Joanna Vassa

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Joanna Vassa's memorial, re-erected in 2006 (photo: April 2007)

Joanna Vassa (1795-1857) was the only surviving child of the former slave and anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano.[1] Her grave has recently been rediscovered in Abney Park Cemetery, London, but little is known of her life.

Early life and family[edit]

She was born to Susannah Cullen of Fordham, Cambridgeshire, and Olaudah Equiano (also known as "Gustavus Vassa, the African") on 11 April 1795, and baptised on 29 April. Her father was well known for his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano[2] (1789). Her mother was a subscriber to Equiano's Narrative and they were married on 7 April 1792 in Soham.

The year after Joanna's birth, Susannah died of an illness, on 21 February 1796, and was buried at St Andrew's Church, Soham. Joanna's father died just over a year later.[3] Shortly afterwards followed the death of her elder sister and only sibling Anna Maria (born 30 January 1793), on 21 July 1797.;[4] Anna Maria is commemorated by a poetic plaque outside St Andrew's Church, Chesterton.

Mixed race children were not common in eighteenth century England, but nor, as the British Empire grew, were they unknown, especially in the capital and port cities.

Adulthood and marriage[edit]

Joanna Vassa's memorial at Abney Park Cemetery shortly after its discovery in 2005, awaiting restoration

In 1816, on reaching her 21st birthday, Joanna Vassa, being Equiano's only known surviving relative, inherited a silver watch and £950 from his estate; the National Archives inflation calculator gives an approximate equivalence of £32 000 in 2005 pounds.[5]

It is not clear how Joanna met her future husband, the Congregational minister, Rev. Henry Bromley, but on 29 August 1821, they were married at St. James, Clerkenwell, an Anglican parish church in London. He had been ordained a minister at the Independent Chapel in Appledore[disambiguation needed] in Devon, two months previous to the wedding. He was 24 years old and Joanna was 26. They settled in Devon for at least five years until they moved to the Congregational Church (present day United Reformed Church) at Clavering, Essex, where Rev. Bromley was pastor between 1827 and 1845. He was a member of Clavering Reading Society throughout his time there.[citation needed]

Later life, death, and memorial[edit]

On 26 October 1845, Rev. Henry Bromley resigned from his congregation, citing his wife's health as the reason. She was 50 years old and he was 48. The couple moved to London that year for her health, her husband taking on only occasional commitments at Clavering thereafter. He became a minister at the Providence Chapel in Harwich during 1851, while Joanna lived with his family in Stowmarket, Suffolk. Eventually, she moved back to London and resided at 21 Benyan Terrace, Buckingham Road, in Hackney; but there is no record of Henry living with her.

She died of uterine disease, possibly brought on by fibroids, on 10 March 1857, aged 61. She was buried on 16 March in Abney Park Cemetery, close to the memorial statue to Isaac Watts on the axial walk from the chapel to Stoke Newington Church Street. Her husband Henry survived her for twenty years, and was buried with her on 12 February 1878. It has not been discovered whether they had any children.

Her memorial at Abney Park was re-pinned and re-erected in 2006, in time for the 150th anniversary of her death in 2007. This coincided with the bicentenary of the Act which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire, a goal towards which her father had worked.

Sources[edit]

Osborne, Angelina (2007). Equiano's Daughter: The Life and Times of Joanna Vassa. London: Momentum Arts. ISBN 978-0-9534328-1-3. 

References[edit]

  1. ^ Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, Pan, 2006.
  2. ^ The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa. An African man. Written by Himself. 8th Edition, London, 1794.
  3. ^ Vincent Caretta, Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century, The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
  4. ^ Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London: Pluto Press, 1984
  5. ^ "Currency converter". The National Archives.