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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Gambia’s Shakespeare: The girl who rocked the literary world at age 13

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“But how presumptuous shall we hope to find

Divine acceptance with the Almighty mind

While yet o deed ungenerous they disgrace

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And hold in bondage Afric: blameless race

Let virtue reign and then accord our prayers

Be victory ours and generous freedom theirs.”

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(Eulogy to General David Wooster)

The above is part of her works but in this case, part of a eulogy to General David Wooster, who fought and died at the Battle of Ridgefield between American and British forces during the American Revolutionary War.


About two years ago, I chronicled one of “Gambia’s” first authors, William Conton born of immigrant parents from the Caribbean. His father, Cecil Barger Conton, was from Bermuda and his mother, Olive Farquhar was from Barbados and young William Conton’s parents later settled in Sierra Leone. William at the time was said to be the first Gambian to publish a book, The African in 1960 but history would now have to correct that title unfortunately as another “Gambian” beat him to it almost 100 years earlier. William would later become the Chief Education Officer of Sierra Leone

July 11, 1761

It was on 11 July 1761, when a ship called Phillis, docked at Boston harbour in the United States from West Africa, carrying a cargo of 75 enslaved Africans and among them was a young seven or eight year old “Gambian” girl. Her age was determined by the fact that her front teeth had fallen off which is normal around the age of 7 and 8.

She was bought by a wealthy Bostonian Susanna Wheatley, whose domestic slaves were already old and she wanted a younger maid who would attend to her when she became old and so it was not by accident that she bought a seven-year-old girl. She could train her and would be in her prime by the time Susanna has reached old age.

By 1765 at age 13, she wrote a letter to Rev Mr Occum, the Indian Minister ( See Poems of Phillis Wheatley, A Native African and a Slave, page ??,

Proof of Gambian nationality

Some accounts indicated she was Senegalese but the link to the National Park Services confirms that the ship docked in Senegal but Phillis was Gambian. She was old enough to tell where she was from. Let us not allow others to claim her. She is our own Gambian Shakespeare.

1. “Through the years, readers have longed to know what Phillis Wheatly’s life was like before she was kidnapped into slavery. Sadly, Phillis only mentioned Africa three times in her writings and letters, including the memory of her mother pouring out water before the sun and of being snatched from her father’s arms. Because she never said what her name had been in Africa, I chose the word Janha  to use as her name. The word simply means “girl” in Wolof, which was probably her native tongue. It would not have been her name,  but because naming is so important  in her culture, the story could not have been told without giving her a name.

We do not know about Phillis’s siblings or the exact village she came from, but she did write that that she came from Gambia, which would mean from the region of we now call Senegambia. (Freedom’s Pen: A Story Based on the Life of Freed Slave and Author Phillis Wheatley (Daughters of the Faith Series) Paperback – January 1, 2009, page 133)

2. This link to the National Park Services (Boston) has even more exciting information about the Boston voyage from Senegal and how young Wheatley from Gambia ended on the slave ship named Phillis. She was named after the slave ship and took the last name of her master John Wheatley.

Attestation that Phillis was capable of writing the poems

Young Phillis was taught at home by her mistress Susanna and within four years she started writing letters and poems and her prolific writing and given her circumstance, it was not for long that she was exposed to the literary world. A slave with no formal education, finding time between her daily chores to grasp a foreign language and to be comfortable enough to not only speak but write poems, attracted attention.

Many refused to accept that she was capable of writing those poems and so on October 8, 1772, she was interviewed by a group of 18 well-respected men of the area in order to determine if she was in fact capable of writing those poems. Some prominent personalities like the Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts Andrew Oliver, Reverend Samuel Mather including John Hancock, who was the President of the Second Continental Congress of United States, was also the first and third Governor of Massachusetts and also a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence.

These 18 highly respected Boston personalities in the end signed an attestation that young Phillis was capable of writing her poems. Below is the text of the attestation:

“As it has been repeatedly suggested to the Publisher, by persons, who have seen the 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 under-written, 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:

His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Governor

The Hon Andrew Oliver, Lieutenant-Governor

The Hon Thomas Hubbard

The Hon John Erving

The Hon James Pitts

The Hon Harrison Gray

The Hon James Bowdoin

John Hancock, Esq

Joseph Green, Esq

Richard Carey, Esq

The Rev Charles Chauncey, DD

The Rev Mather Byles, DD

The Rev Ed Pemberton, DD

The Rev Andrew Elliot, DD

The Rev Samuel Cooper, DD

The Rev Mr Samuel Mather

The Rev Mr John Moorhead

Mr John Wheatley, her master

NB. The original attestation, signed by the above gentlemen, may be seen by applying to Archibald Bell, Bookseller, No 8, Aldgate-Street (Phillis Wheatley. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral).”

Her master John Wheatley also wrote to the publisher about young Phillis describing her circumstance and manner of education:

Phillis was brought from Africa to America, in the year 1761, between seven and eight years of age. Without any assistance from school education, and by only what she was taught in the family, she, in sixteen months time from her arrival, attained the English Language, to which she was an utter stranger before, to such a degree, as to read any, the most difficult parts of the sacred writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.  

As to her writing, her own curiosity led her to it; and this she learnt in so short a time, that in the year 1765, she wrote a letter to the Rev Mr Occom, the Indian Minister, while in England.  

She has a great Inclination to learn the Latin tongue, and has made some progress in it. This relation is given by her master who bought her, and with whom she now lives.

John Wheatley

Boston, Nov 14, 1772

Young Phillis communicated with some of the founding fathers of America including George Washington for whom she dedicated a poem and later met in person. Washington would respond to the dedication that “however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical talents”.

Thomas Jefferson was however unkind to Wheatley in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “[R]eligion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” (see Thomas Jefferson. Notes On the State Of Virginia, Laws).

French national Voltaire, wrote that Wheatley’s works produced “de très-bons vers anglais” (meaning very good English verse).

Even King George III had an appointment with her while she was in London but had to cancel it because her mistress, Susanna was ill and she needed to return to the United States to attend to her.  This girl was a celebrity and was sought after by people in high society.


Wheatley was criticised for some of her poems by modern critics especially the one below which appears to support the institution of slavery and being thankful for being taken out of Africa. My suspect is that she had to write such in order to maintain her privileges because as a slave, she could lose them without notice. I would not be unkind to her given her circumstance. It is easier to criticise her today.

On Being Brought From Africa to America

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Abolitionist found great rallying cries and a poster child in young Phillis as they were able to show the world that the African is capable of intellect and therefore not sub-human.

I hope to see in the 2021 Tourism Brochure an article on young Phillis and her achievements despite the odds as the first African-American to publish and use that to our advantage. We must showcase her as our own and perhaps erect a giant statue in her honour at the airport or at Brusubi Turntable to raise awareness.

Attached is a picture of a statue of Phillis Wheatley on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston with the inscriptions as the publisher of the first book in the United States by an African. If Boston can, we too should recognise her, because she is our very own.

Gambia is a small country but with big brains. Let’s celebrate our own.

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