The Fortunes of Francis Barber: the true story of the Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson’s heir
By Michael Bundock
Yale University Press 2015
|Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, 1755-6, NPG|
About half way into this biography of one resident in eighteenth-century London is a glimpse of his social circle when in the early 1760s a young student called to find the famous author was away from the dingy lodgings he currently occupied. ‘The Doctor was absent’ wrote the visitor, ‘and when Francis Barber, his black servant, his black servant, opened the door to tell me so, a group of his African countrymen were sitting round a fire in the gloomy anti-room.’ All turned to the white visitor, who was disconcerted by the sudden stares of ‘their sooty faces.’
Historians have found other, albeit fragmentary evidence of a thriving Afro-Caribbean community in Georgian Britain. ‘On Wednesday last’ reported one newspaper, fifty-seven members of a social club, ‘supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music, consisting of violins, French horns and other instruments, at a public-house in Fleet Street, till four in the morning. No Whites were allowed to be present, for all the performers were Blacks’. As well as conviviality, the community organised mutual assistance for those in need or sickness, for most were employed as domestic servants, and if left without a place could seldom claim parish relief; furthermore, the servants’ network formed the best opportunity for finding a new position.
Very little is known about these networks and clubs, so even brief glimpses are useful in figuring the diversity of London in the 1700s. In this new book Michael Bundock pulls together all the recorded scraps of information about Francis Barber, who stands out from his fellow-servants, male and female, by having been the protégé and eventual beneficiary of Samuel Johnson, whose writings, lexicography and eccentric personality made him one of the celebrities of the age. Those penning their own accounts of Johnson’s life, or their acquaintance with him, incidentally also recorded aspects of Barber’s life, which Bundock has woven together with strands of contemporary history, notably the legal cases involving the civil status of formerly enslaved Black individuals. How were differing laws and property rights in the colonies to be reconciled with those in the metropolis?
Barber was born in Jamaica, probably in the early 1740s, probably on a plantation owned by Richard Bathurst. His original name may have been ‘Quashey’ or Sunday-born, for a child so-called was among four slaves not sold with the plantation in 1749, and young Barber travelled to England with Bathurst the following year, to join the many other blackamoor servant boys in London. Here he was re-named, and sent to school in north Yorkshire. In 1752 he was ‘given’ by Bathurst’s son to the recently-widowed Johnson, who to all intents and purposes adopted him, as it might be an indigent nephew. There were more attempts at education but fairly soon Barber’s role was as house servant, answering the door, running errands, among a group of elderly dependents whom Johnson maintained partly out of charity.
In 1755 when Bathurst died, his will gave Barber ‘his freedom and twelve pounds in money’, probably the first cash the teenager had ever possessed. Aged about 15 he decamped, to work for an apothecary in Cheapside and then, to Johnson’s dismay, he joined the navy, having, in his own words, ‘an inclination to go to sea.’ (This episode incidentally coincided with time that Olaudah Equiano spent on warships as slave/servant to Lieutenant Pascal) Barber’s naval career, chronicled in the fleet’s muster books, lasted just two years: in 1760 Johnson successfully petitioned the powers-that-be, through an elaborate system of interest and favours, to obtain his discharge. On behalf of ‘that great Cham of Literature’, Tobias Smollett applied to the Admiralty, on the grounds that ‘our lexicographer is in great distress’ and the lad was ‘particularly subject to a malady his throat which renders him very unfit for his majesty’s Service.’
Bundock infers that Barber returned reluctantly to Johnson’s household and this meticulous reconstruction of his career provides insight into the general experience of rootless Londoners with no family to return to, as well as the unusual relationship between two men so very different in age, background and status. The question of race, or colour, is hard to analyse: several of Johnson’s close friends wrote insultingly about Barber, with malice that may have been augmented by their disapproval of Johnson’s legacy (in trust) for Barber; others like Boswell regarded him with apparent affection. As Bundock explains, no very firm inferences of Barber’s opinions and emotions can be drawn from the scattered surviving hints. At around the age of thirty he married Elizabeth ball, whose ancestry is almost as obscure as her husband’s, and they had several children, the first (short-lived) and second sons were named Samuel, as was conventional, Johnson being Frank’s surrogate father. They moved to Lichfield, where Francis died in 1801, retaining to the end a measure of personal celebrity as ‘Dr Johnson’s negro servant’.
Bundock has tracked his descendants. One born in 1930 recalls that when his father mentioned Francis, his mother would say ‘don’t talk about that Black man in front of the children’, but that he and a cousin find the ‘black roots’ in their family history fascinating and wonderful and 'very emotional.'
In a postscript, the identification of Joshua Reynolds’ heroic head study of a young Black man against blue sky and clouds as a portrait of Barber is firmly rejected in favour of the sitter being Reynolds’ own servant (name as yet unknown) as stated by the picture’s first owner. Though good art history, this is also a pity, for there is no portrait – not even a sketch or caricature – of Barber, to accompany this painstaking biography.