About a dozen years ago, while annotating slave narratives for an anthology I edited called I Was Born a Slave, I came across this passage in James W. C. Pennington's 1849 Fugitive Blacksmith: "He cited to me various instances of coloured persons, of whom I had not heard before, and who had distinguished themselves for learning, such as Bannicker, Wheatley, and Francis Williams." I knew who the first two were: Benjamin Banneker and Phyllis Wheatley; but who was Francis Williams?
It took many hours of research to find out that almost all we now know of Francis Williams is contained in a repulsively racist book written by Edward Long and published in London in 1774, entitled The History of Jamaica, or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of That Island: With Reflections on Its Situation, Settlements, Inhabitants, Climate, Products, Commerce, Laws, and Government. Long devotes an entire chapter in the second volume (out of three) to Francis Williams; he begins:
I have forborne till now to introduce upon the stage a personage, who made a conspicuous figure in this island, and even attracted the notice of many in
England. With the impartiality that becomes me, I shall endeavour to do him all possible justice; and shall leave it to the reader’s opinion, whether what they shall discover of his genius and intellect will be sufficient to overthrow the arguments, I have before alledged, to prove an inferiority of the Negroes to the race of white men. It will by this time be discovered, that I allude to Francis Williams, a native of this island, and son to John and Dorothy Williams, free Negroes. Lewis was the youngest of three sons, and, being a boy of unusual lively parts, was pitched upon to be the subject of an experiment, which, it is said, the Duke of Montagu was curious to make, in order to discover, whether, by proper cultivation, and a regular course of tuition at school and the university, a Negroe might not be found as capable of literature as a white person. In short, he was sent to England, where he underwent a regular discipline of classic instruction at a grammar school, after which he was fixed at the university of Cambridge, where he studied under the ablest preceptors, and made some progress in the mathematics. During his abode in England, after finishing his education, it is said (I know not with what truth) that he composed the well-known ballad of “Welcome, welcome, brother debtor, &c.” But I have likewise heard the same attributed to a different author. Upon his return to Jamaica, the duke would fain have tried his genius likewise in politics, and intended attaining for him a privy seal, or appointment to be one of the governor’s council; but this scheme was dropped, upon the objections offered by Mr. Trelawny, the governor at that time. Williams therefore set up a school in Spanish Town, which he continued for several years, where he taught reading, writing, Latin, and the elements of the mathematics; whilst he acted in this profession, he selected a Negroe pupil, whom he trained up with particular care, intending to make him his successor in the school; but of this youth it may be said, to use the expression of Festus to Paul, that “much learning made him mad.” The abstruse problems of mathematical institution turned his brain; and he still remains, I believe, an unfortunate example, to shew that every African head is not adapted by nature to such profound contemplations. The chief pride of this disciple consists in imitating the garb and deportment of his tutor. A tye perriwig, a sword, and ruffled shirt, seem in his opinion to comprehend the very marrow and quintessence of all erudition, and philosophic dignity. Probably he imagines it a more easy way of acquiring, among the Negroes, the reputation of a great scholar, by these superficial marks, which catch their eye, than by talking of Euclid, whom they know nothing about.
In the next paragraph Long attributes Williams’s genius to the northern climate, and quotes the philosopher David Hume, who says, “In Jamaica indeed they talk of one Negroe as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.” Long then continues:
In regard to the general character of the man, he was haughty, opinionated, looked down with sovereign contempt on his fellow Blacks, entertained the highest opinion of his own knowledge, treated his parents with much disdain, and behaved towards his children and his slaves with a severity bordering upon cruelty; he was fond of having great deference paid to him, and exacted it in the utmost degree from the Negroes about him; he affected a singularity of dress, and particularly grave cast of countenance, to impress an idea of his wisdom and learning; and, to second this view, he wore in common a huge wig, which made a very venerable figure. The moral part of his character may be collected from these touches, as well as the measure of his wisdom, on which, as well as some other attributes to which he laid claim, he had not the modesty to be silent, whenever he met with occasion to expatiate upon them. . . . He defined himself “a white man acting under a black skin.” He endeavoured to prove logically, that a Negroe was superior in quality to a Mulatto, or other cast. His proposition was, that “a simple white or a simple black complexion was respectively perfect: but a Mulatto, being an heterogeneous medley of both, was imperfect, ergo inferior.”
His opinion of Negroes may be inferred from a proverbial saying, that was frequently in his mouth; “Show me a Negroe, and I will show you a thief.” He died, not long since, at the age of seventy, or thereabouts.
In my subsequent research about Williams I found little that I did not already know, for Long's book was the primary source for information about his life. W. J. Gardner's History of Jamaica (1873) repeated Long’s history, then attempted to explain Williams’s character as follows:
In estimating (so far as imperfect information will permit) the character of this man, the prejudices of the times in which he lived must be taken into consideration. The race to which he belonged was then almost universally despised, and the temptation to curry favour with the whites by denouncing the negroes was too great for him to resist. He was simply tolerated, and even if he had possessed that nobility of character which constitutes the ideal, by making him willing to suffer for a proscribed people or cause, his career would soon have been cut short. His disposition, too, was soured by the contemptuous way in which his abilities were spoken of, even by men removed from the influence of colonial prejudices, as well as by those who were personally acquainted with him. Self assertion may have seemed to him the only way by which to meet the unfair depreciation of his real ability. Compared with his own race, he was unmeasurably [sic] the intellectual superior of any who then lived in Jamaica.
I also found a portrait painted of Williams around 1735, in which, dressed to the nines and wearing a generous wig, he stands in front of a bookcase full of works by Newton, Locke, Bacon, and others; his hand rests on Newton’s Philosophy, which sits open on a table next to a celestial globe, an inkstand, and some compasses; on the floor is another globe inscribed “The Western or Atlantick Ocean.” His face, however, seems to be a caricature.The Alumni Cantabrigiensis has no listing for Francis Williams; nor is he mentioned in any histories of eighteenth-century England. As for the Duke of Montagu, the British Dictionary of National Biography gives us the following:
MONTAGU, JOHN, second DUKE OF MONTAGU (1688?–1749), courtier. . . . In 1709 he succeeded his father as second duke. . . . The duke appears to have been a man of some talents, but with much of the buffoon about him. He was the originator of the famous hoax at the Haymarket Theatre of a man squeezing himself into a quart bottle. Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, wrote of him to Lord Stair: ‘All my son-in-law’s talents lie in the things natural to boys of fifteen, and he is about two and fifty. To get people into his gardens and wet them with squirts, to invite people to his country house and put things in their beds to make them itch, and twenty other such pretty fancies.’
What does this all add up to? It is important to recognize that Williams seems to have been the first Jamaican scholar of note, not just the first black Jamaican of note. The racist views of Long (and Hume) are widely known; and as late as one hundred years after his death, Williams was still being cited as proof that blacks could attain to the same level of genius as whites. Indeed, Long reprints in its entirety an ode Williams wrote in Latin to welcome a new governor to Jamaica, and it displays no mean proficiency in the language. If Long’s worst claims about Williams are to be believed, one may more readily attribute his failings to his highbrow British education than to his race.
But after reading about Lord Montagu, I wondered: did he take Williams from Jamaica for solely philanthropic reasons? Did he really wish to prove the equality of the races? Or, since he was a prankster, did he do it to win a bet or as part of a more involved practical joke? In that case, had Williams perhaps learned something from Lord Montagu, and was his conceitedness part of an extended joke? Could his dress and behavior have been a parody, “signifying” on those of his British teachers? Being a genius, could he have deliberately played the fool?
Perhaps. But at least in his poetry, Williams considered himself a white man in black skin. In an attempt to show that Williams’s Latin, while impressive, conveys pretentious sentiments, Long translated Williams’s ode into English, appending it to his chapter on the man. I quote from Long’s translation below (from the context, Williams is clearly referring to himself as the black muse here; the “Caesar of the West” is the arriving governor):
Oh! Muse, of blackest tint, why shrinks thy breast,
Why fears t’ approach the Caesar of the West!
Dispel thy doubts, with confidence ascend
The regal dome, and hail him for thy friend:
Nor blush, altho’ in garb funereal drest,
Thy body’s white, tho’ clad in sable vest.
Is a black man who calls himself white praising or condemning himself? Or simply playing a part?
Complicating matters, I have now learned from this post that Williams inherited from his parents a number of black slaves, and that by the time of his death he owned fifteen of them. The post also calls into question many of Long's other assertions. It is based on an article by Vincent Carretta, a scholar whom I greatly respect.
I like to think of Williams as a kind of inscrutable clown, who masks his arrogance with pretense in order to make his genius less threatening to his oppressors. But I could be wrong. History—as usual—conceals the answer.