March 5, 2010

Phillis Wheatley and the first martyr of the American Revolution

The Boston Massacre was one of several events that eventually pushed American colonists into the Revolutionary War with their mother country of England. It took place on March 5, 1770. Soon after, an early poet described the incident; unfortunately Phillis Wheatley's poem, "On the Affray on King Street, on the Evening of the 5th of March 1770" was presumed lost for centuries.

Phillis* might have had a different perspective on what the war for American freedom meant. She was born in Africa and, nine years before the massacre, was taken from her home and forced into slavery. She was seven years old. Her original name was lost (or, perhaps, purposely forgotten) by the time she landed in Boston. Purchased by the Wheatley family, they named her after the boat upon which she sailed, the Phillis.

Phillis was educated, despite her status as property, and soon she began writing poetry, often with religious overtones. Her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in 1773 (the title page was kind enough to list her as a "negro servant"). She is today considered the first black poet in America and some have called her the mother of African-American literature. Her book proved popular, and her owners granted her freedom as a result.

When the Boston Massacre occurred, Phillis was living only a few blocks away. Five were killed that day, including a black man named Crispus Attucks. Some have claimed that Attucks was the first martyr of the American Revolution; Phillis Wheatley said otherwise. In her poem, "On the Death of Mr. Snider Murder'd by Richardson," she gives her own account of the first martyr — an 11-year old boy named Christopher Snider (or Seider), killed two weeks before the Massacre:

In heavens eternal court it was decreed
Thou the first martyr for the common good
Long hid before, a vile infernal here
Prevents Achilles in his mid career
Where'er this fury darts his Pois'nous breath
All are endanger'd to the shafts of death
The generous Sires beheld the fatal wound
Saw their young champion gasping on the ground
They rais'd him up but to each present ear
What martial glories did his tongue declare
The wretch appal'd no longer can despise
But from the Striking victim turns his eyes—
When this young martial genius did appear
The Tory chief no longer could forbear.
Ripe for destruction, see the wretches doom
He waits the curses of the age to come
In vain he flies, by Justice Swiftly chaced
With unexpected infamy disgraced
By Richardson for ever banish'd here
The grand Usurpers bravely vaunted Heir.
We bring the body from the watry bower
To lodge it where it shall remove no more
Snider behold with what Majestic Love
The Illustrious retinue begins to move
With Secret rage fair freedom's foes beneath
See in thy corse ev'n Majesty in Death.

*I choose to call her by this name based on precedent set by several scholars of African-American literature, particularly Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who has often tried to drive up interest in her. The image is from her book; it is considered the only depiction of her taken from life.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for bringing Phillis out of obscurity just a bit, Rob!! My little heart pitter-patters;) ~Melanie

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  2. An interesting book about Phillis Wheatley is 'Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons' by Ann Rinaldi, it really is worth the read.

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