250 years ago, an African-American slave made history in London.
Plaques do work. They make you look. They make you wonder. They get you googling.
I'd never heard of Phillis Wheatley, I'm ashamed to admit. But I can thank this plaque in Aldgate for setting me straight, and piquing my curiosity.
Who was this remarkable woman, who broke through barriers of race, gender and geography, to publish poetry in London 250 years ago? Why did she die so tragically young? The plaque encouraged me to dig deeper.
From slave to poet
Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) did not come from the privileged background we associate with many poets of the period. Quite the opposite. She was snatched from her home in West Africa — probably Gambia or Senegal — by slave traders, while just eight years old.
She survived the Atlantic crossing but was deemed too weak for the plantations. Instead, she was taken to Boston, where she was bought by Susannah and John Wheatley. They named the girl Phillis after the slave ship on which she'd been held.
Phillis was put to work as a servant, but soon showed a remarkable aptitude for language. The Wheatleys encouraged her learning, and she could soon read Greek and Latin as well as English. Indeed, such was her ability that the Wheatleys excused her from household tasks so she could pursue poetry.
A trip to London
By 1773, aged just 20, Phillis was ready to publish. But could she find a publisher? She accompanied the Wheatley's son Nathaniel on a commercial visit to London — partly as an overseas trip had been recommended for her wavering health, but also to tap into the world centre of the book trade. Characteristically, Phillis recorded her feelings at the departure in verse:
Susannah mourns, nor can I bear
To see the crystal shower,
Or mark the tender falling tear
At sad departure's hour.
Not unregarding can I see
Her soul with grief opprest;
But let no sighs, no groans from me
Steal from her pensive breast.
And so she reached London. Her unique background and apparent talent caused quite a stir. She gained an audience with the Lord Mayor and almost met the king. And then she found a publisher. As the plaque above attests, A. Bell Booksellers published “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” in September 1773.
It was the first English publication of any kind by an African-American woman, all the more extraordinary given that she was still legally considered a slave.
Phillis was formally freed from slavery following the release of her book. She continued to write and publish, winning acclaim in her own lifetime. She met, or engaged in correspondence with, many of the great figures of the age, including George Washington and Thomas Paine.
Still, life was tough for the former slave. Many doubted that someone of her background could write such verse. She was forced to defend (successfully) her authorship in court.
Her husband John Peters later fell into debt and was imprisoned. To make ends meet, Phillis had to take on work as a scullery maid, while also looking after a sickly infant. She soon became ill herself and died in 1784, aged just 31. She rests in an unmarked grave, with the child who died soon after. It was a sorry end to an exceptional life.
Back to plaque
Isn't that quite a story? Certainly one deserving of commemoration. Phillis has at least two statues in America, but it's also fitting that she is remembered here in London, where her words first found a wide audience.
The disc in Aldgate was unveiled on 16 July 2019. It was commissioned by Nubian Jak Community Trust, which has installed dozens of plaques commemorating people of minority ethnic background in Britain.
Other subjects to receive Nubian Jak plaques in London include Bob Marley, Ignatius Sancho and Samuel Coleridge Taylor, as well as many lesser-known figures, whom I'm now itching to learn about.
Every plaque is a portal to another time and place, if only we have the curiosity to look.