Phillis Wheatley Peters was born circa 1753 in Africa. At the age of 7 or thereabouts she was captured and transported to the coast where she was sold to a slaver on his way to Boston. The ship that transported her, and many others, as cargo was called The Phillis. This was the name the man who bought her in Boston gave her, along with his own surname, Wheatley.
Phillis was taken to the Wheatley family home, and, we are told by biographers, some who knew people who had met her, that she was treated as ‘one of the family’. Boston philosopher, Hannah Mather Crocker reported that
“Mr Wheatley purchased her [Phillis] he bought her to wait on his only daughter. She was a pretty smart sprightly child. they grew very fond of her and treated her as well as if their own. her young Mrs who was Miss Mary Wheatly [sic], and was afterwards the very amiable wife of Dr John Lathrop [1740–1816]. Phillis was sent to school and educated with Miss Mary. She soon acquired the English language and made some progress in the latin She never was looked on as a slave she could work handsome [i.e., sew and do needlework skillfully], and read and write well for that day.” (Caretta, 23)
We know, however, that she worked as a maid, she ‘tended tables’ at 13 and later was a ‘sempstress’. While the daughter of the family, Mary, (grown up when Phillis was bought) may have done some sewing, or at least embroidery, it is unlikely that she waited tables.
Phillis’s biographer Caretta also suggested that was treated somewhat better than the indentured servant who ran away from the Wheatly home (22). But Phillis was a child at the time the young male servant ran away, and with no prospect of being freed. Her escape would have led to an advert being placed for her capture with a reward.
One thing that is clear is that the Wheatley family taught Phillis to read and write. And when it became clear that she had talent as a poet, they encouraged it, had her work published, in newspapers, and later as a book, for she travelled to London. This could have been kindness on their part, or the recognition that genius had to be encouraged, wherever it was. Or perhaps they benefitted from her fame socially and financially.
So where was ‘home’ for Phillis?
Phillis’s writings rarely talk about home life. The word ‘home’ itself is used in her poems to refer to heaven. Many of her poems are elegies, addressed to bereaved mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, or in one case of the preacher Whitefield, to his patron, an English aristocrat. The dead have gone ‘home’ in her poems, suggesting that any previous dwelling was not that.
In one letter, Wheatley refers to her masters’ house as ‘home’, when she writes to Obour Tanner in 1773, and again to John Thornton, one of her London friends. These letters are written upon her return from England, where she spent a mere six weeks (after a passage lasting …) and was celebrated and shown the attractions of the town. Rather than staying in England where she would be free, Wheatley extracted a promise from the son of the man who had purchased her as a child that she would be freed upon her return. And when she did return, it was to the house where she had been a slave.
Nations also take on family roles in Wheatley’s poetry: England – Britannia – is in many poems the mother of America, who should not overtax her child. In later poems, England’s sons are the soldiers she sends to fight Americans, and they are recalled in shame and disgrace. Africa is never a parent. It is the place untouched by religion. The only time when her going back to Africa was suggested (by others) was so that she could chase ‘away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa’ and trave ‘to her Native Country as a Female Preacher to her kindred, you know Quaker Women are alow’d to preach, and why not others in an Extraordinary Case’ Phillis refused, perhaps because she would have had to travel with two men she did not know, and take one of them as her husband, or perhaps because she saw herself as a writer more than a preacher.
Phillis’s own attitude to Africa has been harshly criticized by some modern critiques who thought she was turning her back on her own heritage and participating in America’s and Europe’s racism. Her short poem, ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ describes her being taken from her native land as a ‘mercy’ because it brought Christianity to her, a blessing she would not have known had she stayed:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
The next four lines tackle the issue of racism:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
All are equal in the eye of God, and all can be taught to worship so that they will go to heaven. This suggest that she should have found the idea of Christian missions to Africa attractive – many of her country men and women would receive the same ‘mercy’ that she did, without having to be kidnapped and enslaved. But her biographer, Caretta, reminds us not to read her poems as autobiographical. She was a manipulator or words, and wrote elegies on demand, so why not also a defense of the slave trade in the name of religion? It could also be that she felt no ties to Africa as she had left at a very young age. She never mentions her childhood there in the writings we have.
Later in life she might have wanted to revisit memories of her childhood, reacquaint herself with the land and the people she grew up with. She might even have recalled that she once had her own religion, whether Pagan, as she writes in the poem, or Islam, as has been suggested by Wheatley scholar Will Harris (Harris, W. (2015). Phillis Wheatley: A Muslim Connection. African American Review, 48(1/2), 1-15. Retrieved June 24, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24589724) and the author of a Wheatley biography in verse Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. But Wheatly died at the age of 31, after a mere ten years of freedom, which is too young, perhaps to turn back to one’s childhood.
Phillis Wheatley was freed when she returned from London in 1773. Had she remained in England, she would have become automatically freed. But she would have had no home, and no friends she had known for more than the six weeks of her visit. In Boston, she had connections. So she extracted a promise from her master, in writing, and sailed back to Boston. She stayed with the Wheatleys for some years, probably working as a maid still, perhaps paid, or simply granted the right to sleep and eat in the house. She stayed with them until the death of her mistress in 1774, and then moved in with John Peters, a free black man, educated, and with a business of his own. They were married a few years later. But his business failed – as many during the war – and the couple had to move around to avoid prison. They had three children who did not survive infanthood. Peters eventually did go to prison, and Phillis died shortly afterwards, in 1784.