Susannah asked, bending low enough to meet the child eye to eye.

The girl tried to open her mouth, revealing two missing teeth, but nothing came out. "The child must be only seven or eight years old, John," Susannah cried, troubled by the thought of such a young child traveling as she had, so far from her land, alone in such wretched conditions. "She is just a baby. I am quite frankly amazed she has survived the trip at all."

John looked at little Phillis himself and considered the fate she might come to in the hands of the wrong person. Even he, a slave owner, ached at the vileness of the human bondage these poor creatures endured. He owned slaves, yes; but he would never submit them to the shameless cruelties he had heard existed.

"We will take her," he said to the slave master. "How much?"

Surprised, the auctioneer looked down at Phillis and, smirking, answered, "One shilling." (Later, he revealed that he thought the girl might die on his hands.)

"Sold."

King Street, Boston, 1763

The Wheatley home on King Street was located in the hub and heart of Boston's intellectual elite, where its wealthiest, most educated citizens lived and socialized, including the Wheatleys. It was a world of glitter and gold, fashion and laughter, nightly dinners, constant entertaining, and endless conversation. An aristocratic family in eighteenth-century Boston has been called "the reputed cradle of all that is refined in American manners and letters." Much of that conversation centered on the slave trade, whose morality was being questioned by increasingly vocal opponents. Slavery was an important and almost daily topic of discussions in Boston, as was talk of restricting it. (By 1770 Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had taken steps in that direction.) Perhaps this is because the colonists were starting to have a taste of their own shackles, as Great Britain's policies toward them became increasingly oppressive. The Stamp Act was but one display of England's repeated attempts to control the colonists; the Boston Massacre another. Realization was dawning in the hearts and minds of the colonists: they disliked being enslaved to King George's policies and whims, and not having a voice in matters directly affecting their lives.

Susannah, John, and both their children had treated Phillis kindly from the start. Her age set her apart from the other servants almost immediately, as did her physical condition. It was quite clear to anyone who looked upon the poor child that she was on the verge of death. Furthermore, Susannah had made it clear from the outset that if she returned with a young girl, then that girl was to be considered hers. Phillis was given small domestic chores as she regained her strength, but most of her time, as planned, was spent attending to Susannah. She never spoke, only listened and watched.

*

As Susannah whirled down the stairs that night, carefully lifting the hem of her brocaded, floor-length satin gown, she felt irrepressibly happy at the thought of her and John being invited to the Warrens' home for dinner. They had made their acquaintance one year ago, and only now had received a proper invitation to dine with them. Mercy Otis Warren had quite a reputation for being exceptionally bright and ferociously patriotic, like her brother, James Otis; the dinner conversation promised to be interesting. When Susannah reached the bottom of the stairs, she called out to Nathaniel and John in the parlor to see if the chaise was ready. After hearing nothing, she made her way into the drawing room, and almost immediately, she spotted her. There, huddled in the corner, covered in white chalk, was Phillis.

As Susannah neared the child, moving quietly so as not to make any noise, she peered curiously in her direction, wondering what in God's name she was doing. Her newly painted lime-green wall was covered in something -- she had a sudden thought that the child was destroying her home, and felt fear well up inside her. But then she saw them: letters, English letters, all over her wall. She must have made a sound, because Phillis jumped back, chalk on her face, a look of sheer terror in her eyes. Nervously Phillis tried to wipe away the letters, but Susannah stopped her. Susannah's eyes wandered back over the wall: an A, a C, what looked like a broken B. The child was writing the alphabet. She stared, letting the realization sink in.

"Phillis, do you know how to write?" she asked, shocked that the child may have known the English language all this time.

Phillis simply shook her head.

Carefully holding up her gown, Susannah took Phillis by the arm, lifted her up, and tried to wipe some of the chalk off her face.

"Where in God's name did you learn your letters?" she asked, still shocked at the sight.

Meekly, Phillis bowed her head and simply said, "I am sorry."

"You are sorry?" Susannah replied, with a quick sort of laugh, which seemed to show she was not angry. "My dear child," she said now, in an even gentler, easier voice, "you should be proud."

Then, smiling in pride, as though this display of genius had come from her own child, she took Phillis by the hand and said, "Come now, let us get you cleaned up."

*

From that moment on, Phillis's life would take a different turn. Though Phillis had acclimated to the Wheatleys before this event, regaining strength, working quietly by day, and retiring to her servant's quarters at night, Susannah had recognized that Phillis's writing on the wall was a truly remarkable display of genius. Now, instead of the usual daily work of a domestic slave, Susannah did not "require or permit her services as a domestic." Sometimes she would allow her to "polish a table or dust an apartment," but should Phillis think of an interesting verse or be inspired with a thoughtful phrase, "the brush and duster were soon dropped for the pen." Instead, at Susannah's insistence, Phillis was to spend her time studying, and she spent hours each day being tutored by Mary. She astonished the Wheatleys when, in only six months' time, she had learned to read and write.

She was given her own room and supplied with paper and pencils and, by her bedside, a candle, should she choose to stay up late reading. She was no longer treated as a slave, but rather as a member of the family. As time went on and Phillis grew, so did her intellect, her knowledge, and her writing. She became proficient in astronomy, ancient and modern geography, ancient history, and English and Latin literature. The classics were her favorite, as was the Bible, "the most difficult parts of which she could read within 16 months." In four years she could write fluently. In fact, her translation of Ovid's Odes, published in Boston around 1769, was highly commended by scholars of the time.

The first published poem by Phillis dates back to 1767, when she was fourteen years old. This first poem, entitled "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," was printed in the Newport Mercury on December 21, 1767, and chronicled the narrow escape at sea in a storm by two of the Wheatleys' dinner guests, whom Phillis had overheard telling the story. After Phillis published this poem, the first ever to be written and published by a black woman (not to mention a slave), she became the focus of Boston's intellectual elite, attracting attention from high-ranking clergymen and aristocratic New England individuals, who visited her to marvel at her genius, offer her books, and "steal a peek at the black girl who could write. Phillis wrote five years before the dawn of the American Revolution and the birth of German idealism. She wrote before the mighty outburst of the human spirit which gave rise to Goethe, Schiller and Heine in Germany and Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley in England." Alexander Pope reigned supreme in the eighteenth century, and Phillis was an avid reader of him at an early age. Pope believed in imitation and translation, and he was the suggested model for writers at that time. His translation of Homer was her favorite classic, and before long she too began to write verse.

Not only was Phillis visited, but soon she was invited into the most exclusive homes in town, asked to dine at the same table as her hosts, and treated, generally, as an equal. Despite these gestures, however, she never considered herself a true equal -- she was a black slave, owned by a family, and no matter how sweetly she was treated when invited into other people's homes, she "always declined the seat offered her at their board, and, requesting that a side-table be laid for her, dined modestly apart from the rest of the company."

*

Though Phillis was a member of the Wheatley family, she was very much aware of the racial discrimination of the time. She had been admitted to the Old South (Congregational) Meeting House in Boston on August 18, 1771, and the following year, contrary to the traditional prejudice against blacks, had become a communicant, but she sat separately in church -- in the Negro pews. Though she never formally protested, blacks who would not comply with the dictates of the church were forcibly removed, had tar put on their pews, or were even threatened with physical violence. Discrimination was so intense in Boston that by about 1800 the black leader Prince Hall could only advise his brethren to "be patient and bear up under the daily insults we meet on the streets."

Encouraged by the enthusiastic initial reception of her work, however, Phillis continued to write, and in 1770 published another poem, "On the Death of Reverend George Whitefield," which would become the most pivotal work of her career, launching her reputation in America and extending it internationally. The poem eulogized the famous reverend, who had died on September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Part of the reason this poem hit such a nerve was its topic: Reverend Whitefield was an extremely popular English-born evangelist who preached throughout the American colonies, even converting and befriending blacks. He was known on both sides of the Atlantic as the "Great Awakener," and was considered personal chaplain to Countess Selina of Huntingdon, in London. As the countess was also close friends with Susannah Wheatley, Susannah had Phillis send her a copy of the poem on October 25, 1770, with an accompanying note. The week before Whitefield's death, he had preached in Boston, and may even have stayed with the Wheatleys in their home. The Wheatleys were frequent hosts to visiting English ministers, members of the countess's circle. If so, Phillis would have met him.

The poem would be published in at least ten editions in Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia, as Whitefield's death had garnered widespread interest, and Phillis's treatment of it, so pious, kind, and laudatory, created an enthusiastic market for her elegy.

Boston, October 1772

Phillis had been sitting in the dark, quiet hallway patiently for almost two hours, waiting to be called in. The bench was hard and cold, and her back began to feel the strain. She tapped her shoes on the marble floor, the echo offering a daunting reminder of the importance of the building, and the reason for her wait. She glanced at the ornate ceiling above her, at the intricate, architectural carvings that formed an arch over her head. The shine on the marble floor reflected the light of the stained-glass window at the end of the corridor. She marveled at the ability of man to create such beauty.

Phillis pressed her sweaty hands over her dress again, trying to both dry her hands and flatten the fabric of her dress. She wondered what Mary Wheatley, her beloved tutor, was doing now. One year earlier, Mary had married the Reverend John Lathrop and moved away from home. Phillis missed her and their daily studies together. She thought of her often -- especially today, as Mary was such a big part of the reason Phillis was there at all.

The sudden click of a doorknob interrupted her thoughts. One of the gigantic doors before her opened, and His Excellency, Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, appeared. Close behind him was Andrew Oliver, his lieutenant governor. Without a word, he motioned for Phillis to enter. She stood very nervously, afraid her feet would not carry her inside. Then, obeying his request, she picked up the manuscript that lay beside her on the bench, that well-worn collection of thoughts and prayers, verse and poetry, piety and penance, and let herself be led into the room where eighteen of Boston's most revered male citizens sat, ready to question her.

This group of "the most respectable characters in Boston" (as they would later call themselves) had assembled that day for the sole purpose of deposing Phillis on the "slender sheaf of poems" she claimed to have written by herself. It had been two years since she had published her poem to the Reverend Whitefield, and during that time she had amassed a collection of thirty-three poems to create her first volume of poetry. Despite the international acclaim heaped upon her, and the elevated status she enjoyed in local Bostonian circles, both Phillis and John Wheatley had encountered a bigoted response to her creative efforts when they tried earlier that year to publish this collection.

The Wheatleys had advertised her proposal for her first volume of poetry as early as February 1772, in the Boston Censor, then again in March, and finally in April 1772. Racist resistance sprouted up on all sides in response to the proposals. Piqued Boston whites, "not crediting the performance to be by a Negro," refused to subscribe to her volume, which they could not or would not believe had been written by a black servant girl who only a few years earlier could not read or write English. Boston publishers did not believe a black girl had truly authored the poems. Her proposals were ignored, and her volume went unpublished. John Andrews, a Boston merchant and fierce admirer of Phillis's works, noted how difficult it was to get the volume of poetry published and attributed this to "its being written by a Negro." Andrews also wrote on May 29, 1772, saying, "It's about two months ago since I subscribed to Phillis' poems but the want of spirit to carry on anything of the kind here prevented it, as they are not yet published." Stung by the rejection, Susannah had decided that the "young, black poet girl would most assuredly be published, and if not in racially prejudiced Boston, then in fashionable, sophisticated London." Susannah had contacted her good friend the countess to help in this endeavor, who had agreed.

Though the countess and others in London were thrilled with Phillis's work, others still clung to their disbelief. It may have been Susannah's idea to obtain a formal declaration of authenticity, one that vouched for the claim that a slave had indeed written the poetry in question. Whoever's idea it was, the group of men assembled were expressly concerned with determining Phillis's authenticity; they were considered the most respected, educated, and revered men of the time, and their support of Phillis, should they offer it, would go a long way toward establishing her work as real. They had gathered for an inquisition, to question Phillis, who was then seventeen or eighteen years old, on her knowledge of Latin and the classics, the Bible and literature and English verse, in what has been called "the oddest oral examination on record."

The annointed group of men included then governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts; five judges; seven reverends; three lawyers, including John Hancock (who would later gain fame for his signature on the Declaration of Independence); and John Wheatley himself, who had retired from business one year earlier and had actively been trying to help Phillis publish her poems. Historians have speculated on what actually occurred in that room. It is agreed by all that she underwent a rigorous examination of her intellect, and by the end of the long and arduous interrogation, an open letter to the public was composed, signed, and published by the committee, a two-paragraph attestation that prefaces Phillis Wheatley's first volume of poetry and reads in part:

TO THE PUBLICK

As it has been repeatedly suggested to the Publisher, by persons who have seen this Manuscript, that Numbers would be ready to suspect they were not really the Writings of PHILLIS, he has procured the following Attestation, from the most respectable Characters in Boston, that none might have the least Ground for disputing their original.

We whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following page were (as we verily believe) written by PHILLIS, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.

The attestation is undated, but it is guessed to have been written before mid-November, 1772. The Wheatleys were wise enough to realize that the attestation alone would not be sufficient, so Susannah alerted the countess and the London publishers. Susannah arranged the dedication to the countess and found a printer in London, a Mr. Archibald Bell. One month before her letter to the countess, however, Susannah had written another letter to the Reverend Samson Occum, dated March 29, 1773, stating that "Mr. Bell [the printer] acquaints me that, about five weeks ago, he waited upon the Countess of Huntingdon with the poems, who was greatly pleased with them, and pray'd him to read them; and often would break in upon him and say 'Is not this or that very fine? Do read another'; and questioned him much, whether she was real, without deception? She is fond of having the book dedicated to her, but one thing she desired, which she said she hardly thought would be denied her, that was, to have Phillis' picture in the frontispiece. So that if you can get it done, it can be engraved here. I do imagine it can be easily done, and think would contribute to the sale of the book." It seems the manuscript was in London in early December, 1772, and the printers were simply waiting to receive the painting of Phillis.

Susannah also had John write a biographical sketch of Phillis, outlining the circumstances under which she had studied in their home. John Wheatley's letter to the publisher, signed by him and dated November 14, 1772, tells of Phillis's tutelage with Mary Wheatley, and recalls the speed with which she learned to read and write the English language. He says that "as to her writing, her own curiosity led her to it," and remarks on her "great inclination to learn the Latin Tongue." Further, a preface was also written that explains the circumstance of how a female African slave might actually have written poetry. The preface reads, in part, that the poems were written for "the amusement" of the author, as she had "no intent" to publish them. Only because of the "importunity of many of her best, and most generous friends" had her writing seen the light of day, and, it continues to state, she was "under the greatest obligation" to them. It also states its hope that the reader "will not severely censure her defects," and alludes to the "difficulties she has labored under."

With the attestation, the dedication, the preface, the biographical sketch, and the manuscript of the poems in his hands, Captain Robert Calef, the Wheatleys' personal friend, sailed to London on Sunday, November 15, 1772. Arriving in London mid-December, Calef gave the manuscript to Mr. Bell, who in turn showed the papers to the countess, who not only approved of their publication but insisted on having Phillis's portrait affixed as a frontispiece. So important was the attestation in securing a publisher for Phillis's poems that without it, her publisher acknowledged, few would believe that an African could possibly have written poetry all by herself.

Summer of 1773

She awoke with a start, confused, uncertain of where she was. Her hands and arms were sweaty, and her heart beat fiercely, pounding away each second with an urgency and fear she recognized too well. For the past three nights, the same dream had startled her out of her sleep. She sat alone in a small, dark, cold room. The room rocked back and forth as she desperately searched for something to hold onto. Finding nothing, she reached for the wall, but the room would only rock harder. She lifted herself up, choking back tears, and reached for the light. She had lunged toward it and screamed for help when the water overtook her, crashing into her face, covering the light, and ending the dream.

She sat up in bed, calming herself, reminding herself she was safe in her own room. But the message of the dream was not lost to her: the fear in her dream mimicked her own real fear now, ten years later, at the thought of climbing aboard a ship and setting out upon the vast ocean. She closed her eyes at the thought of it, as if she could wipe away the terror and dread of her last voyage, knowing too well that the private hell of her past would haunt her forever.

Phillis had suffered, in that winter of 1773, unlike any other time since her arrival in America. Her health deteriorated markedly after she became severely ill with complicating consumption and almost died. Her frail body had been ravaged with coughing fits, and her strength was all but gone. Her doctor had recommended a sea voyage, in the hope that a change of environment and the sea air would help her recuperate. Nathaniel Wheatley was scheduled to travel to London on business that spring, so it seemed wise to have Phillis join him on his trip. Both Phillis and Susannah had considered the benefit of Phillis's meeting the countess in person, as the countess had repeatedly voiced her desire to meet Phillis. It had been settled, then: the voyage was to take place on the Wheatleys' own ship London, scheduled to set sail from Boston Harbor the next day, May 8, 1773.

After Phillis washed and ate breakfast, she returned to her room and steadily finished packing her belongings into the well-worn bag Susannah had provided. When she was finished, she sat on her bed, picked up her manuscript from her bedside table, and stared at it. On top lay her most recent poem, one she had written with her voyage in mind. "A Farewell to America," which had been printed in many New England papers that week, was especially personal to her because of its topic: she spoke of Susannah and their parting. It read in part:

Susannah mourns, nor can I bear

To see the crystal shower,

Or mark the tender falling tear,

At sad departures hour.

Nor unregarding can I see

Her soul with grief opprest;

But let no sighs, no groans for me,

Steal from her pensive breast.

When she finished reading it, she glanced at another piece of paper underneath it: the Attestation. She read it again, knowing each line by heart already, but always stopping at the part where they called her an "uncultivated barbarian." The sting of those words still made her reel with anger, as did the entire process she had been forced to undergo. Reflecting back on that horrendous day when she was called upon to justify and explain herself to that committee of men, she realized now that in defending her own ability, she had defended the ability of every black person to think and speak and write. She had found her voice and used it; she had defended her right to freedom, much as the colonists were fighting for and defending their right to freedom from England.

Mr. Wheatley's reassuring face throughout the ordeal had given her support, always her staunch ally. She read his letter too, though she knew it also by heart, and thanked God again for giving her to the Wheatleys. But now it was time to go. Carefully, she placed the two letters with her manuscript on top of her clothes, zipped the bag shut, and walked out of her room.

The voyage would last five weeks as planned, with both its embarkation and its passengers widely reported on in the newspapers. Good-byes were said at home, as both she and Susannah did not want an open display of emotion at the dock. Susannah was the only mother figure, the only family, Phillis had ever remembered. The trip held the promise of many dreams to be fulfilled, but as she stood perched on the doorstep of freedom, she felt bewilderingly sad. The Wheatleys had given her comfort, and the closest thing she knew to love and family. She was their slave, yes, but she had never been mistreated; on the contrary, she had been taken into the family circle, unlike many other slaves, and been treated like a white person. She had been safe with them, and safety felt good -- freedom, or what felt close to it, now felt scary.

Although she didn't realize it, real freedom was, literally, only a voyage away. The year before, in 1772, the British judge Lord Mansfield handed down the Somerset decision, which effectively freed all slaves in Great Britain. "The decision was widely understood in the following terms: As soon as a slave set his foot on the soil of the British islands, he becomes free." Therefore, when Phillis arrived in London on June 17, 1773, technically she was no longer a slave; she was, for the first time in her adult life, a free woman.

Phillis was already known in certain literary circles in England before her arrival, not only for her 1770 poem "On the Death of Reverend Whitefield," but for other poems published in England as well, such as her 1772 poem "On Recollection," which appeared first in the London Magazine, then again in the Annual Register. Though she didn't realize it as she left Boston Harbor, the world of London's wealthiest, most royal, privileged, and accomplished citizens was waiting to welcome her as a star, to actively seek out her company and invite her into their homes, where they conversed with her on many topics. Her genius and voice were widely praised, and gifts were bestowed upon her. Though her volume of poetry would not be published until the end of the summer, on September 1, 1773, her reputation preceded her. She was hailed and feted by English nobility, gentry, religionists, and abolitionists. Phillis's time in London was almost completely taken up by social invitations, literary gatherings, and parties.

Life in London was a whirlwind from the moment Phillis arrived on June 27, 1773, as invitations and gifts were showered down upon her. Sir Brook Watson, a wealthy London merchant (who would by 1796 become Lord Mayor of London) presented her with a folio edition of Milton's Paradise Lost. William Ledge, earl of Dartmouth, secretary of state for the colonies, and president of the Board of Trade and Foreign Plantations, gave her a copy of Smollet's translation of Don Quixote and five shillings to purchase Pope's works. Benjamin Franklin visited her. John Thornton, the millionaire philanthropist, became a friend (he was a great supporter of Dartmouth College, where Thornton Hall is named after him). She continued working on her volume of poetry, though it was already going through the printing process. She remained busy with revisions, writing and rewriting her work. She was permitted to interrupt the printing process to add new or revised pieces. After all she had been through in her then short life, her brief time in England was like a dream; as though she had stepped into the white world of privilege, intellect, and beauty as a member of its inner circle, not the outsider she was so used to being. Looking back, it would be the highlight of what would become her tragically short life.

Boston, September 1773

As the Boston coach carrying Phillis turned the corner from Mackarel Lane onto King Street, an autumn gust swept across her face, a chilly reminder of how the glorious summer was most definitely, and sadly, at an end. It was September 10, 1773, three months to the day since she had set sail for England with Nathaniel, and now she was returning alone. Nathaniel had stayed on for personal reasons, marrying Mary Enderby of Thames Street in London. Only the Wheatleys' servant boy, Prince, accompanied her in the chaise sent to retrieve her, she sitting properly behind him. She had not been lucky enough to be in England for the publication of her volume of poetry the week before, but instead had spent the week suffering through the long voyage back to America.

The horse pulled to a stop, and there before her eyes stood the Wheatleys' home, her home. With a mixture of sadness at what most likely lay ahead, and relief at having arrived safely from her long and lonely journey back to America, she descended from the coach and looked upon the home in all its splendor. How beautifully it stood; just as she had remembered it. Prince offered her his hand, helping her down onto the street. Slowly and sadly she walked toward the front door.

News of Susannah's failing health had come as a complete shock. The letter from Mary almost begged Phillis to return, expressing Susannah's deep wish to see Phillis one last time before the end. When Phillis received the letter, she had been in England only one month; she had not yet met the countess, the one person she had so much wished to meet and thank in person. She had prepared for the moment when she would meet her over and over in her mind, what she would say, how she would thank her. But there was no way she would ever deny Susannah her wish -- she would return to America the first chance she had. She would never actually have the chance to meet Selina, the countess of Huntingdon, her chief patron and backer. Selina, who was aging and ill, had been restricted to Wales during the time Phillis was in London. Although the countess had sent an invitation for Phillis to come visit, Phillis's loyalty to Susannah demanded her return to America. In a letter to the countess dated July 17, 1773, Phillis wrote, "Am sorry to acquaint your Ladyship that the ship is certainly to sail next Thursday on which I must return to America. I long to see my friend there. I am extremely reluctant to go without having first seen your Ladyship."

An engraving of Phillis had been made, with a striking resemblance to the original. She sent a copy of it to Susannah, who in turn set it over the fireplace and exclaimed, "See! Look at my Phillis! Does she not seem as though she would speak to me!"

In this way, then, Phillis's summer had come to an end. And now, here she stood, able to speak to Susannah and remain by her bedside, which she did, caring for her through her daily battle with pain. After fourteen weeks in bed, on March 3, 1774, Susannah died. She lived long enough to see Phillis's volume of poetry in print, however; in January 1774 the volume was made available in America, sold by Messrs. Cox of King Street and advertised prominently in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News Letter. She was said to have "extraordinary poetical genius" by the Providence Gazeteer on September 25, 1773, and was described as having "singular genius and accomplishments" by Dr. Benjamin Rush. Contemporary critics dubbed her the "girl wonder of the revolutionary age." Even Voltaire spoke of Phillis when he wrote to Baron Constant de Rebecq, "Fontenelle was wrong to say that there never would be Negro poets. There is now a Negree who composes very good English verse."

"Freedom was a vital topic in pulpit and parliament," and a new awareness of the black race as deserving of freedom was dawning in England. Phillis's strong feelings against slavery are found laced throughout her work, in many different poems. In one such poem, "On Being Brought From Africa to America," she says,

Some view our sable race with scornful eyes --

"Their color is a diabolic dye."

Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain

May be refined, and join the angelic train.

Phillis was a constant witness to the American struggle for independence, and created a canon of her own some have called political poetry. Throughout her work, passionate political statements supporting the American colonial quest for freedom are found. In 1768, in "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty," she praised his repeal of the Stamp Act:

Midst the remembrance of thy favors past,

The meanest peasants most admire the last.

She also wrote a poem called "To The Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth," wherein she clearly states her feelings:

No more, America, in mournful strain,

Of wrongs and grievance unredressed complain;

No longer shall thou dread the iron chain

Which wanton Tyranny, with lawless hand,

Has 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 snatched from Afric's fancied happy seat:

What pangs excruciating must molest,

What sorrows labor in my parents breast!

Steeled was that soul, and by no misery moved,

That from a father seized his babe beloved:

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

Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Then she wrote "America," in which she scolded Britain and implored her to treat "Americus," the British child, with more respect. According to the poem, America the child has grown into an independent being who wishes to be free of the tyrannical control her parent exerts over her. Her use of the phrase "iron chain" evokes imagery of slavery too: America longs for its independence, while robbing the Africans of theirs.

Phillis also composed a poem called "On the Affray in King Street, on the Evening of the 5th of March," referring to the Boston Massacre. She was living with the Wheatleys on King Street at the time, and there is a very high likelihood she was an eyewitness to the massacre. Unfortunately, this poem has not been found; but we know she was actively recording American political events. In Providence, Rhode Island, on October 25, 1775, she wrote a covering note to George Washington at Cambridge. Both the note and the poem appeared first in the Virginia Gazette for March 20, 1776, and then in the Pennsylvania Magazine and the American Monthly Museum of April of that same year. The poem read in part:

And so may you, whoever dares disgrace

The land of freedom's heaven defended race!

Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,

For in their hopes Columbia's arms prevails.

Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,

While round increase the rising hills of dead.

Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia's state!

Lament thy thirst for power too late.

Her letter to George Washington reads in part, "Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in."

He replied to her from Cambridge on February 28, 1776: "Your style and manner exhibit striking proof of your poetic talents; in honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity." He continued the letter by inviting her to visit him in Cambridge, "which she did a few days before the British evacuated Boston; her master, among others, having left the city by permission, and retired with his family to Chelsea."

One week before Washington sent this letter to Phillis, he referred to her poem in a letter to his adjutant Joseph Reed, again from Cambridge, on February 10, 1776: "At first, with a view of doing justice to her poetic genius, I had a great mind to publish the poem; but, not knowing whether it might be considered rather as a mark of my own vanity, than as a compliment to her, I laid it aside till I came across it again in the manner I just mentioned." Reed, upon receiving this letter, sent Phillis's letter of October 26, 1775, to George Washington to the papers himself, where they were printed in the Virginia Gazette in April, 1776, on page 1, and in the Pennsylvania Magazine that same month, when that paper was edited by Thomas Paine.

Phillis's antislavery feelings are evident not only in her poetry, but also in letters she wrote to various people at different times throughout her life. In the spring of 1774 an antislavery letter she had written to Reverend Occum was published in several New England papers. As reported in the Thursday, March 24, 1774, issue of the Massachusetts Spy, the letter read:

I have this day received your obliging, kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa....for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of oppression and pants for Deliverance -- and by the leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert that the same principle lives in us....God grant Deliverance...upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exersize of oppressive power over others agree I humbly think it does not require the penetration of a Philosopher to determine.

Phillis was seen as an example of what a black person could be capable of, touted as an example of black genius, that rare and arguably impossible thing to find.

Still, not until 1789 would the first motion against the slave trade be made in the House of Commons. Two days after the motion was made, the London daily paper the Diary reprinted Phillis's poem "An Hymn to Humanity," and one month later it would publish her poem to the earl of Dartmouth.

Not everyone loved Phillis's work. Thomas Jefferson, in whose library a copy of her Poems was found, and who was an ardent slaveholder himself, disparaged Phillis, writing, "Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry....Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem." Jefferson was a man whose feelings about blacks were particularly severe and ambiguous. He made many racist comments in his Notes on Virginia, written in 1784, and expressed doubt as to whether there was "a black anywhere who was capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid"; yet he carried on a personal affair with one of his slaves for many years, reportedly fathering her child. Phillis may have been dismissed by others as "a single example of a Negro girl writing a few silly poems," but her journey from an African slave ship to the royal court in London had been too remarkable for her to allow critics to dissuade her.

The Europeans had been grappling with the question of whether or not the African "species of men," as they were commonly called, "could ever create formal literature, could ever master the arts and sciences. If they could, the argument ran, then the African variety of humanity was fundamentally related to the European variety. If not, then it seemed clear the African was destined by nature to be a slave." Phillis was keenly aware of this sentiment; indeed, as a beloved slave of an aristocratic family in Boston, she had teetered between the two worlds of the white man and the slave her entire life, uniquely positioned to see and hear the rhetoric of freedom -- freedom for the colonists and, less so, freedom for the slaves. On the day when she was called into the hall to defend herself against accusations and doubts, she spoke as much on behalf of all Africans as for herself alone. It has been said that her success opened the door for two traditions at once -- the black American literary tradition, and the black women's literary tradition. Phillis would go on to travel a road no other black woman in the history of America had traveled: from slave to published author.

Phillis would, in later years, be called the mother of black American literature, with some going so far as to call her the mother of American writers, but her success was not hers alone; she was a woman who succeeded through the help of other women, a feat unheard of at the time. Even Anne Bradstreet had men secure her position, while Phillis's ventures were "rendered possible almost exclusively through the machinations of other women, both financially and intellectually." Even in Great Britain, women authors of this period did not publish under their real names, so Phillis's achievement was doubly meaningful; she was not only a published black female slave, but a known one: "She was certainly the most ardent female poet of the Revolution, if not, along with Philip Freneau, one of its two most poetic defenders."

*

When Susannah died, Phillis was already a free woman. In a letter to General Wooster in New Haven, dated October 18, 1773, she says that "since my return to America my Master has, at the desire of my friends in England, given me my freedom." She also makes clear how anxious she is to receive funds from his sales of her work in New Haven, "as I am now upon my own footing and whatever I get by this is entirely mine. It is the chief I have to depend upon."

Many have questioned Phillis's commitment to the fight against slavery, though, and have criticized her unwillingness or inability to speak more fervently against the oppression of her people and the anguish suffered at the hands of white American Christians. Her poetry reveals her feelings about slavery, although not as forcefully as one might hope; but her letters are also repositories for how she felt. The inherent contradiction between the colonists' fierce fight for freedom and their attachment to the institution of slavery was not lost on Phillis. William Robinson, a noted Wheatley historian, has said, "Phillis Wheatley, speaking as a free, black woman, was being quite personal and meant exactly what she said -- that the gross contradictions of a professedly freedom-loving, Christian slave master did not require the penetration of a philosopher to determine; that even a twenty year old, African born female domestic could penetrate such matters. And now, in February 1774, before the flushed faces of Boston's modern Egyptians she could point to the reality of the London-published volume of Poems as physical proof of her ability not only to fathom such bigoted contradictions but even to rise in something close to serene triumph above them."

Postscript

One month after Phillis's return to America, Nathaniel came with his English wife to Boston in September. He sailed back to England a few months later, where he died in 1783, a father of three English-born daughters. He left one third of his estate to his wife and the rest to his daughters, never mentioning Phillis at all.

Mary, Phillis's tutor, became the wife of the Reverend John Lathrop. At about the time of her mother's death, her husband was driven from his Boston Second Society Church, and they were forced to flee. The British eventually burned the building down to use it for fuel. He and Mary, en route to Norwich, Connecticut, his birthplace, stopped in Providence, Rhode Island, where he filled an empty pulpit in the First Congregation Society. He was one of a handful of Boston ministers who preached scorching sermons against the British regarding the Boston Massacre, and actually had one of his sermons published in London in 1771. Mary suffered a long weakness in which she endured great distress, and she died on September 24, 1778, at the age of thirty-five.

Phillis may or may not have lived with John and Mary Lathrop for a short while when she wrote her poem to George Washington, which is dated Providence, October 26, 1775. She had visited with Washington in Cambridge a few days before the British evacuated Boston: "She passed half an hour with him, from whom and his officers she received marked attention."

John Wheatley retired from business in 1771, and certainly Phillis was in his house as late as October 30, 1774, when she wrote a letter to John Thornton in England, saying, "My old master's generous behavior in granting me freedom, and still so kind to me, I delight to acknowledge my great obligation to him. This he did about three months before the death of my beloved mistress and at her desire as well as his own humanity." John Wheatley died in March 1778, and in his will of March 20, Phillis is not mentioned. He left his estate to his daughter and her heirs.

One month after John Wheatley's death, Phillis married a John Peters on April 1, 1778, when both were listed as "Free Negros." There is conflicting testimony regarding the character of this man, most of the negative views offered by whites, although a good part of it is positive. It was said, "He was a respectable colored man of Boston....He kept a grocery store in Court-Street, and was a man of very handsome person and manners; wore a wig, carried a cane, and quite acted out 'the gentleman.'" Also, it was said that "Peters not only bore good character, but was in every way a remarkable specimen of his race, being a fluent writer and intelligent man." There is also documented evidence that he practiced law in the courts of Boston.

Sadly, though, whatever good fortune John Peters and Phillis may have enjoyed at the start of their union soon unraveled. Forced to flee Boston in an effort to escape the besieging British, they went to Wilmington, Massachusetts, where they lived in gnawing poverty and conceived three children. "Soon after, in 1784, her husband had become so shiftless and improvident, that he was forced to relieve himself of debt by an imprisonment in the county jail."

Phillis continued to write, however, and even managed to publish proposals for a second volume of poetry to be dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, to contain thirty-three poems and thirteen letters. She advertised it for "twelve pounds, neatly bound and lettered, and Nine pounds sew'd in blue paper....The work will be put to the Press as soon as a sufficient numbers of encouragers offer." The proposals ran in the Boston Evening Post and Genera Advertiser, beginning in October 30, 1779. Sadly, they failed to attract enough interest, and the volume was never published.

Destitute, Phillis returned to Boston with her children, where she was able to stay with a kind niece of Mrs. Wheatley, an Elizabeth Walcutt. She lived with her and her daughter, Lucy Walcutt, for six weeks, helping Mrs. Walcutt in the day school the woman ran on Purchase Street, until her husband came to retrieve them. In 1784 she published an elegy "to the memory of Dr Samuel Cooper," a longtime friend who had died one month before. And when the Revolutionary War ended, she celebrated by publishing a poem called "Liberty and Peace."

She tried one last time -- three months before her death -- to interest the public in her volume of poetry, advertising in the September 1784 issue of the Boston Magazine. Again, she suffered rejection, and her work was never published. She spent the last few months of her life cleaning homes in the slums of Boston, and soon became severely ill. By this time, two of her children were dead.

Records indicate that the last months of her life were filled with exceptional hardship: "The sensitive Phillis, who had been reared almost as a spoiled child, had little or no sense of how to manage a household, and her husband wanted her to do just that; he made his wishes known at first by reproaches and followed these with downright bad treatment, the continuation of which so afflicted his wife that she grieved herself to death."

On December 5, 1784, Phillis died at the age of thirty-one with the last of her children. Her obituary was printed in several papers, and read in part, "Last Lord's Day, died Mrs. Phillis Peters (formerly Phillis Wheatley), aged thirty one, known to the world by her celebrated miscellaneous poems."

Her husband's fortunes continued to decline, as historians have concluded from the flyleaf of Wheatley's treasured gift book, Milton's Paradise Lost: "This book was given by Brook Watson, formerly Lord manor of London, to Phillis Wheatley -- and after her death was sold in payment of her husband's debts. It is now presented to the Library of Harvard University at Cambridge, by Dudley L. Pickman of Salem. March 1824."

Throughout her life, Phillis fended off offers to return to Africa and partake in missionary work as a preacher. As early as 1771, the Reverend Samson Occum advanced notions of this to her in a letter to Susannah: "Pray, Madam, what harm would it be to send Phillis to her Native Country as a Female Preacher to her kindred, You know the Quaker women are allowed to preach, and why not others in an extraordinary case?"

Phillis Wheatley wrote at least one hundred forty-five known poems, including over two dozen variants from the 1773 volume alone, and almost two dozen miscellaneous poems. The complete body of her work has been estimated to number over one hundred pieces of work, and she lived to see more than fifty of them in print. Also extant are nearly two dozen notes and letters. The large number of reprints her work has undergone (twenty reprints of her volume) is a testament to her poetry's continued and growing interest.

Copyright © 2003 by Melissa Lukeman Bohrer




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
United States -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783 -- Women.
United States -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783 -- Biography.
Women -- United States -- Biography.
Women -- United States -- History -- 18th century.