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

Publication date:
28 Sep 2021
Yale University Press
296 pages: 197 x 127 x 25mm
30 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

The story of the extraordinary relationship between Francis Barber, a former slave, and Samuel Johnson, England’s most distinguished man of letters

“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

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.

Michael Bundock is a barrister, a director of Dr. Johnson’s House Trust and an Honorary Research Associate in the English Department at University College London.

“At last, the biography that Francis Barber deserves. A meticulous yet imaginative book which teases out the full humanity of Dr. Johnson’s servant—and of the affection and hostility he generated among contemporaries.”—James Walvin, author of The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery

“Michael Bundock has written the first biography in over one hundred years of Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s black servant and heir. Acknowledging the groundwork laid over a century ago, Bundock goes well beyond earlier commentators in exploring the evolving relationship between Johnson and Barber.”—Vincent Carretta, University of Maryland

“Like James Boswell before him, Michael Bundock is a lawyer, and in his biography of Samuel Johnson’s servant that background serves him well. Reading the evidence, some newly discovered, he brings Francis Barber to life, deepens our understanding of Johnson, enriches our sense of quotidian eighteenth-century London, and provides an unusual contribution to black history in England.”—Robert Folkenflik, University of California, Irvine

The Fortunes of Francis Barber is the most complete and accurate account of the life of Francis Barber that has ever been produced or is ever likely to be produced. This book far outstrips all earlier accounts.”—Robert DeMaria, Jr., Vassar College