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

Publication date:
23 Apr 2015
Yale University Press
296 pages: 235 x 156 x 25mm
30 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

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The story of the extraordinary relationship between a former slave and England’s most distinguished man of letters

This compelling book chronicles a young boy’s journey from the horrors of Jamaican slavery to the heart of London’s literary world, and reveals the unlikely friendship that changed his life. Francis Barber, born in Jamaica, was brought to London by his owner in 1750 and became a servant in the household of the renowned Dr. Samuel Johnson. Although Barber left London for a time and served in the British navy during the Seven Years’ War, he later returned to Johnson’s employ. A fascinating reversal took place in the relationship between the two men as Johnson’s health declined and the older man came to rely more and more upon his now educated and devoted companion. When Johnson died he left the bulk of his estate to Barber, a generous (and at the time scandalous) legacy, and a testament to the depth of their friendship.
There were thousands of black Britons in the eighteenth century, but few accounts of their lives exist. In uncovering Francis Barber’s story, this book not only provides insights into his life and Samuel Johnson’s but also opens a window onto London when slaves had yet to win their freedom.

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Michael Bundock is a director of Dr. Johnson’s House Trust and former editor of The New Rambler, the annual journal of the Johnson Society of London. He is the author of numerous essays and articles on Samuel Johnson, Francis Barber, and eighteenth-century history and literature.

'A supremely skilled biography … a model of how to use one apparently insignificant life to break open a historical moment that could otherwise be approached only through official documents.' - Kathryn Hughes, 'Best biography and memoir books of 2015', The Guardian

'The Fortunes of Francis Barber is concise, clear-headed, sympathetic and scholarly.' – Charles Nicholl, London Review of Books

'Barber’s story receives expert, sensitive treatment in Bundock’s biography.' - Tony Barber, Financial Times

'[A] fine biography.' - Kathryn Sutherland, Times Literary Supplement

'Bundock weaves into the absorbing tale of Barber’s life a wealth of material relating to black people in England, especially in London, throughout the 18th century … He writes with clarity, sympathy and tact.' - Freya Johnston, Literary Review

‘A joy – elegant, precise, formidably informed … one of the great pleasures of reading Bundock’s completely captivating book is to watch him gathering all the evidence and teasing out the truth.’ —John Carey, The Sunday Times

‘Bundock’s crisply written empathetic biography scrupulously documents Barber’s life and illuminates the experiences of black Britons in the eighteenth century.’ —Henry Hitchings, The Guardian

‘Bundock’s tale … written with a Johnsonian clarity and verve, absorbs from start to finish.’ —Ian Thomson, New Statesman

‘Michael Bundock’s accomplished biography … gives a much needed biography to a man who has hitherto been relegated to footnote status.’ —Paula Byrne, The Times

‘Bundock’s lively biography offers a fresh perspective on Johnson and locates Barber both in Johnson’s household and in the context of an empire beginning to debate the political and moral legitimacy of slavery.' —Publishers Weekly