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July 2009

A Union in the Black Atlantic: Phillis Wheatley and Philip Quaque
by Vin Carretta

Writing in the Black Atlantic

Phillis Wheatley

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley from her Poems on various subjects, religious and moral, London, 1773.

Image from the collections of the
John Carter Brown Library.
Not to be reproduced without permission.

The African voice in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world is rarely heard. Phillis Wheatley had one of the more well-known voices; Philip Quaque, the Anglican missionary to Africa, another. Both important figures of African descent, they met and conversed, in an oblique way, in a publication from Rhode Island.

To the Public, published by the Congregationalist ministers Ezra Stiles and Samuel Hopkins in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1776, actually contains two documents, the second of which includes two additional authors, both of African descent: the poet, Phillis Wheatley, and the Anglican missionary to Africa, Philip Quaque.  The first document, dated 31 August 1773, is a three-page proposal that had been originally distributed in manuscript to solicit contributions to “send the gospel to Guinea, by encouraging and furnishing two men to go and preach the gospel to their brethren there.” The “two men” were Bristol Yamma and John Quamine, formerly enslaved Africans who had been brought to America from the Gold Coast of Africa, in what is now Ghana. The appeal by Stiles and Hopkins for money to support the education of Yamma and Quamine to prepare them for the proposed mission is directed “to those who are convinced of the iniquity of the slave trade; and are sensible of the great inhumanity and cruelty of enslaving so many thousands of our fellow men….”

The second part of To the Public, dated 10 April 1776, reports the success of the initial proposal, with more than £100 in support received from New York, New England, London, and Scotland. Since 1773, Yamma and Quamine “have spent one winter at Princeton, under the care of Dr. Witherspoon, president of the college there.” Unfortunately, however, the present “state of our public affairs” forced them to delay their mission, which was ultimately never completed. The second part of To the Public also includes extended quotations from Wheatley and Quaque, who had each been conducting separate correspondences with Reverend Hopkins.

To the Public is of great significance to anyone interested in the African diaspora. One of the earliest abolitionist tracts, it marks the first time Quaque was quoted in print, and the only time the words of Wheatley and Quaque were published together during their lifetimes. Having been sent a copy of the original proposal, Wheatley promises to do whatever she can “in influencing my Christian friends and acquaintances to promote this laudable design.” Quaque gives a long account of his successful attempt to locate Quamine’s African family. Although Wheatley and Quaque never met, and never corresponded directly with each other, she knew of him, and he of her, through Hopkins. Thus, Hopkins in Newport, Rhode Island, was the link connecting Wheatley and Quaque in the eighteenth-century Black Atlantic network of English-speaking authors of African descent.

Vincent Carretta, a Professor of English at the University of Maryland, was a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library from January to June 2009.


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