Phillis Wheatley


Frances Burrell was beyond excited to attend this particular meeting of the Ladies Whoosit Club. The Whoosit Club was a members only group of proper young ladies who one Sunday a month would meet at the Gentleman’s Club in Piccadilly. The Gentleman’s Club did not allow ladies to enter but for the afternoon of the first Sunday of every month when the ladies would have a speaker of interest. The selection committee prided itself on its choices from Prime Ministers to poets to artist to politicians. Some were quite famous but the real catches were the “up and coming but not yet famous” and it was quite prestigious for the speaker to be so selected. The artists Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, Joshua Reynolds and Angelika Kauffmann spoke there. As did Dr. Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edmund Burke. It was no secret that by the 1770’s Ladies of the Whoosit Club had a political cause that they supported, the worldwide elimination of slavery and its most ugly sister, the slave trade. Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton all spoke eloquently there about its elimination. Lord Mansfield spoke of his recent decision in the Somersett Case which declared slavery “odious” and against British Law and the effect it might have on slave owners in America in a talk he entitled “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Frances preferred not to attend alone and often cajoled her older sister to accompany her. Although the sisters Burrell often attended together, their interests had grown to be quite diverse. As young children they were inseparable, often spending the entire day together working in their garden at Langley Park or on their horses riding off together for hours. As they grew older, when they would ride Isabella habitually would break into a gallop and Frances could not keep up and found herself alone in the countryside of County Dunham until Isabella would return with some hurtful remark about how unadventurous Frances was. Frances took to spending hours grooming her horse and would decline to ride with Isabella. Now that their father accepted a seat on Parliament and the sisters moved to London, attending the Whoosit Club was about all they did together.  Isabella preferred hearing from the swashbucklers; the soldiers and explorers who talked of their wild adventures. Frances liked the thinkers whether they be poets or playwrights or philosophers or preachers. She liked the world of ideas and the people who debated them. It was they, according to Frances, who really moved the world forward. By this time in 1774 Isabella’s thoughts were somewhere else, contemplating her future as spouse of the second son of the Duke of Northumberland, a wedding already set for the couple to take place in 1775.

On this particular Sunday, the guest was an American poetess names Phillis Wheatley. It was not Wheatley’s poetry that Frances looked forward to discuss as she had not read any. It was the fact that Phillis Wheatley was a living breathing slave, who as a girl from Senegambia had been kidnapped to be sold and was now owned by the Wheatley family in Boston Massachusetts. Now here in London Phillis Wheatley was trying to fulfill the wishes of her mistress and drum up support for the potential sale of a book of her poems. She had a few things going for her. The London literati truly liked her work, though they were divided as to whether her naiveté was endearing or clumsy. But even more to her benefit was the politics of it all. The antislavery movement was fledgling; mostly a thought among some well to do that England had committed great sins in profiting from the slave trade and in establishing colonies in the Americas that were dependent on slavery. Led by the Quakers, there was a new awareness that it was time to end such abominations and Frances wanted to be part of that movement. Frances had never met a slave before, the institution being historically disfavored in England, and she wanted to see what a cultured slave looked like, although she would have been just as impressed to meet an illiterate working slave.

When the subject of a Whoosit Club meeting had to do with slavery, the meeting was run by the Quaker women who were an important part of the group. These ladies insisted that the meeting be run somewhat in the style of a Quaker meeting. The group would gather in silence and not a word was to be spoken until the leader commenced the gathering, which could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, which was an interminable time to sit quietly for poor Isabella who did not want to be there at all.  Phillis Wheatley sat facing the club members, sitting with Elizabeth Corman, the Quaker lady running this meeting. The members of the Whoosit Club used the silence to look over Phillis Wheatley, who was a little bit of a thing. She looked younger than her nineteen years and when the silence broke she told her story explaining to the gathering of mostly wealthy women that she was saved from the toil that most slaves had to endure by her sheer luck. She happened to end up in the house of a Boston tea merchant who had an intelligent worldly daughter named Mary Wheatley who loved poetry and read it aloud whenever she could. As a young child Phillis Wheatley would hear the wondrous words of William Shakespeare and John Milton and would recite portions of their work aloud herself from memory. Secret at first but then openly Mary taught the slave first to read and then to write and then to write poetry. By age sixteen Phillis had written much poetry in English and some in Latin to the amazement of many in Boston. She was encouraged by her mistress Susanna Wheatley to write poetry although when she attempted to sell her work many in Boston labelled her a fraud, arguing that it was impossible that a dark girl from Africa had the ability to write such things. “It must have been the mistress’s words”, so many would say that a trial was held in Boston and Phillis acquitted herself well with her poetry on demand. At the trial, John Hancock requested a few lines about spring and Phillis Wheatley wrote:

In vain the feather’d warblers sing

In vain the gardens bloom

And on the bosom of the spring

Breathes out her sweet perfumes.

That was good enough for the eighteen gentlemen of Boston who signed off on her authorship although it was unclear if they adjudged that there was any value to her work.

Frances Burrell was mesmerized by this little woman. Seventeen years old herself, she too had dabbled in poetry but knew in her heart she lacked the finesse of the young slave girl. But her questions that day were not about poetry, they were about life.

“Where did you get the name Phillis Wheatley from?” Frances asked.

“Wheatley is the family name of those that own me now and they have owned me since I was but a child.” Phillis responded.

“What about Phillis?” Frances continued. “Is that a common name amongst your people?”

“Phillis was the name of a boat,” Phillis Wheatley continued. “It was the boat that brought me from Africa to America.” Phillis Wheatley said this so matter-of-factly that its significance was lost to many in the room.

“The boat that brought you from Africa to America?” Frances continued. “You mean that today you bear the name of the slave ship that took you from your native land to the colonies.” There were gasps from the ladies of the Whoosit Club

“That is correct m’lady”, Phillis said. ‘On that ship the woman to my left died at sea as did the child to my right. I told them that I would never forget them and I never have. Were I to write this book it will surely be dedicated to them and all the others of similar fate.”

“Yet your poetry is full of grace and love, not bitterness and hate. If it was me I would not be able to write what you do, that I can say for certain.”

“M’Lady”, Phillis engaged. “Here we sit in London England a long way from the suffering of so many. The fine things that surround us here may hide the blood that runs through them, and they are beautiful things nonetheless. I am thankful every day for my life and that I have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as you have. Whether I am free or a slave today would not have saved that woman or child. I am not here to save them or even to save myself, I am here to do what I was sent to do, which is to recite my poetry.”

An older woman in fine clothing spoke next. “Miss Wheatley, there are men among us in London who can bring your circumstance to the courts who will surely declare you to be free. No woman with a Christian soul such as yours was meant to be a slave. We have successfully petitioned our courts on behalf of others to acknowledge the value of a Christian soul. We stand ready to act on your behalf.”

“I thank you madam for the kind offer and thank you all for the chance for you to hear my poems. I am afraid I must return to my home at the soonest that I can. I received a message just today that my mistress Susanna Wheatley has taken ill and has asked for my return. I wish nothing more than to return to Boston forthwith.”

“Even if that means your return to slavery? How can this be?” Frances blurted.

“M’Lady”, Phillis Wheatley looked at Frances Burrell with a stare that she would never forget. “You and I are both quite young and many adventures await us. I do not fault you for the comforts you admire. Please do not fault me for the life I choose. I know hardships await and my fate will not be as yours. I have learned much in my youth and above all I have learned that an easy life awaits no woman so I do not aspire to it. I am confident in my path.” Frances did not know what to make of this woman. She could not stop thinking about Phillis Wheatley for days and weeks long after Phillis Wheatley took leave of England to return to Boston, her book never having been sold and some of her poems perhaps never having been written. Frances could not know that Phillis Wheatley was soon a slave no more. Susanna Wheatley died before Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston and freed Phillis Wheatley by her will. Still Boston was not kind to the freed slave and it is true that Phillis Wheatley never did have an easy life. Back in London, Frances bored Isabella for days with her constant talk of Phillis Wheatley, poetry, slavery and freedom. Isabella put it out of her head and was relieved to learn that the next meeting of the Whoosit Club was to feature Lord Clive, the great soldier who was to share the tales of his adventures to India and such other places.

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