Sunday, 7 April 2019

Francis Barber: the Slave who became Samuel Johnson's Heir

Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784), often referred to as Dr. Johnson, is best known for his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), and the classic biography of him by his friend James Boswell, The Life of Dr. Johnson. (Below: Portrait of Johnson by Joshua Reynolds)

Among Johnson's many other writings is a long essay, Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress  (1775). As the title indicates, Johnson rejects the American colonists' complaint that they were being oppressed by taxes levied by the British parliament. 

Among other things, Johnson argued that the Americans' claim that there should be "No Taxation without Representation" was unfounded. The colonists had voluntarily resigned the power of voting in British elections by leaving Britain, but retained "virtual representation" in Parliament, as did British people who had no right to vote. If the colonists wanted to take part in British politics, he suggested, they could move to England and buy an estate. 

This argument was unconvincing then and hasn't improved with time. Taxation No Tyranny has contributed to the common view of Johnson as an arch Tory. In some respects he was, but the reality is more complicated, and far more interesting. Another of Johnson's arguments is far more powerful -- and liberal. It may be summed up in the line "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" 

Here Johnson hit the colonial argument for liberty at its most vulnerable point. The colonists claimed that the British government was trying to enslave them while holding hundreds of thousands of people in the most oppressive form of bondage. 

Johnson, unlike most influential Britons in the 1770s, considered slavery an abomination. He once proposed a toast to "the next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies." He also argued that if the Africans were freed and given some land, they would likely prove better citizens than their masters.

Johnson did more than talk the talk. Years before he essentially adopted a former Jamaican slave, Francis Barber, and educated him. Barber entered Johnson's household as a boy in 1752. Johnson's wife Elizabeth had just died, plunging Johnson into a deep depression. Barber's owner sent Barber to serve as Johnson's valet. 

Barber  (1742/3-1801), originally named Quashey, was still a slave at that time, but his owner freed him two years later. After gaining his freedom, he worked for an apothecary, briefly as a sailor in the Navy, and then as Johnson's assistant. Barber married Elizabeth Ball, a white woman with whom he had two children. In his will, Johnson left Barber a substantial legacy in money along with his books and papers, and a gold watch. 

The portrait above, which some art experts attribute to Johnson's friend Joshua Reynolds, hangs in Johnson's house today. Whether it is a portrait of Barber or not is disputed. Some experts think it is a portrait of Reynolds' manservant. 

Johnson's house, just off Fleet Street in Gough Square, is open to the public daily. It is well worth visiting to learn more about Johnson and Barber.

Further Reading: Michael Bundock, The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave who Became Samuel Johnson's Heir (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015)

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