The For­tunes of Fran­cis Bar­ber: The True Story of the Ja­maican Slave Who Be­came Sa­muel John­son’s Heir

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by Michael Bun­dock, Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 282 pages

De­spite what the word “lex­i­cog­ra­phy” may bring to mind — iso­lated turrets, end­less days spent col­lect­ing and col­lat­ing — dic­tio­nary-mak­ing has a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory. There have been pro­fes­sors and mad­men, feuds (de­scrip­tivists ver­sus pre­scrip­tivists), and count­less scan­dals (Web­ster’s Third New In­ter­na­tional

Dic­tio­nary de­fined “ain’t”). Even to­day, when head­lines an­nounce words newly added to the dic­tio­nary, a healthy num­ber of com­menters gid­dily be­moan the state of English — a sure in­di­ca­tion that lex­i­cog­ra­phy is any­thing but an an­ti­quated art.

So when a new bi­og­ra­phy emerges that fea­tures the God­fa­ther of Lex­i­cog­ra­phy him­self, 18th-cen­tury ge­nius Sa­muel John­son — whose def­i­ni­tion of a lex­i­cog­ra­pher as a “harm­less drudge” re­mains a stan­dard of bril­liant hu­mil­ity — read­ers have good rea­son to ex­pect a wild ride. In The For­tunes of Fran­cis Bar­ber: The True Story of the Ja­maican Slave Who Be­came Sa­muel John­son’s Heir, there are in­deed plenty of ri­val­ries, along with burned di­ary en­tries, tossed­off in­sults, and spiky de­scrip­tions that would likely get a stamp of ap­proval from John­son’s satiric con­tem­po­raries.

Yet what dis­tin­guishes Michael Bun­dock’s book is not its hi­jinks but its il­lu­mi­nat­ing schol­ar­ship. The re­search that Bun­dock, a direc­tor of Dr. John­son’s House Trust, has done pro­vides in­sight into John­son’s na­ture, cer­tainly, but more cru­cially, it of­fers a close study of a man who has long been a sup­port­ing char­ac­ter in de­pic­tions of John­son’s world.

For more than three decades, Fran­cis Bar­ber was a mem­ber of John­son’s house­hold. He had spent his early years in Ja­maica, where he was a slave — then named Quashey — on a sprawl­ing sugar plan­ta­tion. In 1750, when he was about seven or eight, Bar­ber came to Lon­don, a city where less than 1 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion was black in the late 18th cen­tury. In Ja­maica, by con­trast, the young boy had been one of 110,000 slaves on the is­land. The en­tire pop­u­la­tion of Ja­maica was 120,000. “Quashey was now,” for the first time, “a black per­son in a white so­ci­ety,” Bun­dock writes.

Bar­ber had ac­com­pa­nied his owner, Col. Bathurst, to Eng­land. The colonel’s son, a friend of John­son’s, even­tu­ally determined that Bar­ber should be the lex­i­cog­ra­pher’s ser­vant. Bar­ber be­came John­son’s as­sis­tant, some­time-nurse, and at­ten­dant. John­son pro­vided for Bar­ber’s ed­u­ca­tion, even when Bar­ber was in his late twen­ties, and the two de­vel­oped a re­la­tion­ship char­ac­ter­ized by men­tor­ship and af­fec­tion.

Whereas John­son left vol­umes of writ­ings for re­searchers to pore over, pri­mary sources on Bar­ber are com­pa­ra­bly sparse and of­ten rid­dled with hearsay and thinly veiled re­sent­ment. (Af­ter John­son left Bar­ber a gen­er­ous le­gacy, Bar­ber be­came a tar­get of jokes, crit­i­cism, and coat­tail rides in the press and even among some of John­son’s friends. He once had to de­fend him­self against as­sump­tions that he had writ­ten a sca­tol­ogy-heavy book about John­son; the au­thor was, or claimed on the ti­tle page to be, “Fran­cis, Bar­ber,” John­son’s wig-dresser.) Bun­dock has done an ad­mirable job of us­ing those few writ­ings to cre­ate a nu­anced por­trait.

The Fran­cis Bar­ber we come to know in this bi­og­ra­phy was smart, ded­i­cated, and res­o­lute. He did not retreat from the ac­tion that kept John­son’s house and city so bois­ter­ous. When, for in­stance, the ill­tem­pered head of the house­hold, Anna Wil­liams, or­dered Bar­ber around, the “high-spir­ited young boy” fought back, lead­ing to regular do­mes­tic show­downs. One day, ei­ther be­cause he was fed up with Mrs. Wil­liams or for some other rea­son, Bar­ber did some­thing as­ton­ish­ing: He walked out the door.

Bun­dock spec­u­lates that Bar­ber “ceased to think of him­self as a slave, and this trans­for­ma­tion in his self-un­der­stand­ing” is what prompted him to pick up and head out — first to an apothe­cary’s house­hold, and then to the navy, where he was a sailor for two years. He came back to work for John­son af­ter his dis­charge from the navy, but his ad­ven­tur­ous spirit had hardly been cur­tailed. Through­out his life, he did what may not have been ex­pected of him, whether that meant mar­ry­ing a white woman or choos­ing a side in the battle of the John­son bi­og­ra­phers. (Thomas Boswell, au­thor of the pi­o­neer­ing Life of John­son, crushed the com­pe­ti­tion.)

As a black ser­vant to a white man who op­posed slav­ery, in a coun­try where the le­gal­ity of slav­ery was start­ing to be chal­lenged but as­sump­tions of Euro­pean su­pe­ri­or­ity were still com­mon­place, Bar­ber is a com­pelling fig­ure as much for his place in 18th-cen­tury Eng­land as for his char­ac­ter. Bun­dock also ex­plores the larger con­text of Bar­ber’s world, dis­cussing the court tri­als that would end slav­ery in Eng­land and the so­cial world of Lon­don’s black com­mu­nity.

Pick up The For­tunes of Fran­cis Bar­ber for its prom­ise of lex­i­co­graph­i­cal and 18th-cen­tury an­tics; read it for the en­gross­ing his­tory it re­veals.

— Grace La­batt

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