Created by
Wheatley Peters, Phillis, American, ca. 1753 - 1784
iron gall ink on laid paper
H x W (Open): 8 7/8 × 14 9/16 in. (22.5 × 37 cm)
H x W (Closed): 8 7/8 × 7 5/16 in. (22.5 × 18.5 cm)
Phillis Wheatley Peters (c. 1753 – 1784) was born in West Africa and captured by slave traders as a child, whereupon she was sold to John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston, Massachusetts. She was named after the slave ship on which she was transported to the Americas and the name of her enslavers, but her surname of Peters is that of the man she married in 1778—John Peters, a free man of color. The story of the discovery of her talent by the Wheatley family is oft told—they taught her to read and write, and by age fourteen, she had begun to write poetry that was soon published and circulated amongst the elites of late eighteenth-century America and Great Britain.
In June 1773, Wheatley Peters joined her enslaver John Wheatley for a trip to London to help with her chronic asthma and to meet a series of British and American dignitaries in celebration of the upcoming publication of her first and only volume of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, to be published later that year. Wheatley Peters most likely wrote this poem during the return voyage to Boston in September 1773. The poem follows in the tradition of her other poems, blending neoclassical elements with contemporary observations of the world around her. While not appearing to contain any direct references to slavery, it is one of several poems by Wheatley Peters related to the ocean and water, most immediately being “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” The poem offers an opportunity to interpret the differences between this voyage across the ocean as a celebrated poet and Wheatley Peters’ first voyage across the Atlantic after being captured into slavery as a child.
Under pressure from critics who saw the hypocrisy in praising Peters’ talent while keeping her enslaved, The Wheatleys manumitted Peters in 1773, soon after her return to Boston and the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Manuscript of the dramatic poem "Ocean," written by Phillis Wheatley during her voyage from London, England to Boston, Massachusetts in 1773. The poem is titled at the top of the page and consists of 70 lines in flowing cursive handwriting over four pages. The paper itself is a single piece folded once, and then later folded into approximate fourths for storage. On what would be the outside panel of the paper, written in ink in a different hand, is a docket or label that reads [Ocean / A poem by Phillis / in her handwriting / made on her return from / England in Captain Calef / Sept. 1773 - ]. Beneath it, written in a third hand faintly in graphite pencil, is [Phillis Wheatley / negro poetess / of Mass.] There is a watermark at center of the page similar to "W" or "M."
The paper is discolored where it was folded, and a piece of white tape runs along the exterior of the center fold where the sheet is coming apart.
Documents and Published Materials
Slavery and Freedom Objects
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Object number
Restrictions & Rights
Public domain
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