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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Johnson’s Gentleman — Francis Barber

Dr. Samuel Johnson: poet, critic, wit, essayist, playwright, author of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language — here was one of the towering figures of 18th-century English life and literature, immortalised by his biographer Boswell. But but behind Dr. Johnson, serving and supporting the great man in his endless projects, was a little-remembered figure from the Caribbean: Francis Barber, of Jamaica. Barber's extraordinary role in Johnson's life is recalled by Frances Parkes

  • A painting by Charles Green of Dr Johnson, left, and James Boswell
  • A Young Black by Sir Joshua Reynolds — a portrait of Francis Barber. Painting by Tate Gallery Publications

In 1750, Richard Bathurst — or “Colonel” Bathurst, as he was known — left his Jamaican plantation for the last time and returned to England, to retire in the town of Lincoln. He took with him a five-year-old Jamaican boy, Francis Barber, who was probably the son of one of Bathurst’s slaves. The “Colonel” was very fond of the child, whose quickness of mind and disarming personality charmed him. Francis was sent to a village school in Yorkshire, and when the Colonel died he was given his freedom and a bequest of £12.

The Colonel’s son, Dr Richard Bathurst, lacked the financial means to look after the boy; the estate in Jamaica was sold to cover his father’s debts. He arranged for young Francis to enter the service of his good friend Samuel Johnson, whose wife had just died, leaving him inconsolable and in some need of help. Francis was about seven years old and Johnson 43. Johnson was making his name as a poet, critic and essayist in London, and was working on a dictionary full of scandalous definitions; already he had a personality — later to be immortalised by his disciple Boswell — that was erudite, opinionated, abrasive, witty, and always ready with a barbed retort.

We can only imagine the first impression that the great man made on this young boy. One contemporary description of Johnson says: “The great author was a huge, scarred man dressed in a dirty brown coat and waistcoat, with breeches that were brown (although they had once been crimson) and a black wig that was too small for his large head.”

 

Francis worked for Johnson until he was 11, showing a remarkable independence of spirit. But then, after a heated argument with Johnson, he decided to leave. He took the £12 Colonel Bathurst had left him and bought himself an apprenticeship with an apothecary in Cheapside, in the City of London. But he visited Johnson every day and still delivered letters and messages for him. And eventually he went back to live in Johnson’s house.

Soon Francis was well known by Johnson’s circle of friends, including James Boswell. However, Francis could not settle down, “being disgusted in the house”, as Johnson put it, and at the age of 13 he ran away to sea, joining the Princes Royal at Deptford. Johnson was mortified. He had grown very fond of Francis and had begun to teach him the rudiments of Greek.

Life in the navy, Johnson thought, was certain to be dreadful: “As to the sailor, when you look down from the quarter-deck to the space below, you see the utmost extremity of human misery: such crowding, such filth, such stench!” He used his influence to try to gain Francis’s release. Tobias Smollett, who had been a ship’s surgeon, was assured by Johnson that Frank (as he was known in the navy) was “a sickly lad of a delicate frame and particularly subject to a malady in his throat and very unfit for His Majesty’s service”.

It seems that Johnson exaggerated Francis’s weakness in order to gain his release, because when he was traced by Sir George Hay, one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, the boy was quite happy and healthy and aboard the frigate Stag. Francis later told Boswell that he had been discharged from the navy “without any wish of my own”. During Francis’s absence, Johnson had become short of money and had left his large house to take lodgings in the Inner Temple. The 15-year-old Francis joined Johnson there.

 

He was much happier in Johnson’s new lodgings. Johnson needed him. Francis helped him in his work and listened to him reading the essays he would later publish in the magazine called The Rambler.

In 1759, Johnson published his novel The Prince of Abissinia. It is about a young Prince who grows tired of the joys of his “happy valley” and travels the world with his philosopher Imlac, discovering that it is only virtue that can give a quiet conscience and the prospect of a happier state.

In part, Johnson wrote it as a guiding story for Francis. It was published within months of Voltaire’s Candide, to which it was compared.

The Johnson lodging at No 1 Inner Temple Lane soon became a sanctuary for Francis’s black servant friends. Johnson despised the late 18th-century fashion for dressing black servant boys in silks, satins and turbans. It must have been a great relief to them to sit and just relax in front of the large coal fire. Francis’s status grew steadily: in 1767 he was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Johnson took him travelling throughout England. The pair stayed in Johnson’s home town of Lichfield and then moved on to Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It seems that during this period Johnson persuaded Francis to go back to finish his schooling.

This was a very brave step for Francis to take. He was now 22 years old. Johnson placed him in Bishop’s Stortford, north of London. Johnson knew the owners of the school well and it was arranged that Francis would live with them. Francis would have been at least six years older than any other student, and the only black person in the school. Johnson wrote to him at least once a week. On one occasion he said: “Let me know what English books you read for your entertainment. You can never be wise unless you love reading.” Later, he wrote: “Do not imagine that I shall forget or forsake you, for if, when I examine you, I find that you have not lost your time, you shall want no encouragement from, Yours affectionately Samuel Johnson.”

Johnson himself went from literary strength to strength, and Francis’s status at school was strengthened by his close relationship with the great man who received national acclaim when his new edition of the works of Shakespeare was published. Even King George III was intrigued by Johnson, who was allowed to use the royal library, and was quite taken aback when he was tapped on his shoulder and informed that he was in the King’s presence.

 

Francis was away at school for five years. In 1772 he returned to Temple Court. He was now absolutely secure in the affections of Samuel Johnson, who looked upon him as a surrogate son. This was the beginning of Francis’s role as Johnson’s protector, for the great man had begun to show signs of extreme mood swings, sometimes reaching the verge of complete mental collapse.

In 1773 Johnson set off with Boswell on his famous journey around Scotland, leaving Francis to look after the Temple lodgings. During Johnson’s absence Francis courted Betsy, the daughter of a publican, who lived close by. Johnson loved women in general and readily accepted Betsy, as did Boswell, who sometimes stayed at Temple Court and was always looked after by Francis with “most civil assiduity”.

Francis married Betsy in 1776 and the couple lived with Johnson, although the union was not always sweetness and light. On one occasion Johnson’s friend, Mrs Thrale, held a servant’s party at her house in Streatham. Francis became very jealous of all the attention his very pretty wife was receiving and left the party. Johnson thought he was ill and went after him.

“What is the matter, child, that you leave Streatham? Art sick?”

On learning that he wasn’t, Johnson yelled: “Are you jealous of your wife, you stupid blockhead? What do they do to her, man? Do the footmen kiss her?”

Francis replied: “No Sir, no. Kiss my wife, Sir! I hope not, Sir.”

“Why then, go back directly and dance, you dog, do; and let’s have no more of such empty lamentations.”

But Johnson always took Francis’s side in any household argument, even when friends became jealous of the relationship. Johnson’s solicitor Sir John Hawkins and his daughter, Miss Hawkins, made consistent efforts to break the bond between Johnson and Francis, but with no success. Johnson wanted Francis by his side, particularly when he was ill. Now 68 years old, he was overweight and suffered from spasmodic bouts of pain, for which he asked his doctor to bleed him.

During these times Francis took care of Johnson’s affairs as best he could. He co-operated with Boswell in sending him the proof sheets of his new book Lives of the Poets and did his best to preserve all other proof sheets. “Good Mr Francis,” Boswell wrote to him, “I send my compliments to Mrs Barber.” Johnson and Francis read Greek together and prayed together. The old man was dependent on Francis for waiting on him, buying food, running errands and setting the table. He did not allow Francis to buy food for his beloved cats, nor did he ask him to help him dress, believing that these were tasks too demeaning for him.

 

In 1781 Francis’s wife Betsy gave birth to their first child, Elizabeth, and Johnson’s health began its last steady decline. Fearing that posterity would look unkindly on him, he asked Francis to burn his letters and diaries, but Francis only did this when his master stood over him and watched. Much of what we know of Johnson’s life today was preserved by Francis Barber.

In 1783 Johnson had a stroke. For a man whose life was built upon the razor-sharp faculties of his mind, it was devastating. The anxiety made him believe he was going mad. The only therapy was work, and he sat up many nights with Francis, editing and re-writing pieces of text. This and his strong religious faith helped him to achieve some peace of mind.

As he began to realise that his end was near, Johnson called in Sir John Hawkins so that he could make his will. Against Sir John’s advice, he left Francis all his household goods and £70.00 a year for life. In a document also witnessed by Joshua Reynolds and Dr William Scott, he left the residue of his estate, after all debts had been paid, to Francis. He called in his friend, the statesman William Windham, and asked him to look after Francis.

A priest administered the sacrament to Johnson and all of his household. Johnson’s final days were a mixture of violent outbursts and religious tranquillity. One night he wrenched a pair of scissors from Francis and plunged them into his massively swollen calves. The last person that Francis allowed to see Johnson was a little girl, who had come in off the street begging to ask the great man for his blessing. Johnson said: “God bless you, my dear”. He died that night. On December 20th, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Francis, who for so long had looked after and been looked after by Johnson, was devastated by his death. He did his best to adapt to life without him, but he found that without Johnson’s protection, the doors that had previously been open to him were now closed. Sir John Hawkins could not, or would not, explain to him the complex legal conditions surrounding his trust fund and Johnson’s will.

Samuel Johnson had advised Francis to move to Lichfield after his death, and Francis did so. Boswell remained in contact with him and advised him to open a bookshop selling stationery as well as books. However, he and Betsy decided to open a school instead. It was not a success and the family struggled to survive. In 1799, Francis went before the local Lichfield Magistrate and gave a sworn affidavit in accordance with the Poor Laws; he was having trouble paying his rent and had to satisfy the authorities of where he planned to live, in order to avoid eviction. He moved to a smaller house and managed to survive, but his health failed and in 1801, at the age of 56, he died of pneumonia.

Three of Francis’s four children survived to marry and have children of their own. Most of the goods that Samuel Johnson had left were sold to keep the family alive. Ironically, many were purchased by the people who had given them to Johnson in the first place. However, one son, Samuel Barber, went on to become a potter; and among his proudest possessions were the remains of a silver canteen of cutlery once used in the household of Dr Samuel Johnson.