‘My Man-Servant, a Negro’: Dr Johnson and Frank Barber


Filed under: Non-fiction

David Dabydeen and Charles Nicholl discuss Dr Johnson’s relationship with Frank Barber, and the lives of black men and women in eighteenth-century London. Chaired by Colin Grant.

Born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Jamaica in about 1735, Francis Barber was brought to England in 1750, and two years later was sent to work for Samuel Johnson, who had been plunged into depression by the death of his wife. Johnson was a vociferous opponent of slavery, and he and Barber became devoted companions, Johnson organising Barber’s education at Bishop’s Stortford Grammar School, Barber going on to help Johnson with his Dictionary. When Johnson died 1784, he left Barber a gold watch and £70 a year, and asked that he make his home in Staffordshire, where his descendants live to this day. Charles Nicholl, prize-winning biographer whose subjects have included Christopher Marlowe and Leonardo da Vinci, and David Dabydeen, novelist, poet and director of the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick, are both at work on Francis Barber: Nicholl on a biography, Dabydeen on a novel. Marking the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth, they read from their works in progress, explore Barber’s life, and discuss just how unusual Johnson’s friendship with him was for its time. They also talk more broadly about the lives of black men and women in eighteenth-century London, the cruel racism suffered by some, and the extraordinary patronage enjoyed by others.

We are grateful to the Fleming Family for sponsoring this meeting.

Recorded on Monday 14 December 2009.


Related RSL Fellows

Charles Nicholl 2005
David Dabydeen 2000