A plaque for Francis Barber at Dr Johnson's house
By ROBERT DEMARIA
On July 28, about a hundred people gathered at Dr Johnson’s House at 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street in London, to witness the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the life of Francis Barber, a West Indian freed slave who was a member of Johnson’s household and his residuary legatee. The plaque is one of several being placed at sites in the UK, former colonies and the Commonwealth in connection with a four-part BBC television series about Britons of African origin on both sides of the Atlantic. The series traces the presence of Africans in Britain from Roman times, through the years of slave trading in the Western Hemisphere, and into modern times.
David Olusoga, the writer and presenter of the BBC series, and his crew were at Dr Johnson’s House for most of the day, trying to capture on film the situation in which Barber lived and to get some sense of the remarkable “Modern Family” of which he was a part in Gough Square.
Colonel Richard Bathurst brought Barber with him to London around 1750 after the sale of his plantation in Jamaica, where Barber was born into slavery. Almost all the other slaves were sold along with the plantation, and Barber’s special treatment has raised speculation that he was the son of the plantation owner and therefore the half-brother of Johnson’s close friend (also called Richard Bathurst). Francis was put in Johnson’s care in 1752, shortly after the death of Mrs Johnson.
When Colonel Bathurst died in 1755, he left Barber his freedom in his will, although whether or not this changed his legal status is not clear. Barber had not lived in England as a slave; he was a servant and a tutee in Johnson’s house; but his freedom was nonetheless supremely important. In 1762, Richard Bathurst died at the siege of Havanna, where he served as a military doctor, and this may have intensified Johnson’s commitment to Barber. Johnson sorely lamented Bathurst’s death, vehemently declaring that all the territories won in the battle were not worth the life of his friend. Although Johnson thought highly of the effort to bring the benefits of Christianity to all parts of the world, he was strongly against colonial expansion; he deplored colonial cruelty, and he was profoundly opposed to slavery, which he regarded as dangerous to moral, spiritual and civic life. His toast while dining with “some grave men” at Oxford “to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies” is well known, but even earlier, in the 1750s, while composing his Dictionary, he paused when he came to the word “caitiff" and reflected on its signification as both a bad man and a slave; then, he inserted a Greek distich deploring slavery because it diminishes morality. In 1776, reacting to revolutionary activity in the American colonies, he asked trenchantly why “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of the Negroes”.
When Barber arrived at 17 Gough Square at the age of six or seven, Johnson and his amanuenses were at work on the great Dictionary. Johnson helped Barber to get an education, tutoring him himself and eventually sending him to a boarding school. The two lived together on and off through Barber’s youth, which included a stint in the Royal Navy and a period of service with an apothecary in the City. Johnson himself was somewhat itinerant for several years after leaving Gough Square in 1759, but he eventually settled down in Johnson Court and then in nearby Bolt Court. Barber, who was by this time married, shared his house again as an adult.
Barber’s marriage to a white British woman was controversial in Johnson’s circle, but Johnson had no qualms about welcoming Frank, his wife, and their children into his life. As far as I know, Johnson never spoke about his inclusion of Frank and his family as an act of special virtue on his part. He benefited from Frank’s presence, and he was no more critical of Barber’s status than he was of the status of the other denizens of his household: Anna, the blind daughter of the experimenter Zachariah Williams; Elizabeth Desmoulins, a former caretaker of his wife; Polly Carmichael, a former prostitute; and Robert Levett, a largely self-educated doctor to the poor. This was not by any means a harmonious group, and each had his or her problems, but they stayed together for a long time, and Johnson felt indebted to each for various reasons.
Many of Johnson’s companions died before he did. By the end, Barber was almost the only one remaining, and he was certainly the youngest. When Johnson died in 1784, he left Barber about £1,500 and many of his worldly effects. Johnson named Barber as his residuary legatee over the objections of his executor and attorney Sir John Hawkins, who expressed his prejudicial views in his biography of Johnson in 1787. With his inheritance Barber moved his family to Lichfield, where he opened a school, becoming perhaps the first black schoolmaster in Britain. Like Johnson’s school in Lichfield in the 1730s, Barber’s failed, and he was eventually forced to sell many of Johnson’s effects. His family thrived nevertheless, and he left children and grandchildren behind when he died in 1801.
At Thursday’s celebration, Cedric Barber, Francis’s direct heir of the seventh generation, was on hand to whisk the veil from the plaque and to speak briefly about his family’s connection to Johnson. He was joined by Celine Luppo McDaid, the curator of Dr Johnson’s House, and by Michael Bundock, the author of the recent authoritative biography, The Fortunes of Francis Barber (2015), which is now the definitive source of information on Barber (including the information presented in this article).
After richly deserved applause, the assembled group of Johnsonians, including many patrons, directors and governors of the House, went inside to drink a toast to the memories of Francis Barber and his unlikely master turned employer turned lifelong friend, Samuel Johnson.
The BBC series A Black History of Britain will air this autumn.