This is a biography of a man whose relationship with the renowned Samuel Johnson has long been a matter of some confusion and often misplaced conjecture. Usually referred to as Johnson’s ‘manservant,’ Francis Barber was born in Jamaica and came to this country as a seven-year-old slave with his owner Colonel Bathurst. As with almost everything about his life, even this undisputed detail has a slightly mysterious aspect about it, posing questions which cannot be fully answered. The author examines such incidents in minute detail while attempting to construct a coherent narrative for a life frustratingly lacking in convincing evidence —other than second-hand narratives and wildly biased opinions supplied by those who, for whatever reason, had little sympathy for the former slave.
Colonel Bathurst was a plantation owner from Jamaica who farmed some 2,500 acres and owned nearly 150 slaves. Nearing financial collapse in 1750, he sold his estate and its slaves and returned to England, but brought with him the seven-year-old Francis Barber, a child born on his land with the original name ‘Quashey.’ Of course this begs the question, why? Bundock suggests three possible reasons, all of which open a window onto a world in which human slavery was common currency: the child may have been brought to England to avoid the expense and time involved in employing a reliable servant; he could simply have been a fashionable accompaniment, for a black child servant was a recognisable statement of wealth and status; or he may have been the child of a slave mother and Colonel Bathurst. Interestingly, none of the above are entirely convincing explanations for what followed.
Once the seven-year-old had arrived in England, he was sent off to school in a Yorkshire village and had little contact with the Bathurst family, which only adds to the mystery. Having spent two years at this school, where —as a black child— he would have been an unusual and possibly unique pupil, he was brought back to London. Dr. Johnson had been grieving the death of his wife Tettie for several months, and his work on the dictionary had stalled. Dr Richard Bathurst, the Colonel’s son, was a firm friend of Johnson, and suggested that the little boy should go to live with him. This was agreed, and Johnson soon became emotionally attached to the child —but was his status slave or manservant?
The question is important, as Johnson was a lifelong opponent of the institution of human slavery. He once proposed a toast at an Oxford college dinner wishing success to “the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies.” Bundock explores the young boy’s status in some detail, and is particularly informative regarding the issue of a Christian baptism. Two early biographers of Johnson provide conflicting information regarding Francis’s baptism. One (Sir William Hawkins) claims that this occurred soon after the boy arrived in England and shortly before he was sent to school in Yorkshire, while the other (William Cooke) suggests that Johnson had the child baptised after he came to live with him.
The relationship of baptism to slavery was defined in an early court judgement of 1697, in which it was decided that as Africans were “infidels,” i.e. non-Christians, it was lawful to keep them in servitude. However, as Bundock explains, this was not the open justification for slavery which it implies, for it suggested that while it was legal for non-Christians to be kept as slaves, the opposite would be the case for those accepted into the family of the church through baptism. Put simply, if the deciding factor was a matter of faith, then to be baptised enabled the enslaved to be legally freed. While this may be the reason for the baptism, it does raise the further question of why it was felt to be necessary –however, it could be further evidence that Barber was the son of Colonel Bathurst.
The house was occupied not only by Johnson, but also by an assortment of other inhabitants including Mrs Anna Williams, a blind poet who ultimately ran the house for thirty years, and Robert Levett, an unqualified medical practitioner who preferred to be paid for his occasional work in gin or brandy. The house was not harmonious. Mrs Williams had a quick temper and was very argumentative, and took an instant dislike to the young Barber. However, the series of incidents that followed serves to reinforce the view that Johnson had a strong personal connection with the boy.
In 1756, after the death of Colonel Bathurst, Barber was left a legacy of some £200. Once he had access to this money, he left the house in Gough Square and went to live with the apothecary Edward Ferrand in Cheapside. Ferrand was a leading figure in the Society of Apothecaries, a powerful organisation that controlled the activities of fellow members in the City. He ran a successful business and was married with three daughters, all around the same age as Barber. Though Barber remained there for two years, contact with Johnson was maintained and after what seems to have been some kind of reconciliation, Johnson expected him to return to Gough Square. However, Barber did not return. He is next to be found on a Royal Navy ship off the Kentish coast. After a few months he was transferred to a new ship, the Fifth-Rated Stag, where he was to spend the next two years. Johnson was horrified. For some reason he held a very dim view of sailors and their way of life. He once told Boswell, in all seriousness, that “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.” After much effort, including seeking support from Tobias Smollett (whom he barely knew) and from John Wilkes (whom Johnson loathed, animosity that was reciprocated), he managed to have Barber released from his naval duties. It remains an open question as to whether Barber had been ‘pressed’ into naval service, but Bundock argues that the available evidence suggests that this was not the case.
So Barber returned to live with Johnson in rooms at Inner Temple Lane. Levett was also part of the household, but there was now no room for Anna Williams, who rented lodgings nearby. In 1762 Johnson was granted a pension from the Crown of £300 per annum, a large sum which lifted him out of poverty. In 1765 he moved into Johnson’s Square, off Fleet Street, and reassembled his household of Levett, Anna Williams, and Barber. In a final bizarre twist, following the successful establishment of the home in Johnson’s Square, in 1768 Johnson decided that Barber’s education needed to be addressed, and he arranged for him to become a boarder at the highly regarded Bishop’s Stortford Grammar School, at nearly twenty-five years of age. Barber remained at the school for the next three years, but what his fellow students made of their grownup black classmate is unknown.
By the summer of 1771 Barber was back with Johnson, the school experiment having come to an end. Their relationship remained close, and when Barber married Elizabeth Ball in January 1773, the couple went to live with Johnson. In 1776 they all moved to Boult Square, into a larger property into which all the other dependents on Johnson could fit more comfortably —John, the Barbers, Mrs Williams, Levett, Mrs Desmoulines, Mrs White (possibly a servant) and ‘Poll Carmichael’ (possibly a retired prostitute). In an intriguing letter to Mrs Thrale in November 1778, Johnson wrote:
“We have a tolerable concord at home, but no love. Williams hates every body. Levet hates Desmoulins and does not love Williams. Desmoulins hates them both. Poll loves none of them.”
Barber’s marriage itself is yet another fascinating social twist. Elizabeth Ball, whom he married on the 28th of January 1773, was seventeen or eighteen and also white. Mixed marriages were not unusual at the time and, according to Bundock, were not necessarily stigmatised by racial prejudice and ignorance. One apparent exception to this was Johnson’s early biographer Sir John Hawkins who, as Johnson’s executor, would later make life as difficult as he could for Barber. Hawkins did little to conceal his dislike of Barber or his marriage. The couple had a male child in 1775 who sadly died a few months after his birth, but who—significantly— had been named Samuel.
In June 1783 Johnson suffered a stroke which left him temporarily without speech. Barber had found him the morning after, when Johnson handed him a handwritten note with instructions to fetch medical help. From that moment on, until Johnson’s death, Barber was his constant companion and personal assistant. He controlled who could visit the ailing man and was strict that only those who would not upset or bother his charge would be allowed access.
Johnson was not only suffering physically, his ‘black dog’ had also returned to haunt his final days. Levett had died in his sleep in February 1782, and in September 1783 —while Johnson was on a visit to William Bowles’s estate, Heale House in Wiltshire— Anna Williams passed away at Boult Square. Bundock has found a highly significant comment from the playwright Arthur Murphy, who wrote:
“By the death of Mrs Williams (Johnson) was left in a state of destitution, with nobody but Frank, his black servant, to soothe his anxious moments.”
Johnson died in December 1784, and Barber was with him at the end. In Johnson’s will Barber was bequeathed an annual legacy of £70, to be controlled by a small group of trustees. This caused several problems since one of the trustees was Sir John Hawkins, but after some difficulties Barber received most of his inheritance and eventually set up home in Lichfield with his wife and two surviving children, where he remained until the end of his life.
This is a finely-researched book, and presents the evidence for Barber’s biography in a succinct and unemotional way. However, the paucity of that evidence with regard to the character, ambitions, beliefs, and desires of the man remains a major frustration. This is no criticism of the author, but it would be fascinating to know more about what drove Barber to make the various decisions that affected his life. His story is genuinely fascinating, but the emotional context is absent —again, through no fault of the author. We have only the observations of —mostly—white men of someone whose status with Johnson was not easily defined nor even understood. Barber was clearly a freed slave, but the legal basis is unclear. Johnson had a strong emotional attachment to him, resented by others close to the doctor. Johnson went to considerable lengths to ensure that Barber could thrive and make a good life, even rescuing him from a career in the Navy. Barber married a white woman, had children, and lived most of his life within the confines of a largely white community, yet seems at the same time to have existed on the margin of that society. Towards the end of Johnson’s life he was the elderly man’s only true companion, and in his will Johnson recognised the personal debt that he owed him. Despite Hawkins’ efforts, he received most of what Johnson intended.
So we are left with something of an enigma. Johnson was one of the major figures of his time, and his dictionary one of the defining accomplishments of the age. His biography by Boswell remains one of the finest ever written, and there is little that remains to be discovered about his life. Yet his relationship with the young black companion who entered his life at the tender age of seven and stayed with him until the end of his life remains mysterious. We may chart the events of Francis Barber’s life in as much detail as the available sources allow, as Michael Bundock does with admirable skill, but we cannot quite reach out and touch the core of the man himself, nor fully explain his relationship with one of the greatest men of the age —and that is, perhaps, the saddest conclusion of this fine book.--Paul Flux