Francis Barber and Black British History

Since the publication in 2015 of The Fortunes of Francis Barber (now reissued in paperback) there has been an outburst of interest in many of the subjects with which it deals. Barber’s story is of interest for its own sake. But it is also relevant to two broader matters: black British history and British involvement in slavery. 


Barber’s story

The book tells the story of a young boy who was born into slavery in Jamaica in about 1742 and brought to England by his owner in 1750. Many of his subsequent experiences were shared by other black people in England at the time – enslavement, domestic service and service in the Royal Navy. He married a white woman and they had mixed-race children – again, by no means unknown events in the eighteenth century. The unusual aspect of his life was his long connection with the great man of letters, Samuel Johnson. It began when Barber became Johnson’s servant and ended, 32 years later, with him becoming Johnson’s heir. 

The Fortunes of Francis Barber is one of a substantial and growing number of books dealing with the lives of individual black Britons. In Black Tudors: The Untold Story, Miranda Kaufmann tells ten such stories from an earlier period. Other books have dealt with the broad historical sweep of black British history. 


Black British history

The historian Gretchen Gerzina recalls being assured by a bookseller that there were no black people in England before 1945. For anyone who might still share that bookseller’s view, the true story of black British history is readily available, and our knowledge has been added to steadily over the last few years. 

For a long time the key work on black British history has been Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, published in 1984. There had been other books on the subject before, including important work by James Walvin, Edward Scobie and Folarin Shyllon. But the sheer range of Fryer’s work – and its accessibility – made it indispensable and it remains in print to this day.

Now taking its place alongside Fryer’s work is David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History, which appeared in 2016. Significantly it accompanied a BBC television series so that the story it told was made available to a wide audience. (It still is: at the time of writing the series can be watched on BBC iPlayer.) Like Fryer, Olusoga covers a very extensive chronological sweep, but he also gives particular emphasis to the global aspects of that history.

New stories are still being discovered and fresh approaches taken to telling them. In 2020 Gretchen Gerzina edited a collection of essays, Britain’s Black Past, which shed new light on a number of black figures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (My own essay in that collection builds on some themes from The Fortunes of Francis Barber to explore the attitudes towards Barber – both supportive and hostile – of two significant figures in his life, James Boswell and John Hawkins.) The book owed its origins to a Radio 4 series Britain’s Black past which Gerzina presented, so that again the stories told reached a wide audience.

Gerzina is herself the author of an important – and very readable – book on the eighteenth century, Black London: Life Before Emancipation (1995), which I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to find out more about black history in this period. Unusually, you won’t even have to visit a library to find the book, as she has made it freely accessible online at https://www.dartmouth.edu/library/digital/publishing/books/gerzina1995/


Slavery and abolition

Francis Barber was enslaved in Jamaica and he was in Britain at a time when slave sales were taking place here. He lived through the first wave of anti-slave trade activity and public debate (some of which I discuss in my book), but he died before the abolition of the trade. Some of those in his circle took opposing sides in those debates: Samuel Johnson wrote against slavery while James Boswell published a notorious pro-slavery poem (though he was personally supportive of Barber).

The bigger picture of Britain’s role in, and responsibility for, slavery and the slave trade is a subject which has rarely been out of the news in the last few years. In part this is because remarkable historical research has revealed the extent of British involvement both in slave trading and slave holding. Much of this is readily available to anyone who is interested. Astonishing detail of some 36,000 slaving expeditions (covering the period from 1514 to 1866) is now available at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database at https://www.slavevoyages.org/. The ongoing work of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London has been central to revealing the deep impact in Britain of slave-ownership. The evidence can be consulted online at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/. This work by historians can and should inform current debates about how Britain’s past is remembered.

Francis Barber’s life began in the wretchedness and brutality of Jamaican slavery. In some ways he was fortunate: he escaped from slavery and made a life of his own. He was also able to leave behind a legacy – to this day his direct descendants live in Staffordshire. But vast numbers were not so fortunate and not even their names are remembered. We rightly recognise the work of those who laboured to abolish the trade and slavery itself. But what of the millions of anonymous victims: where is their memorial?


Michael Bundock is a barrister, a Director of Dr Johnson’s House Trust and an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London.

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