Francis Barber

Francis Barber (ca. 1735 – 1801) was the Jamaican manservant of Samuel Johnson in London from 1752 until Johnson's death in 1784. 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 in 1784, Barber did this, opening a draper's shop and marrying a local girl. 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 Porter 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 the 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. 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, perhaps against his wishes, by Johnson, returning to be his servant. Barber's brief maritime career is known from James Boswell's "Life of Johnson":

cquote|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 ofliterature, Samuel Johnson. His black servant, whose name is FrancisBarber, has been pressed on board the Stag Frigate, Captain Angel, andour 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 whatmanner of animosity the said Johnson has against you; and I dare sayyou desire no other opportunity of resenting it than that of laying himunder an obligation. He was humble enough to desire my assistance onthis occasion, though he and I were never cater-cousins; and I gave himto understand that I would make application to my friend Mr. Wilkes,who, perhaps, by his interest with Dr. Hay and Mr. Elliot, might be ableto procure the discharge of his lacquey. It would be superfluous to saymore on the subject, which I leave to your own consideration; but Icannot let slip this opportunity of declaring that I am, with the mostinviolable 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, thenone of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty; and Francis Barber wasdischarged, as he has told me, without any wish of his own. He found hisold master in Chambers in the Inner Temple [1047] , and returned to hisservice.

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":

cquote|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.



I have been very much out of order. I am glad to hear that you arewell, 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 agood boy [185] .

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. Then I shall be "noblissimus" replied Johnson, and give him 70. Hawkins disapproved, and after Johnson's death criticised his "ostentatious bounty and favour to negroes." The bequest was indeed widely covered in the press.

Barber's life in Staffordshire was unsettled, and he was apparently given to drinking. He died in Stafford; his descendants still farm near Lichfield.


*James Boswell: "Life of Johnson" []
*Sir John Hawkins: Life of Johnson

External links

* [ 100 Great black britons]
* [ BBC feature]
* [ Transcript of Johnson's Will]
* [ Life, including portrait]
* [ Lecture on Johnson, Boswell, and the abolition of Slavery]

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