Slave traders brought Phillis Wheatley to Boston as a scared, small, sickly girl of around seven or eight years old and unable to speak a word of English. She arrived to the bustling harbor of colonial Boston on the ship, The Phillis, in 1761 to be sold on the Beach Street Wharf of what is now Beach Street and Tyler Street.
Like many of the shipments that had arrived in the harbor that day, she was there to be sold as merchandise. The Boston Gazette and Country Journal ran an advertisement in its July 13th edition in 1761 informing readers of a shipment of slaves from Africa, “Just imported, From Africa. A Number of prime young SLAVES, from the Windward Coast, and to be Sold on board Capt. Gwin lying at New-Boston”. This is thought to be the shipment that Phillis Wheatley arrived on.
Phillis was purchased by a wealthy merchant family from Boston; John Wheatley and his wife Susannah. It is believed that Susannah chose Phillis because of her modest and humble appearance. In addition, young slaves were more malleable and less likely to resist their position. The qualities that Phillis possessed were especially important for Susannah because Phillis would be her personal property. As a result, the Wheatley family was able to control every aspect of Phillis’s life, allowing her to enter into their personal lives and indoctrinating her into their value system. In turn, Phillis would never become a threat to the Wheatley household or the white world. This also ensured that Phillis Wheatley would be a loyal servant. The Wheatley’s were also Puritans; their religion dictated that a young slave such as Phillis could challenge the status quo, which dictated that Negro slaves were not intelligent. Thus, young Phillis may have helped the Wheatley family prove that Negro slaves and Indians could be taught.
“‘T was mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught me benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God – that there’s a Saviour too;
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful – eye
‘Their color is a diabolic dye.’
Remember, Christians, Negros black as Cain
May be refined, and join the angelic train.”
(On Being Brought from Africa to America)
Boston Gazette, and Country Journal, July 13, 1761.
Frances Smith Foster, “‘Sometimes by Simile, a Victory’s Won: The Post-Revolution Literature.” In Written By Herself Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892, 22-43, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.), 31.
The Poems of Phillis Wheatley with Letters and a Biographical Note (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2010.), 3-4.