By David Dabydeen
Last updated 2011-02-17
The black man in Sir Joshua Reynolds' painting, a noble, almost epic figure silhouetted against a dramatic sky, is widely considered to be Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson's servant and friend. Barber was born enslaved on Jamaica, sometime around 1745, and brought to England by his master, Colonel Richard Bathurst. When Bathurst died in 1754, Barber was given his freedom and left a sum of £12.
Some time in the early 1750s, Barber joined Dr Johnson's household. Apart from four years working variously for a London apothecary and in the Royal Navy, he remained in Johnson's service until the lexicographer's death in 1784.
Johnson, who was passionately opposed to slavery, developed a deep affection for Barber, treating him more like a son than a servant. He paid for Barber's education - five years at the grammar school in Bishop's Stortford from 1767. Johnson wrote tenderly to Barber, encouraging him to read and reassuring him of his abiding affection. One such letter to Barber ends: 'Do not imagine that I shall forget or forsake you...'
Johnson would not allow Barber to perform demeaning tasks, stopping him, for example, from buckling Johnson's shoes. He even went to market himself to buy oysters for his cat so that Barber's 'delicacy be not hurt, at seeing himself employed for the convenience of a quadruped'. Such actions reveal that Johnson saw the relationship between them as that of equals rather than master and servant.
Johnson left Barber £70 in his will, along with the residue of his estate.
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