Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American woman, visits the Tower

Earlier this month, we learned about three important poets who lived or worked at the Tower of London. Now, for Black History Month, Curator Charles Farris explores the life of Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784) who visited the Tower in 1773.

In October 1773, a woman named Phillis Wheatley wrote to Col. David Worcester of New Haven, Connecticut, describing a recent trip to London where she visited a number of attractions including the Tower of London. As a curator at the Tower, this letter is already of incredible interest. However, the significance is magnified because Phillis Wheatley was an important African American poet, and one who was successful despite being enslaved. This blog will introduce her incredible life and career.

Early Life and Education

Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753. We do not know her name of birth because she was enslaved and brought to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1761 on the Phillis, a slave ship after whom she was renamed. Arriving in Boston, Phillis was sold by slave dealer John Avery to Boston merchant John Wheatley (whose surname she was subsequently given) to act as a servant to his wife Susanna.

Phillis Wheatley was highly intelligent and, very unusually as an enslaved person, was encouraged in her academic pursuits.  This was hugely uncommon as African Americans at this time were widely prevented from even learning to read and write. While some enslaved Africans had to educate themselves in secret, Phillis studied English and Classical literature, Geography, History, and even Latin. As early as 1765, Phillis began writing poetry. Her first published poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” appeared in the newspaper The Newport Mercury in December 1767.

Phillis Wheatley, after the engraving in the frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects, 1777, possibly based on a portrait by Scipio Moorhead. © Wikimedia Commons.

Rising Fame

In 1770, Phillis published a funeral elegy dedicated to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, on the death of her chaplain Rev. Mr George Whitefield. The elegy brought her international fame and the Countess’ attention when it was published once more in London in 1771. By 1772, Phillis had written enough poems to try and publish a book. Sadly, despite her growing reputation, she was unable to get this published in Boston – likely because of prejudice against her status as an enslaved woman. Fortunately, a London publisher called Archibald Bell eventually agreed to do so. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773 and dedicated to Countess of Hereford whose patronage Phillis had secured through Bell. In total, 11 editions were published by 1816.

Visit to London

An incredible letter written by Phillis Wheatley on 18 October 1773 records her visit to London in June that year: “where I went for the recovery of my health as advis’d by my Physician”. This was likely not the only purpose of the visit and presumably she intended also to meet her patron and be present for the publication of her book. Sadly, she never met the Countess, who had retired to her house in Wales, and had to return to America before publication was complete. Nevertheless, Phillis’ fame and talents led her to be introduced to a host of famous people in London including the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander and American polymath Benjamin Franklin.

The Tower of London today © Historic Royal Palaces.

Phillis Wheatley at the Tower of London

Phillis Wheatley also visited a host of London attractions including the Tower of London, which she described in some detail. At the Tower, she was escorted by a man called Granville Sharp who worked in the Ordinance Office there at the time. Sharp was also a notable abolitionist and one imagines they had much to discuss. The menagerie clearly made an impression on Wheatley and she described being “Show’d the Lions, Panthers, Tigers, &c.” One wonders what she really thought about these captive animals, some who, like herself, had been forcefully taken from Africa.

Wheatley also visited the “Horse Armoury” and the “small Armoury” which, unlike the animals, are still kept at the Tower today. Wheatley also visited the Crown Jewels which were, at that time, held in the Martin Tower. She describes seeing “Crowns, Sceptres, Diadems, the Font for christening the Royal Family.” All of these objects remain today – although visitors should note the font Wheatley saw would be that made for Charles II in 1660/61 as the famous Lily font was not made until 1840.

Granville Sharp, from Frontispiece of Memoirs of Granville Sharp by Prince Hoare © Wikimedia Commons.

A Time of Hope

Although not described in the letter, it is tantalizing to consider what Wheatley and Sharp discussed as he showed her around the Tower. Just the year before, Sharp had been involved in the famous “Somerset Case” in which Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, had ruled that James Somerset, an enslaved man brought to England from Massachusetts by his master, could not legally be forced back to the colonies. This important judgement is considered by many as the moment slavery was abolished in England; though in reality, slavery would not be abolished for many years.  Sharp had played an important part in this case and convinced several lawyers to represent Somerset free of charge.

One suspects that Wheatley and Sharp found much to talk about. Indeed, we know that Phillis was freed by John Wheatley the following year. In her letter of 1773, she wrote: “Since my return to America my Master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom.” Perhaps Granville Sharp was one of those friends. One can easily imagine that this was a chapter of great hope and optimism in a dramatic and incredible life. Sadly, her future was not to be as fortunate as she deserved, but this remains a story for another day.

Future Research

This blog has only begun to touch the surface of the story of Phillis Wheatley, and we hope new research will uncover more of her incredible life and, in particular, her visit to the Tower of London. The letter of 1773 has been known to literary scholars for some time, but only recently came to our attention thanks to the research of one of our excellent MA students during their curatorial placement as part of the their MA in Heritage Management. The letter reminds us at Historic Royal Palaces of the numerous archives which remain untilled, the remarkable lives waiting to be explored, and the incredible stories waiting to be told.

Charles Farris
Public Historian, Curators Team
Historic Royal Palaces

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