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  • Who Was Francis Williams?
  • Vincent Carretta (bio)

During my research in the late 1980s and early 1990s for editions of the works of Olaudah Equiano and other early transatlantic writers of African descent, I repeatedly found references to Francis Williams, a free Black in Jamaica who wrote poetry in Latin during the eighteenth century. In fact, at least into the early nineteenth century Francis Williams was arguably better known than Equiano as a writer and personality, memorialized in an oil painting now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (fig. 1).1 The artist is unknown, but the primitive style of the painting suggests that its creator was more likely colonial than metropolitan. Dated circa 1740, the painting of Williams shows him in his library in Spanish Town, Jamaica. The book open before him is entitled "Newton's Philosophy." Other titles that can now be made out in the recently cleaned painting include "Locke," "Cowley Poems," and "Paradise Lost." The globe is entitled "The Western or Atlantick Ocean." We shall return to this painting later. Who was Francis Williams, and why did he matter so much to British, American, West Indian, and French commentators on the institution of slavery?

Almost everything publicly known about Williams is found in the account of him in Edward Long's three-volume History of Jamaica, published in London in 1774, twelve years after the death of Williams.2 Unfortunately, as Henri Grégoire, an early nineteenth-century commentator, correctly notes in his own description of Williams, Long "cannot be suspected of being too partial to Negroes. His prejudice against them is manifest even in the words of praise that truth forced him to utter" (98). In Long's case, however, "prejudice" is an understatement. Long has recently been accurately described as "an apologist for the slave system and what we would now call a virulent racist" (Krise 315). In addition to being biased, Long's account of Williams is frequently misinformed, perhaps willfully so. When Long published his History in 1774, he was an absentee plantation owner and former judge in Jamaica, where he had lived for a dozen years. As Grégoire [End Page 213] cautions, "[Long's] portrait of Williams may be true, but we must recollect that it was not executed by a friendly hand" (99).

At least 30 years before Long's 1774 account of Francis Williams, the extraordinary free Jamaican Black was the subject of argument about the alleged inferiority of people of African descent. His extraordinariness was indisputable. Commentators with philosophical or economic vested interests in notions of so-called racial inferiority felt compelled to explain why that extraordinariness was either merely specious or at most unrepresentative. Such compulsion to try to explain away Williams's achievements is clear in the earliest allusion to him I have found. Dr. Alexander Hamilton—no relation to the later, famous Alexander Hamilton—recorded in his unpublished diary, "The Itinerarium," on 19 June 1744, an encounter in New York City with "two strange [White] gentlemen that had come from Jamaica." During dinner, "talking of a certain free negroe in Jamaica who was a man of estate, good sense, and education, the 'forementioned gentleman who had entertained us in the morning about burying of souls, gravely asked if that negroe's parents were not whites, for he was sure that nothing good could come of the whole generation of blacks" (210, 211).

Ten years later, the philosopher David Hume was the first person, I believe, to use Francis Williams publicly as evidence in the developing debate over the alleged inferiority of people of African descent. Though not named, Williams appears in a footnote in Hume's essay "Of National Characters," in his Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. Hume reports that "[i]n Jamaica indeed they talk of one Negroe as a man of parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly" (234n.). James Beattie argued against Hume's assertion of Black inferiority in his Essay on Truth (1770). Soon thereafter, Beattie's response to Hume was reprinted in the "Supplement to the Gentleman's Magazine: For the...