samuel johnson’s slave

3a824cf4-35fe-11e5_1166216hKathryn Sutherland at the Times Literary Supplement:

In consideration of the extraordinary life he records, Michael Bundock has given his fine biography of Francis Barber a subtitle that invokes the authenticating formula of the eighteenth-century novel: this is The true story of the Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson’s heir. Born on a sugar plantation in 1742/3 (the date is uncertain), the boy who later became Francis Barber was allotted the name Quashey; a generic slave name, it may also indicate he was born on a Sunday. Quashey inherited slave status, being literally the property of his master, Colonel Richard Bathurst, to sell or lend or give away. When the failure of his estates forced Bathurst to leave Jamaica, Quashey went with him along with the rest of his luggage. Was he Bathurst’s son? Perhaps, though there is no evidence to confirm this. In London, they lodged with Dr Richard Bathurst, who was the Colonel’s son and a friend of Johnson. Both men were passionate opponents of slavery. Here Quashey was baptized, receiving the name Francis Barber (the reason for the choice is unclear), his baptism possibly remitting his slavery (again, this is uncertain). Almost immediately, he was packed off to school some 250 miles away, to the small village of Barton in North Yorkshire, where his must surely have been the only black face. He returned to London two years later, at which time he joined Johnson’s household in Gough Square, Fleet Street. Already seasoned in adventures, Francis Barber was now probably around ten years old.

From the late seventeenth century, British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade led to a significant expansion of the black population of London and other port cities – Southampton, Bristol, Liverpool. Black slaves attended returning sea captains, colonial officials, merchants and plantation owners.

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