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Phillis Wheatley Frontispiece Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects

Phillis Wheatley's London Tribute

Dr Jak Beula of the Nubian Jak Community Trust tells us about celebrating the African-American writer Phillis Wheatley in London

Published on April 30, 2020

The annals of Western history show how unusual a paradigm it is for an enslaved African woman to be in direct correspondence with a European Monarch. In this case, the monarch was George III, King of England, and the correspondent, an African (American) woman by the name of Phillis Wheatley. Ms Wheatley would also receive correspondence from a future American president, a certain George Washington, who praised her writing. However, Phillis Wheatley could never be described as ordinary. In 1773, not only was she the author of the first-ever book published in the English language by a woman of African heritage, she also became the godmother of American women's literature and African-American literature. Indeed, Phillis Wheatley's is an incredible story.

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 7 years old when she was bought by John Wheatley, a Boston slave trade trader, and given to his wife Susannah as a gift. Considering the plight of many Africans who were taken to North America during the period when the practice of enslavement was legalised in the country, 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 practice to keep enslaved Africans illiterate, the Wheatleys taught Phillis how to read and write. But even they could not have envisaged the prodigious response from their newly accumulated "asset". At the age of fifteen, Phillis was fluent in Latin, Greek, English and had learned to memorise the Bible.

Phillis also 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. Despite her obvious talent, no American publishing house would take her on. But in the summer of 1773, Phillis came to London to have the first volume of her 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.

Entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Phillis's volume of poetry 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.

Phillis Wheatley Blue Plaque Phillis Wheatley Blue Plaque in London. Photo: Nubian Jak Community Trust

Blue Plaque Unveiling in 2019

On 16th July 2019, to coincide with the 246th anniversary of Phillis Wheatley's visit to Britain, a historic blue plaque sponsored by the American Embassy in London, and the tourist guide company - Black History Walks - was installed at the Dorsett City Hotel by Nubian Jak Community Trust. The plaque was unveiled to commemorate the life and times of Phillis Wheatley. (Full address of the Dorsett City Hotel is 8-9 Aldgate High Street, London, EC3N 1A.)

At the time the London President & Executive Director of Dorsett City Hotel, Winnie Chiu said: "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."

Dr Jak Beula, CEO of the Nubian Jak Group, and organisor of the commemorative plaque tribute said: "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."

Phillis Wheatley is also one of the American heroes and sheroes featured in the ground breaking Edutainment phone app "Nubian Jak". Based on the multi-award winning board game Nubian Jak, the phone app is the first of its kind to highlight the rich diverse history of the United States, and the country's common cultural heritage. For more information, click the "Nubian Jak" link or type in "Nubian Jak" on Google store.

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