Object of the Month

Precious Cargo: Phillis Wheatley’s Poems and the Boston Tea Party

Letter from Phillis Wheatley to David Wooster, 18 October 1773

Letter from Phillis Wheatley to David Wooster, 18 October 1773


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    This 18 October 1773 letter from Phillis Wheatley of Boston to David Wooster of New Haven, Connecticut, describes the poet’s recent triumphant visit to England and the imminent arrival of printed volumes of her Poems on Various Subjects—aboard a ship which would soon become entangled in the Boston Tea Party.

    Adventures in London

    In May of 1773, readers of one of Boston’s many newspapers would have seen the news that “Capt. Calef in the ship London, sails for London … in whom go Passengers Mr. Nathaniel Wheatley, Merchant, and Phillis Wheatley, the ingenious Negro poet”—variously described as “the extraordinary poetess” or “the extraordinary poetical genius, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley.” The reason for Phillis Wheatley’s trip was partly to regain her fragile health, but more importantly to shepherd her book of poetry through to publication. A year earlier, a proposal to publish her book of poetry in Boston had fallen flat, but Susannah Wheatley—the wife of her enslaver—arranged for London publisher Archibald Bell to produce the slender volume of poetry.

    As she writes in her letter to David Wooster, the young poet found an enthusiastic welcome among the British where she encountered “such kindness Complaisance, and so many marks of esteem and real Friendship, as astonishes me on the reflection.” During her six weeks there, she met lords and ladies, professors, and statesmen including Benjamin Franklin. She saw the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels, British Museum, and Royal Observatory, among other attractions. The Earl of Dartmouth gave Wheatley a gift of 5 Guineas and several reading recommendations. When news of Susannah Wheatley’s illness arrived in London, however, Phillis hastened to return to Boston, arriving in September with the expectation that the copies of her Poems would follow close behind. Writing Wooster in mid-October, she expected that the Dartmouth, under Capt. James Hall, would arrive “in 8 or 10 days.”

    The Dartmouth

    Wheatley’s calculation about the date of the arrival of her books turned out to be a little optimistic. The ship lay in port in London waiting for enough return cargo to make the voyage profitable and the captain ended up agreeing to transport British East India tea to Boston, little expecting what awaited on the other side of the Atlantic. On 28 November 1773, the Dartmouth arrived in Boston with 114 chests of the detested tea, and was impounded at Griffin’s Wharf until the restive citizens of Boston would decide its fate. In the hold of the ship along with the tea was the container transporting printed copies of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems.

    On the evening of 16 December, the disgruntled citizens of Boston acted, dumping the cargos of tea from the Dartmouth, Beaver, and Eleanor into Boston Harbor. Fortunately for Wheatley, however, the participants were committed to the destruction of the tea—and only the tea. Rather than a mob action, Robert Allison describes the Boston Tea Party as a tactical strike:

    On each ship the men formed three teams. One went below the deck to bring out the chests; others worked the hoists and tackles to bring the chests up from the hold; others split the chests with their hatchets and dumped them over the side. “Perfect regularity prevailed during the whole transaction,” one observer noted. “Although there were many people on the wharf, entire silence prevailed,--no clamor, no talking.” Each squad captain kept careful tally against the manifest, ensuring that every chest of East India Company tea, and only the East India Company’s tea, was destroyed.” … Their work done, the men closed the holds, stowed the tackle, swept the decks, and invited the officers up to inspect the work.

    The crate containing Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects survived the evening and at the end of January 1774, the firm of Cox & Berry on King Street in Boston offered copies of Wheatley’s work, “Adorn’d with an elegant Engraving of the Author” for sale—the first published volume of poetry by an African American woman.


    Although Wheatley could have self-emancipated the moment she stepped on English soil due to the provisions of the decision in Somerset v. Stewart, she chose to return to the Wheatley home in Boston. But as she relates in her letter to Wooster, “Since my return to America my Master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom. The Instrument is drawn, so as to secure me and my property from the hands of the Executrs. Administrators, &c. of my master & secure whatsoever should be given me as my Own …” For the first time in her life, Phillis would be wholly responsible for herself—something she acknowledged in her letter to Wooster:

    I beg the favour that you would honour the enclos’d Proposals, & use your interest with the Gentlemen & Ladies of your acquaintance to subscribe also, for the more subscribers there are the more it will be for my advantage as I am to have half the sale of the Books, This I am the more solicitous for, as I am now upon my own footing and whatever I get by this is entirely mine, & it is the Chief I have to depend upon. I must also request you would desire the Printers in New Haven, not to reprint that Book, as it will be a great hurt to me...

    As Vincent Carretta observes in his biography of Wheatley (p. 271), freedom would not prove kind to Phillis Wheatley:

    The attention Phillis Wheatley received in London in 1773 and the reception of her writings there after her return to Boston gave her good reason to anticipate freedom and literary success in America as well. She did not foresee how greatly the economic and social disruptions caused by the American Revolution would alter her expectations. She would soon discover how many of the “good great folks” in Boston would come to her aid once she was a free woman of color.

    Wheatley never stopped striving, however. In 1778, she married a free Black man named John Peters and the next year tried to find a publisher for a second volume of poetry to be dedicated to Benjamin Franklin. Boston publishers White & Adams agreed to publish it if she could attract a sufficient number of subscribers, but in a city and country in the midst of Revolution, poetry was not top of mind. Wheatley reissued the proposal in 1784, but again there were no takers. She published a few poems after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, but never duplicated the success of her debut.

    Her married life cycled between stability and chaos—and as Henry Louis Gates Jr. succinctly put it, “Wheatley’s freedom had enslaved her to a life of hardship.” Having lost two children already, Phillis Wheatley and her young daughter died in a Boston boardinghouse in December of 1784. According to Carretta, her husband was probably in prison for debt at the time. The Independent Chronicle and Universal Advertiser of 9 December briefly noted her death: “Phillis Peters formerly Phillis Wheatley aged 31, known to the literary world by her celebrated miscellaneous poems. Her funeral is to be this afternoon … where her friends and acquaintances are desired to attend.” In the months following her death, John Peters advertised for the return of “a volume of manuscript poems &c of Phillis Peters, formerly Phillis Wheatley … as the whole of her works are intended to be published.” Sadly, the manuscript of her second volume of poetry is lost to history, although a few individual poems have surfaced in the centuries since her death.

    For further reading

    Links to MHS collection items relating to Phillis Wheatley can be found on the MHS website.

    Phillis Wheatley’s letters to Obour Tanner are the subject of an episode of the MHS’s podcast The Object of History Season 1, Episode 10: The Letters of Phillis Wheatley.

    Allison, Robert J. The Boston Tea Party. Carlisle, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions, 2007.

    Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum's website contains information on the ships and the events of 16 December 1773, including The Dartmouth.

    Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

    Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. “Lost years recovered: John Peters and Phillis Wheatley Peters in Middleton,” New England Quarterly, vol. 94, no. 3 (Sept. 2021), p. 309-351.

    Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Trials of Phillis .New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003.

    Kigel, Richard. Heav’nly Tidings from the Afric Muse: The Grace and Genius of Phillis Wheatley. St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House, 2017.

    Prince, Dorothy Mains. “Phillis Wheatley: The Duplicity of Freedom,” in Maryland Humanities, Summer 2001, p. 21-23.

    Robinson, William H. “Phillis Wheatley in London,” in CLA Journal, vol. 21, no. 2 (Dec. 1977), p. 187-201.

    Waldstreicher, David. “Ancients, Moderns, and Africans: Phillis Wheatley and the Politics of Empire and Slavery in the American Revolution,” in Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 37, no. 4 (Winter 2017), p. 701-734.