Brown, Hallie Q.
|PHILLIS WHEATLEY -- 1754--1783 (?)|
'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land ,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God--that there's a Savior, too ,
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew .
--Phillis Wheatley .
In the year 1761, a little slave girl about seven years old, stood in the market place in Boston, Massachusetts, with a number of others to be sold as chattel.
The little girl had been brought from far off Africa. She stood a pitiful looking object with no clothing save a piece of dirty, ragged carpet tied around her. Mrs. John Wheatley had several slaves, but they were growing too old to be active and she wished to purchase a young girl, whom she could train up in such a manner as to make a good domestic. For this purpose she went to the slave market and there she saw the little girl who appeared to be in ill health, which no doubt was due to the suffering she endured in the slave-ship on the long voyage. Mrs. Wheatley was a kind, religious woman and though she considered the sickly look of the child an objection, there was something so gentle and modest in the expression of her dark countenance and her large mournful eyes that her heart was drawn toward her and she bought her in preference to several others who looked more robust. She took her home in her chaise, gave her a bath and dressed her in clean clothes. They could not at first understand her and she resorted to signs and gestures for she spoke only her native African dialect and a few words of broken English. Mrs. Wheatley gave her
Phillis soon learned to speak English, but she could tell nothing of herself nor when she was torn from her parents by the slave-traders, nor where she had been since that time. The poor, little orphan had gone through so much suffering and terror that her mind had become bewildered concerning the past.
The only thing that clung to her about Africa was seeing her mother pour out water before the rising sun which would indicate that the mother descended from some remote tribe of sun-worshippers. And that sight of her mother doing reverence before the great luminous orb coming as it did out of the nowhere, but giving light and cheer to the world, naturally impressed the child's imagination so deeply that she remembered it when all else was forgotten about her native land. In the course of a year and a half a wonderful change took place in the little, forlorn stranger. She not only learned to speak English correctly, but was able to read fluently in any part of the Bible. She possessed uncommon intelligence and a great desire for knowledge. She was often found trying to make letters with charcoal on the walls and fences. Mrs. Wheatley's daughter became her teacher. She found this an easy task for the pupil learned with astonishing quickness. At the same time she showed such an amiable, affectionate disposition that all the members of the family became much attached to her. Her gratitude to her motherly benefactress was unbounded and her greatest delight was to do anything to please her. At the age of fourteen she began to write poetry. Owing to such uncommon manifestations of intelligence, she was never put to hard household work. She became the companion of Mrs. Wheatley and her daughter. Her poetry attracted attention and friends of Mrs. Wheatley lent her books which she read with great eagerness. She soon acquired a good knowledge of
She was often invited to the homes of wealthy and distinguished people but she was not turned by so much flattery and attention. Seriousness and humility were natural to Phillis and she retained the same gentle, modest deportment that had won Mrs. Wheatley's heart when she first saw her in the market-place. Although tenderly cared for and not required to do any fatiguing work, her constitution never recovered from the shock it had received in early childhood. At the age of nineteen her health failed so rapidly that physicians said it was necessary for her to take a sea-voyage. A son of Mrs. Wheatley was going to England on commercial business and his mother proposed that Phillis should go with him. In England she received even more attention than had been bestowed upon her at home. Several of the nobility invited her to their houses and her poems were published in a volume with an engraved likeness of the author. Still the young poet was not spoiled by flattery. A relative of Mrs. Wheatley remarked that not all the attention she received, nor all the honors that men heaped upon her had the slightest influence upon her temper and deportment. She was the same simple-hearted, unsophisticated being. She addressed
"Should you, my Lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from Whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate,
Was snatched from Afric's fancied happy state.
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labor in my parent's breast!
Steeled was that soul, and by no misery moved,
That from a father seized his babe beloved.
Such was my case; and can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway."
King George, the third, was soon expected in London and the English friends of Phillis wished to present her to their king; but letters from America informed her of the declining health of her beloved Mrs. Wheatley and she greatly desired to see her. No honors could divert her mind from the friend of her childhood. She returned to Boston immediately. The good lady died soon after. Mr. Wheatley soon followed and the daughter, the kind teacher of her youth, did not long survive. The son married and settled in England. For a short time Phillis remained with a friend of Mrs. Wheatley, then she rented a room and lived by herself. It was a sad change for her. The war of the American Revolution broke out. In the Autumn of 1776, General Washington had his headquarters at Cambridge, Massachusetts. The spirit of the occasion moved Phillis to address some complimentary verses to him. In reply, he sent her the following courteous note:
"I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you enclosed. However undeserving I may be of such encomium, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents. In honor of
"If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom Nature had been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations."I am, with great respect,
"Your obedient, humble servant, " George Washington ."
The early friends of Phillis were dead, or scattered abroad and she felt alone in the world. About this time she formed the acquaintance of a colored man by the name of Peters who kept a grocery store. He was very intelligent, spoke fluently, wrote easily, dressed well and was handsome in appearance. He proposed marriage and in an evil hour she accepted him. He proved to be lazy, proud and high-tempered. He neglected his business, failed and became very poor. Though unwilling to do hard work himself, he wanted to make a drudge of his wife. She was unaccustomed to hardships, her constitution was frail and she was the mother of three little children with no one to help her in household labors and cares. He had no pity on her and increased her burdens by his ill temper. The little ones sickened and died and their gentle mother was completely broken down, by sorrow and toil.
Some of the descendants of her lamented benefactress heard of her illness. They found her in a forlorn situation, suffering for the common comforts of life.
The Revolutionary War was still raging. Everybody was mourning sons and husbands slain in battle. Currency was deranged and the country was poor. The people were too anxious and troubled to think of the African poet whom they once delighted to honor. And so it happened
It was a mournful reverse of fortune; but she was patient and resigned. She made no complaint of her unfeeling husband.
The friends and descendants of Mrs. Wheatley did all they could to relieve her destitute condition but fortunately for her she soon went "Where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest."
Her husband was so generally disliked that she was never called Mrs. Peters, but went by the name bestowed upon her by her benefactress and by which she will be known to all posterity the name of PHILLIS WHEATLEY.
--L. Maria Child in Freedmen's Book to whom much of the above is due .