Phillis Wheatley, ca. 1773


Frontispiece of Wheatley's collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773). (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-628/40054)


Copperplate engraving. Caption reads: Phillis Wheatley, Negro servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston. Born in present-day Gambia around 1753, little is known of Wheatley's early life. When 7 or 8 years old, she was kidnapped and shipped from the Gambia to Boston. Her purchasers, John and Susanna Wheatley, named her Phillis after the name of the ship that brought her to Massachusetts. Living in their household as a servant, she was permitted to learn to read, and not long after began writing poetry. Her first published poem appeared in 1767 but was published in London largely because of racial prejudice in Boston. She left no account of her life in Africa or the middle passage, and her life ended sadly, at about the age of 31, in Boston in 1784. Her portrait was done when she was about 20 years old. For details on her life and works, see Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (University of Georgia Press, 2011); also, Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings (Penguin Classics) (Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001).

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