The Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson's heir

In 1752, Johnson’s low spirits were relieved somewhat by the arrival from Jamaica of Francis Barber.

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The Fortunes of Francis Barber: the True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir
Michael Bundock
Yale University Press, 296pp, £20

Samuel Johnson, the great John Bull of 18th-century letters, was wary of all things fandangled, not least the fashion coming out of France (a land of “fopdoodles” and, in the pickpocket vernacular of the time, “dandiprats”). Johnson the gruff Tory patriot was a depressive who used alcohol as a balm for his awful blue moods. His fear-ridden, devoutly Christian soul intrigued Samuel Beckett, for one, whose unfinished 1937 play Human Wishes explored Johnson’s friendship with his biographer Hester Thrale, the wife of the Italian music teacher Gabriel Piozzi.

In 1752, Johnson’s low spirits were relieved somewhat by the arrival from Jamaica of a “Black a Moor” (wrote Thrale) named Francis Barber, who became his valet and, later, the principal beneficiary of his will. By employing a Caribbean slave, Johnson felt he could exercise Britain’s fundamental principle of liberty (as he saw it) and show a true Christian compassion. Johnson’s anti­pathy to slavery was genuine, even if it was expressed through table talk rather than in books. The sugar-rich Jamaica, in his lofty view, was “a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness”, whose plantation system was a stigma on the English-speaking peoples. In 1777, he shocked an Oxford dinner party by proposing a toast to “the next insurrection of Negroes” in the British Caribbean. Johnson was, in the current coinage, a “compassionate conservative” who delighted in championing the underdog.

Barber’s story has been told many times and Charles Nicholl is at work on a new book about him. In the meantime, we can enjoy Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, a work of punctilious archival research. As Bundock reminds us, Barber had been entrusted to Johnson by a sugar planter with connections in Jamaica, Colonel Richard Bathurst. A full half-century before the abolition of slavery, Barber was instructed to wait on Johnson at his table, answer his door and provide him with a distraction from the “black dog” of depression. Barber’s household duties were not, as Bundock writes, “very taxing”.

In slavery-era Britain, Johnson indulged his Jamaican charge in a way that few other Anglican Tories would have considered proper. Johnson refused to let Barber buy fish for his cat, Hodge, as he did not want him to have to attend on an animal; he paid for his education and, after more than 20 years of service, favoured him with the bulk of his estate. In gratitude, Barber named his first son Samuel and settled in Johnson’s birthplace of Lichfield, where he achieved some note as a Methodist minister and head of a local school (Barber, Bundock speculates, was the “first black schoolmaster in Britain”). Today, Barber’s descendants are alive and well and living around the Midlands – but they all appear to be white.

When Barber arrived in England in 1750, Johnson was at work on A Dictionary of the English Language, which since its inception in 1747 had swollen into a lexical juggernaut containing more than 42,000 entries. The dictionary’s functional clarity and comprehensiveness remain impressive even today. Bundock brings to life the teeming humanity around Johnson’s house off Fleet Street, where his six amanuenses struggled to put the lexicon together. Personal vanities and animosities distracted Johnson and his helpers from their task. Inevitably, Barber was present at the disagreements that flared among the printers, etchers, bookbinders, typesetters and, notably, the dictionary’s fair-weather patron, the Earl of ­Chesterfield, whom Johnson came to see as a dolt puffed up by vanity and self-interest.

While other English dictionaries had existed before Johnson’s (notably Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia of 1728), Johnson’s was the first that could be read with pleasure and it helped to establish a national standard English at a time when “Britishness” was a fledgling but important idea. As a black man in Georgian Britain, Barber would have stood out among the Grub Street scribblers, spirit shops and tippling houses that made up the metropolitan ant heap around Johnson’s house. Johnson’s own ungainly physique and awkward, rolling gait might have endeared him to the outsider Barber. Theirs was in many ways a father-son relationship, with all the “intimacy, possessiveness, exasperation and love” that such a relationship entails.

With Barber hovering deferentially at his elbow, Johnson lost no opportunity to trumpet his anti-imperialist sentiments. The usefulness of the British colonies in slave-owning America was, Johnson reckoned, “questionable”; he may even have favoured Charles Edward Stuart’s attempt in 1745 to wrest the British crown from the Hanoverian monarchy. Such nonconformity did not always endear Johnson to his contemporaries. His dictionary, fortified by a subversive irony and a little clotted nonsense, contained many opinionated gibes against pomposity and cant.

When Francis Barber died in 1801 in Staffordshire, at the age of 57 or 58, he was the father of two mixed-race children (his wife, Elizabeth Ball, was entirely white). In some ways, Barber looked forward to the multi-shaded, multi-ethnic Britain of today, which has proportionately one of the largest mixed-race populations in the western world. Bundock’s tale of “white-black interaction” in the Georgian period, written with a Johnsonian clarity and verve, absorbs from start to finish. 

This article appears in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition