Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa, probably either in present day Gambia or Senegal, and at the age of seven or eight was abducted and transported to America where she was sold as a slave to John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston from whom she took her surname. Phillis was the name of the slave ship that brought her over the ocean. The family’s eighteen year-old daughter Mary and their son Nathaniel taught her to read and write and it quickly became apparent that she had considerable literary aptitude. She was introduced to classical literature, even reading Greek and Latin texts by the age of twelve, and was encouraged to write poetry. At the age of fourteen she wrote her first poem To the University of Cambridge in New England. Because of her talent she received more favourable treatment than the other slaves and was almost treated like a member of the family and excused most household duties. This must have caused a certain amount of resentment.
Having written a collection of poems entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she travelled to England with Nathaniel to seek patronage. Here she met several prominent people, including the Lord Mayor of London. An audience with King George III was arranged but she had to return before this could take place. She had written a poem To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in 1768, praising him for the removal of the invidious, short-lived Stamp Tax. Supported by Selena Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, and Wiiliam Legge, Earl of Dartmouth and Secretary of State for the Colonies, her collection was published in 1774 to great acclaim in both England and America, going through eleven editions. George Washington, whom she met in 1776 after sending him a poem entitled To His Excellency, George Washington, was an admirer of her poetry, as was Voltaire.
Following publication of her book of poems, she was given her freedom but continued to live with the household. She was devastated by the death in 1774 of Susanna Wheatley who had treated her almost like an adopted daughter and by Susanna’s husband John four years later. She prepared a second volume of poems but could not afford to have it published, although some of these poems appeared in pamphlets and newspapers. Shortly after the death of John Wheatley she married John Peters who abandoned her in 1784 and finished up in prison for debt. She was obliged to take menial employment as a kitchen maid in a boarding house where she died, aged 31, her infant son soon afterwards.
Phillis Wheatley’s poems covered religious, classical and abstract themes and many were laudatory poems addressed to famous figures. Her writing was contemplative and suffused with a blend of divine and hierophantic solar imagery, many different words being used to describe the sun. Partly because of numerous classical references, many colonists found it difficult to believe she had written the poems herself and before departing for England she had been quizzed by a committee of Boston worthies who finally acknowledged her authorship.
In 1834 Margaretta Matilda Odell published a Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley and 1838 the Boston-based abolitionist Isaac Knapp published a collection of Wheatley’s poetry along with that of the enslaved North Carolina poet George Moses Horton. Phillis Wheatley is commemorated as the first female African American poet on the Boston Women’s Memorial in Commonwealth Avenue and has schools named after her in Houston, New Orleans and Florida as well as a hall at the University of Massachusetts.