The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir

Michael Bundock. Yale University Press, 2015. 282 pages. $35.00.

By D.T. Siebert

In the many biographies of Samuel Johnson (often known as “Dr. Johnson”), Francis Barber appears occasionally in the background as Johnson’s faithful black manservant. In one famous passage of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Johnson hurriedly dresses for his unexpected and initially unwelcome dinner with the radical John Wilkes, roaring “Frank, a clean shirt.” It is a dramatic moment, but Barber hardly plays much of a part.

In his book Michael Bundock puts Barber in the foreground. Born in Jamaica, possibly the illegitimate son of his white owner, Col. Richardson, Barber came to London in 1750 with his master. Not long after, Barber ended up in the employ of Johnson, who later paid for Barber’s schooling and generously provided for him—not the least of which by being named Johnson’s principal heir.    

Bundock’s interest in this subject was piqued by a presentation on slavery in 18th-century Britain. This book is itself a detailed study of that subject, with Francis Barber as the featured example. Bundock neglects no fact relating to the context of Barber’s life. For example, there is a quite revealing chapter on the life of African slaves in Jamaica, whose brutal treatment Bundock vividly documents. Unlike their condition in Jamaica, blacks in Great Britain profited by their ambiguous legal status as slaves. Often, for example, just being baptized meant in some cases that they were no longer slaves. Barber got his “Christian” name by baptism, but in any case Col. Richardson’s will officially granted him freedom. A good part of the book explains the legal rulings that gradually eliminated slavery in Britain. James Boswell in fact acted as counsel for a black man in Scotland who contested his condition as a slave, and none other than Samuel Johnson helped Boswell prepare court arguments against slavery.

Bundock explores the varying attitudes toward blacks in 18th-century England. Sometimes black youths were status symbols—liveried accessories among the upper classes. Also, like Francis Barber, they served more utilitarian roles as ordinary servants. Johnson’s own friends display a wide range of attitudes toward Barber—from tolerant acceptance to racist suspicion and scorn.    

The book is only 218 pages of text, but it seems longer. That is because it often contains information only tangentially related to Barber—most of it interesting in itself, but perhaps mainly to a student of the 18th-century. Why should an account of the first balloon flight at Oxford be included, on the supposition that Johnson sent Barber to see it?  

Bundock is clearly a champion of Francis Barber, and sometimes that understandable bias is apparent. Barber inherited a £70 annuity, plus almost £1,500 more. Reduced to poverty in his later years, what did he do with that money? Bundock cannot say, except that Barber had expensive medical bills and the responsibility of maintaining a wife and family. Sir John Hawkins, one of Johnson’s executors and early biographers, strongly criticized the settlement of most of the estate on Barber, when Johnson’s own relatives by blood received very little. Others, like Lucy Porter, daughter of Johnson’s beloved wife, received nothing. Hawkins had a rather unlikable personality, to be sure, but Bundock seems inclined to dismiss his reasonable objections to the fairness of Johnson’s will. Johnson once asked what kind of settlement would be appropriate for Francis Barber. He was told a nobleman would perhaps give an annuity of £50. Johnson replied that he would be “nobilissimus” (most noble) and would give £70. In fact he gave Barber much more than that. 

D.T. Siebert (ΦBK, University of Oklahoma, 1962) is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.  His recent book Mortality’s Muse: The Fine Art of Dying (Delaware, 2013) was reviewed in The Key Reporter in 2014.