'On being brought from Africa to America'
(poem by Phillis Wheatley)


Reproduced here is a poem, written in 1768, that was included in the 1814 edition (p. 446) of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, 'To which are added, Poems on various subjects, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston in New England'. The poem was originally published in 1773, in Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral.

Often described as ‘the Christian poetess’, or in similar terms, Wheatley wrote poems that were morally instructive or imbued with religious feeling, such as meditations on paintings or sermons and eulogies on the death of a child or clergyman. Only occasionally did she write about slavery or the slave trade. The poem reproduced here is one example.

Even in this poem, however, Wheatley is more concerned with the ‘civilising’ effects of Christianity upon Africans and on establishing the equality of all before God. The latter was a major concern, as it was common for baptised slaves to be regarded not as Christian but merely ‘Christianised’ and thus not protected from being enslaved.

Occasionally Wheatley was more overt. In a 1772 poem addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth (the recently appointed Secretary of State for the North American colonies, who she hoped would establish a more equal relationship between Britain and America), Wheatley exclaimed:

...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?


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