Francis Barber (ca. 1735–1801) was the Jamaican manservant of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) in London from 1752 until Johnson's death. Johnson made him his residual heir, with £70 a year to be given him by Trustees, expressing the wish that he move from London to Lichfield in Staffordshire, Johnson's native city. After Johnson's death, Barber did this, opening a draper's shop and marrying a local woman. Barber was also left Johnson's books and papers, and a gold watch. In later years he had acted as Johnson's assistant in revising his famous Dictionary and other works.
Barber was born a slave on a sugar plantation in Jamaica belonging to the Bathurst family. At the age of about 15, he was brought to England by his owner, Colonel Richard Bathhurst, whose son, also called Richard, was a close friend of Johnson. He was sent to school in Yorkshire. Johnson's wife Elizabeth died in 1752, plunging Johnson into a depression that Barber later vividly described to James Boswell. The Bathursts sent Barber to Johnson as a valet, arriving two weeks after her death. Although the legal validity of slavery in England was ambiguous at this time (with Somersett's Case of 1772 clarifying that it did not exist in England), when the elder Bathurst died two years later he gave Barber his freedom in his will, with a small legacy of £12 (equivalent to £2,000 in 2015). Johnson himself was an outspoken opponent of slavery, not just in England but in the American colonies as well.
Barber then went to work for an apothecary in Cheapside but kept in touch with Johnson. He later signed up as a sailor for the Navy, until retrieved, by Johnson, returning to be his servant. Barber's brief maritime career is known from James Boswell's Life of Johnson:
|“||His negro servant, Francis Barber, having left him, and been some time at sea, not pressed as has been supposed, but with his own consent, it appears from a letter to John Wilkes, Esq., from Dr. Smollet, that his master kindly interested himself in procuring his release from a state of life of which Johnson always expressed the utmost abhorrence. He said, 'No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.' And at another time, 'A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.' The letter was as follows:--
Chelsea, March 16, 1759.
I am again your petitioner, in behalf of that great CHAM of literature, Samuel Johnson. His black servant, whose name is Francis Barber, has been pressed on board the Stag Frigate, Captain Angel, and our lexicographer is in great distress. He says the boy is a sickly lad, of a delicate frame, and particularly subject to a malady in his throat, which renders him very unfit for his Majesty's service. You know what manner of animosity the said Johnson has against you; and I dare say you desire no other opportunity of resenting it than that of laying him under an obligation. He was humble enough to desire my assistance on this occasion, though he and I were never cater-cousins; and I gave him to understand that I would make application to my friend Mr. Wilkes, who, perhaps, by his interest with Dr. Hay and Mr. Elliot, might be able to procure the discharge of his lacquey. It would be superfluous to say more on the subject, which I leave to your own consideration; but I cannot let slip this opportunity of declaring that I am, with the most inviolable esteem and attachment, dear Sir,
Your affectionate, obliged, humble servant,
Mr. Wilkes, who upon all occasions has acted, as a private gentleman, with most polite liberality, applied to his friend Sir George Hay, then one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty; and Francis Barber was discharged, as he has told me, without any wish of his own. He found his old master in Chambers in the Inner Temple, and returned to his service.
Later Johnson put Barber, by then in his early thirties, in a school, presumably so that he could act as Johnson's assistant. From Boswell's Life:
|“||His sincere regard for Francis Barber, his faithful negro servant, made him so desirous of his further improvement, that he now placed him at a school at Bishop Stortford, in Hertfordshire. This humane attention does Johnson's heart much honour. Out of many letters which Mr. Barber received from his master, he has preserved three, which he kindly gave me, and which I shall insert according to their dates.
To MR. FRANCIS BARBER.
I have been very much out of order. I am glad to hear that you are well, and design to come soon to see you. I would have you stay at Mrs. Clapp's for the present, till I can determine what we shall do. Be a good boy.
My compliments to Mrs. Clapp and to Mr. Fowler. I am, Your's affectionately, SAM. JOHNSON'. May 28, 1768.
Barber is often mentioned in James Boswell's Life of Johnson and other contemporary sources, and there are at least two versions of a portrait, one now in Dr. Johnson's House, which may be of him. Most recent art historians thought it was probably painted by James Northcote, or perhaps by Northcote's master Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was one of Barber's Trustees under the will. An alternative view, recently expressed on a BBC programme, is that it is by Reynolds himself, but of his own black servant, not Barber.
When making his will, Johnson asked Sir John Hawkins, later his first biographer, what provision he should make for Barber. Sir John said that a nobleman would give 50 pounds a year (equivalent to £5,000 in 2015). Then I shall be "noblissimus" replied Johnson, and give him 70 (equivalent to £8,000 in 2015). Hawkins disapproved, and after Johnson's death criticised his "ostentatious bounty and favor to negroes." The bequest was indeed widely covered in the press. Johnson, in fact, left £750 (equivalent to £82,000 in 2015) in the trust of his friend Bennet Langton from which he was expected to pay an annuity.
Barber's life in Staffordshire was unsettled, and he was apparently given to drinking. He died in Stafford on 13 January 1801 due to an unsuccessful operation at Staffordshire Royal Infirmary. He was survived by his son, Samuel Barber, his daughter, Ann, and his wife, Elizabeth. His descendants still farm near Lichfield.
Francis Barber's marriage to Elizabeth Ball is featured in the short silent animation The Trouble with Francis.
References and sources
- Leslie Stephen, 'Langton, Bennet (bap. 1736, d. 1801)', rev. Michael Bevan, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2010 accessed 15 July 2014
- Gretchen Gerzina, Black England: Life Before Emancipation, Allison and Busby, 28 June 1999.
- Cedric Barber, Slaves, Sinners and Saints: A Story of the Barber family over three centuries, Tentmaker Publications, Stoke-on-Trent, 2008.
- James Boswell: Life of Johnson
- Sir John Hawkins: Life of Johnson
- 100 Great black britons
- BBC feature
- Transcript of Johnson's Will
- Life, including portrait
- Lecture on Johnson, Boswell, and the abolition of Slavery at the Wayback Machine (archived 1 October 2006)