Phillis Wheatley (1753 - 1834)
It was unusual for an enslaved African woman to correspond with George III, King of England, or indeed to receive a letter from a future American president, George Washington. However, Phillis Wheatley was not an ordinary woman. In 1773, she published the first book in the English language by an African American woman.
Kidnapped by human traffickers in 1761 from The Gambia, and separated from her parents, language and culture, Phillis (re-named after the ship that imprisoned her) was only seven years old when she was bought by John Wheatley and given to his wife as a gift. Considering the plight of many of the Africans taken to America, Phillis could count herself fortunate that she ended up with a family that seemed rather liberal by comparison to many of their contemporaries. While it was standard policy to keep enslaved Africans illiterate, the Wheatley’s taught Phillis how to read and write. But even they could not have envisaged the prodigious response from their newly accumulated “asset”. By the age of 15 Phillis was fluent in Latin, Greek, English and had memorised the Bible.
Phillis studied poets like Alexander Pope, and by the time she was in her late teens, she had become a celebrated poet in her own right. As no American publishing house would deal with her, in the summer of 1773, Phillis came to London to have a volume of poetry published. The now-celebrated poetess was taken to the Tower of London by abolitionist Granville Sharp and welcomed by several dignitaries, including the Earl of Dartmouth, poet and activist Baron George Lyttleton, Sir Brook Watson (soon to be the Lord Mayor of London), philanthropist John Thorton, and Benjamin Franklin (another future American President).
Entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the work was published by Archibald Bell Booksellers who were based at 8 Aldgate Street, in the City of London. The site is now the present address of the Dorsett City Hotel.
On 16th July 2019, to coincide with the 246th anniversary of Phillis Wheatley’s time in Britain, a historic blue plaque was installed at the Dorsett City Hotel to commemorate the life and times of Phillis Wheatley.
At Dorsett, we are delighted and honoured to be part of this meaningful event, it’s great to support and give back to the London community, we hope many more young talents would be given an opportunity like Phillis to pursue something they like and grow. Winnie Chiu, J.P. President & Executive Director of Dorsett City Hotel This commemorative plaque will be a fitting tribute to an African woman who was enslaved from the age of seven, yet became one of America’s most renowned poets before the 19th century. It is both a privilege and an honour to be part of such an auspicious event. Professor Doirean Wilson, Chair of Nubian Jak Community Trust "It's an honour and privilege to be involved in commemorating such a remarkable woman like Phillis Wheatley, two and a half centuries after her visit to the UK. We would like to thank all the sponsors for their support and look forward to the plaque becoming both a heritage site as well as a tourist attraction in the nation’s capital." Dr Jak Beula, CEO of Nubian Jak Community Trust
"This plaque is well overdue. I hope that people will be inspired to find out about other African women resisters of the 1700s". Tony Warner, Director of Black History Walks
Read her poems here:
Location: Dorsett City Hotel, 9 Aldgate High Street, London, EC3N 1AH