Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784)

First Black female poet and mother of Black literature

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773 (SHC ref 1487/118, p. 1)

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773
(SHC ref 1487/118, p. 1)

Today, Phillis Wheatley is renowned for being the ‘Mother of Black Literature’. Her work ‘Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’ was published in 1773 and Surrey History Centre holds a first edition of this work among the papers of the Ware family of Tilford House and its estate, Surrey (SHC ref 1487/118/1). It is a wonderful example of the unexpected treasures to be found among the Surrey History Centre archives.

However, Phillis’ story is a far cry from the glamour of literary circles we know today……

In 1761, Phillis Wheatley was purchased as a child slave by Boston tailor, John Wheatley.  Through the efforts of his wife Susanne, Phillis was lucky enough to be educated and at the age of fourteen began writing poetry.  Unable to find an American publisher, Mrs Wheatley found a publisher in England who was willing to take Phillis’s work.  To help the promotion of the work permission was obtained to dedicate it to the Countess of Huntingdon, and Phillis’ book of poems was published.  This was a first for a Black woman.  The Countess insisted that a portrait of Phillis appear inside the front cover and Phillis travelled to London to publicise the book.

Poem by Phillis Wheatley, ‘On being brought from Africa to America’, from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773, (SHC ref 1487/118/1)

Poem by Phillis Wheatley, ‘On being brought from Africa to America’, from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773, (SHC ref 1487/118/1)

On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted [s]oul to under[s]tand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither [s]ought nor knew,
Some view our [s]able race with [s]cornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Chri[s]tians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

The language in the above reflects the attitudes of the time.

Much of Phillis’ poetry reflects her classical and religious education in the Wheatley household and only the line ‘Some view our sable race with scornful eye’ hints at her feeling of racial inferiority or the injustice of belonging to a perceived lesser race.

After John and Susanne Wheatley died. Phillis was forced to support herself as a seamstress but continued her poetry.  In 1778, she married John Peters, a free Black man who ran a grocery store in Boston.  His business failed and Phillis was then forced to find work again as a servant to support herself and her children.  She wrote poetry up until her death, including poems celebrating the end of the American Revolution, which were published in 1784.  No further work was published and she died in poverty in Boston on 5th December 1784.

Phillis Wheatley’s contribution to American and Black literature is immense and her literary and artistic talents proved that education should be freely given to African Americans and that they were equally capable – an key argument of the abolition movement.

Who owned this book?

The Ware family’s copy of the book of poems by Phillis Wheatley in inscribed inside the front cover as being owned by Ursula Maitland. Ursula (1756-1836), had previously been widowed (married name of Polhill) but she later married James Ware FRS (1756-1815), an eye surgeon, and they had 8 children, 6 of whom survived infancy, Ursula, Martin, James, Robert, John and Ebenezer.

The Ware family were devoutly Christian; some were Anglican, others Noncomformist, and they were involved in a huge number of philanthropic concerns. With this in mind it makes perfect senses for Ursula to have owned such a book and we assume that she was anti-slavery and interested in Christian writings, as well as literature.

Sources:

Phillis Wheatley,  Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773 (SHC ref 1487/118, p. 1)

Find out why Phillis Wheatley is featured on The Jurors artwork at Runnymede here.

Find out more about Phillis Wheatley on the Africans in America website http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p12.html.

Discover more about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry with the Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/phillis-wheatley.

Read a blog by Staffordshire Archives and Heritage Centre about a letter and poem of Phillis Wheatley in the archives of the Earl of Dartmouth https://shcvolunteers.wordpress.com/2020/08/17/finding-phillis/

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