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Book Review: The Fortunes of Francis Barber

By (March 20, 2015) No Comment

The Fortunes of Francis Barber:thefortunes of francis barber cover

The True Story of the Jamaican Slave who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir

by Michael Bundock

Yale University Press, 2015

“How should our search for Francis Barber begin?” Michael Bundock asks early in his wonderful breath-of-fresh-air new book The Fortunes of Francis Barber, and the smart directness of the question governs this whole investigation of the young black man who’s best known to students of history for his place in the ramshackle household of the great Samuel Johnson, a household Bundock characterizes as full of “the impecunious and the unfortunate.” Once Johnson was amply solvent, he accumulated dependents and hangers-on of all kinds, to the bewildered despair of his friends, but even in that crowd, Francis Barber stood out, a young Jamaican, an alien to the bustling lanes and coffee shops of Johnson’s world (although with thousands and thousands of fellow aliens in the England of the time, as Bundock amply illustrates).

This is an indispensable volume, by far the most readable and comprehensive and authoritative account of Francis Barber’s life that’s ever been written – or that ever could be written, at least with the source materials we currently have.

And in any such account, the nominal subject of the book will inevitably be shoved aside by the looming shadow of Johnson himself, who famously bristled with opinions and even crank objections, although as even his most easily-offended friends allowed, those opinions didn’t extend to the many personal prejudices that afflicted his day just as insidiously as they do in our own:

To these general views Joshua Reynolds added an important qualification: “The prejudices he had to countries did not extend to individuals. The chief prejudice in which he indulged himself was against Scotland, though he had the most cordial friendship with individuals.” Johnson emphatically rejected the “wicked and injurious” notion that nonwhites were somehow less than human and wrote that “wherever human nature is to be found, there is a mixture of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reason, and … the Creator doth not appear partial in his distributions, but has balanced in most countries their particular inconveniences by particular favours.”

But as commanding as Johnson is, Barber’s own life slipped out of his orbit – on one dramatic occasion above all, the interval Barber spent serving in the British Navy, which Barber traces with pioneering research into ships’ muster books, beginning with the frigate Stag. Johnson felt Barber’s actions in 1758 to be an almost filial desertion, and Johnson’ friends rumored that the young man had been press-ganged into the service. Bundock quite refreshingly brushes away this confusion:

Johnson’s views were trenchant and quotable, and were written down and in due course published by several of his friends and acquaintances. What Barber thought was recorded by no one. The result has been that numerous accounts of the life of Johnson have viewed Barber’s decision to go to sea through Johnson’s eyes, not through Barber’s. In Johnson’s words, Barber “ran away to sea” … We need to think again about what really motivated Barber.

In his will, Johnson left Barber a generous annuity, and Barber was there at his deathbed. Bundock follows Barber’s life and the life of his family after the great man’s death, consistently illuminating corners all earlier biographers have left somewhat murky. The sheer amount of research and consolidating Bundock has done in this book actually manages the near-impossible: it gives us a life of Francis Barber that’s capable of standing on its own – a long-overdue monument to a remarkable man who’s only been a footnote figure before now.