History February 26, 2019 at 04:00 pm

How this Jamaican slave became heir of prominent British writer Samuel Johnson in the 1700s

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson | Staff Writer

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson February 26, 2019 at 04:00 pm

February 26, 2019 at 04:00 pm | History

How this Jamaican slave became heir of prominent British writer Samuel Johnson in the 1700s.

In the late 1600s and early 1700s, servants of African descent became more and more popular in the homes and businesses of wealthy merchants, noblemen and royals who could afford to purchase an enslaved African to work for them.

Servants of African descent served as a source of cheap labour for those who could not afford the luxury of maidservants and assistants assigned to handle domestic work. By the 1700s, black servants had slowly replaced the lower class white maids and valets who worked in the homes of people of higer class as means of survival.

Samuel Johnson was an English writer, very prominent in his days for his poetry, essays, editorial work and plays. Today, he is celebrated as an important figure who shaped the development of the English language for his work as a lexicographer and creation of the Johnson’s Dictionary of English Language that is described as the most important dictionary in the English Language.

Samuel Johnson

Mr Johnson was not only influential in the literary scene, but he was also well respected among the elite and in the church where he served as a devoted Christian very much against slavery. His honesty about the abonimable trade was very evident in the way he treated Francis Barber, an African who came to work for him and keep him company after the death of his wife.

In 1752, shortly after the death of his wife, Elizabeth Johnson, Samuel Johnson went into a great state of depression, pain and loneliness that bothered everyone who knew him. To help with his state, his good friend Richard Bathurst Jnr who was the son of Colonel Richard Bathurst, a wealthy plantation owner in Jamaica, offered his black servant to him. This servant was known as Francis Barber.

Born a slave in Jamaica in 1735, Francis Barber was given his English name by his owner Colonel Richard Bathurst when he was brought to England in 1750 at the age of 15. Before being known as Francis, he was called Quashie, a pure African name which can be traced to Kormantse, a town in Ghana along the coast identified as a Fanti settlement. Right after his arrival in England, Francis was taken to school to learn to read, write and behave properly in order to fit in and communicate well.

In 1752, he was offered as a gift to Samuel Johnson who immediately made clear that to him, Francis was an employee paid to be his valet. The two would go on to become very close friends.

Over the years, Samuel Johnson became very attached to Francis who was not only his valet but a trusted companion who showed great interest in his literary works and the works of others. Johnson often invited Francis to join him for meetings with his other writer friends and according to the Stateman, proposed a toast in honour of Francis to “the next insurrection of Negroes” in 1777 at an Oxford dinner party.

Francis was present at the time Samuel Johnson was writing the Johnson English Language Dictionary and was also present at the time when James Boswell was writing Samuel Johnson’s biography.

During his time with Samuel Johnson, Francis took time off to work with an apothecary and later to work as a landman on ships at sea all the while keeping in close contact with Samuel Johnson and visiting him anytime he could until his master died in 1784.

Having Francis as the closest thing to family, Samuel Johnson left Francis Barber his literary estate and made him heir to his property allowing him to receive 8,000 pounds a year to cater for his needs.

As requested in the will, Francis moved to Samuel Johnson’s birthplace, Lichfield, where he married his white wife, Elizabeth Ball, who he had two children with, Samuel Johnson and Ann Barber.

Francis opened a drape store selling fine ready-made clothes and cloth and opened a village school becoming the first known black schoolmaster in Britain.

Francis died on January 13, 1801, due to complications in an unsuccessful operation he had. Today, his descendants still live in Lichfield and are mostly white.

His character has appeared in several academic publications after his links to prominent writer Samuel Johnson raised several interests. His life story has also been written by Michael Bundock The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir.

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