An “extremely rare” book of poetry written by an enslaved woman is up for auction.
Phyllis made history as the first African-American author to have her poetry published. she was originally born in West Africa, and was sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight then transported to North America where she was enslaved by the Wheatley family of Boston. There she learned to read and write, and was encouraged to write poetry when the family recognised her talent.
Phyllis sought publication of her work on a trip to London in 1773 with her master’s son where she met patrons who would fund her work. Her work, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published on September 1, 1773, and she soon became known both in England and the American colonies.
Unfortunately life was not easy for Phyllis. Despite being emancipated after the publication of her book, and then married to a grocer, Phyllis’ husband was jailed, their three children died, and eventually she herself died in poverty and obscurity at the age of 31.
Her work lives on today, thankfully, and one copy is up for sale in the Cotswold Auction Company’s site in Chapel Walk on June 8.
Director Elizabeth Poole said staff were very excited about the sale of the “extremely rare” books, which up til now had been held in a private collection at Bowden Hall, Upton St Leonards, near Gloucester.
The auctioned book has an engraved portrait of Phillis as the frontispiece and within it is her most famous poem, written at the age of 15, which condemns the evils of racism from a Christian perspective.
Jenny Low, book cataloguer at The Cotswold Auction Company, said: “This book just doesn’t come up at auction. This is such a rare opportunity and we have placed a wide estimate of £5,000 to £10,000 on it.
“Phillis made history and we anticipate interest from libraries, African American historians and many collectors.”