Most people believe that black people came to Britain after the Second World War with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. But Black people have had a presence in Britain for as far back as Roman times.
Even closer in history, there were Blacks in Britain during and after slavery. If white British people looked at their family trees, it would shock many to discover a Black ancestor who lived in Britain.
This is the story of Francis Barber, a former slave who has white descendants living today.
Early life of Francis Barber
Francis Barber was born circa 1742/3 with the birth name Quashey into a slave family. In 1749 the Orange River Estate plantation where he lived was sold by Richard Bathurst, a colonel in the Jamaica militia. As he was a favourite slave, Bathurst took Quashey to England, where he baptised him Francis Barber and enrolled him in school. Some historians suspect that Quashey was the Colonel’s son.
In 1752 the Colonel’s son, Dr Richard Bathurst, sent Francis to live with his widowed friend, English writer and critic, Samuel Johnson, at Gough Square in London. Johnson was soon to become the most eminent man of letters in the British Empire. Francis became Johnson’s manservant, answering the door, running errands, living among a group of elderly dependents whom Johnson maintained partly out of charity.
To all accounts, Samuel Johnson treated Francis more like a friend or even a son than a servant. Johnson paid for his education, and sent him away to school, telling him, ‘You can never be wise unless you love reading’. Francis was still legally a slave until freed by Colonel Bathurst’s will three years later. Bathurst also left him a £12 inheritance.
For the first time in his life, Barber could do as he pleased. In 1756 Barber went to work for an apothecary in Cheapside, London; Johnson complained that ‘My boy is run away’, but Barber visited his old master regularly. In 1758 he joined the navy where he served as a “landsman” aboard various ships, receiving regular pay and excellent reports. He saw the coast of Britain from Leith to Torbay and gained a taste for tobacco. Johnson, however, used his influence and successfully petitioned the powers-that-be, through an elaborate system of interest and favours to have him discharged.
James Boswell confirms this in his book Life of Johnson:
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.’
Hellbent on setting Barber up with a better, less life-threatening job, Johnson begged politician John Wilkes to intervene. In a letter, Johnson made a friend tell Wilkes about how Barber was “a sickly lad”—but it’s clear that Barber wasn’t really the problem. It was Johnson, who found himself in “great distress” without his surrogate son.
Francis Barber returned to London in 1760 and his adoptive father paid a considerable sum of money (£300) for five years of Barber’s education, hoping that higher education would help the young man get a stable career, perhaps as a missionary.
After Barber’s training, he put his newly gained skills to work for Samuel Johnson, of all people. Barber acted as his personal assistant, handling Johnson’s paperwork and organising his travel.
Marriage, births and death
In 1771, Barber married a white woman named Elizabeth Ball; the couple had five children. Their eldest son was named Samuel, after Johnson; this child died, and the next son born was also named Samuel. Neighbours made their lives difficult by mocking the interracial couple, calling them Othello and Desdemona. In 1783 the whole family went to live with Johnson in Bolt Court, next to Gough Square.
Samuel Johnson died on 13 December 1784 his adopted son by his side. In his Will, he made Francis Barber his residual heir. Having been told that a nobleman might leave a faithful servant a £50 annuity, Johnson declared, ‘Then shall I be nobilissimus, for I mean to leave Frank seventy pounds a year’ (equivalent to £9,000 in 2019). This amount caused a scandal at the time.
Johnson also bequeathed Barber his books and papers, and a gold watch. Johnson had expressed the wish that Francis removed himself from the temptations of London and move to Lichfield, Staffordshire, Johnson’s native city. Honouring the wish, Barber moved to Lichfield with his family.
Francis Barber’s spent his last years keeping a school in the nearby village of Burntwood, where he would serve as England’s first Black schoolmaster. He died in on 13 January 1801 and was buried at St Mary’s, Stafford.
Cedric Barber is a living descendant of Francis Barber. He speaks of his discovery in the documentary Black and British.
Francis Barber was born a slave but died a free man in the 1700s. Meet his great, great, great, great, great grandson. #BlackAndBritish pic.twitter.com/eGObLJZmhb
— BBC Two (@BBCTwo) November 9, 2016
Around the time that Francis Barber lived in London, Historians estimate that about 10-15,000 black people were living in Britain. If they and their descendants all lived an average life, having an average number of children, then there could be up to three million other white people in Britain today with a black ancestor from this period.