Phillis Wheatley expected to receive her first shipment of published poetry in 1773. She had published her first set of poems in London and was told that her books would arrive to Boston on the Dartmouth. Though a Rhode Island newspaper published her first poem in 1767, it was not until Phillis wrote an eloquently phrased elegy for the Methodist Evangelical minister George Whitefield in 1770 that Phillis gained transatlantic notoriety. In the elegy, Phillis gave reverence to the late Whitefield and condolences to Selina Hastings (Countess of Huntingdon), to whom he was chaplain. C. Huntingdon was taken aback by Phillis’ literary talents:
HAIL, happy saint, on thine immortal throne,
Possest of glory, life and bliss unknown;
We hear no more the music of thy tongue,
Thy wonted auditories cease to throng…
…Great Countess, we Americans revere Thy name,
and mingle in thy grief sincere;
New England deeply feels, the Orphans mourn,
Their more than father will no more return.
(Excerpt from elegy for G.Whitefield)
She corresponded with Mrs. Susannah Wheatley, expressesing her appreciation for Mrs. Wheatley’s “great Christian love” and praising her for, “promoting literacy even among those denied opportunity to read by law or circumstances.” C. Huntingdon, then, invited the Wheatley’s to London.
Through these religious and social networks, Phillis gained access to the literary world of 18th century publishing. C. Huntingdon promoted the works of Phillis, and other African Americans and Afro-Britons literary intellectuals, including Olaudah Equiano, James Gronniosaw and John Marrant. Between the years 1773-1774, Phillis started her own correspondence with C. Huntingdon. Being aware of the Countess’s role in the publication of Gronniosaw’s Narrative, Phillis actively sought similar assistance for her literature. Through this relationship, Phillis successfully published her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in London in 1773.
In a letter written to Col. David Wooster dated October 18, 1773, Phillis Wheatley reports, “I expect my Books which are published in London in Capt. Hall, who will be here I believe in 8 or 10 days.” Her books did arrive in Boston aboard Captain Hall’s ship, the Dartmouth, but not November 28, 1773. Not only did its cargo contain Wheatley’s published works, but also one hundred and fourteen chests of tea.
However, for three weeks following the Dartmouth’s arrival in Boston, the colonists continued to meet and debate the fate of its cargo. The most famous of these meetings occurred on December 16, 1773 at the Old South Meeting House, Phillis Wheatley’s own place of worship. While it is highly unlikely that she would have been present for this debate, it serves as another example of her connections to the pivotal events of the American Revolution.
Carretta, Vincent, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English Speaking World of the 18th Century. Expanded ed. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
Kigel,Richard. “Phillis Wheatley and the Boston Tea Party: How Books of Poems Started a Literary Tradition while Chests of Tea Started a Revolution,” The Dial 26(3), 1; 6.
Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell, 1773.
Wheatley, Phillis. Phillis Wheatley to Col. Wooster, 18 October 1773. Letter. From Massachusetts Historical Society, Hugh Upham Clark Collection. http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?old=1&ft=End+of+Slavery&from=%2Fendofslavery%2Findex.php%3Fid%3D57&item_id=811 (accessed April 3, 2016).