Francis Williams: An Eighteenth-Century Tertium Quid
Michele Valerie Ronnick
The story of Francis Williams (c.1700- c.1770) has been told and retold in a number of places, but never very well nor very thoroughly. Williams has seldom been looked at as his own person but instead has been perceived as a useful little tessera, which various writers for various reasons have placed in some corner or other of their verbal mosaics. This holds true for the first and fullest account of the life and achievements of Williams in The History of Jamaica by Edward Long, who was a member of the island,s plantocracy until 1769. In 1917, T. H. MacDermot explained that our “efforts to make an objective evaluation of his position … are seriously hampered by the obvious prejudice with which Long describes his subject.”(1)
As many scholars have noted, Long’s sole interest in Williams sprang from a desire to render him ridiculous, and thereby prove that black people were an inherently inferior people worthy of enslavement. With a stance of ersatz objectivity, Long declared that he has left “it to the readers’ opinion whether what they shall discover of his genius and intellect will be sufficient to overthrow the arguments I have before alleged, to prove an inferiority of negroes [sic] to the race of white men.” As W. J. Gardner politely observed about one hundred years later, “it is to be deplored that Mr. Long’s history is almost the only source of information relative to the career of Williams, for his prejudices arouse the suspicion that a black man would not receive impartial justice at his hands.'(2)
If the prejudice and polemic are put aside and information from other contemporary sources is introduced, the story of Francis Williams is as follows. He was born around 1700 to John and Dorothy Williams, a free black couple in Jamaica. In a society that considered most people of African descent to be human implements, only a limited number of free blacks were ever in a position to accumulate any property or gain any social status. Free people of color became increasingly outnumbered throughout the eighteenth century. For example in 1703 near the year of Francis Williams’ birth, an estimated 45,000 slaves lived in Jamaica. By 1778 during the decade in which he died, that number had grown to 205,261. The status of the Williams’ family was therefore extraordinary because through the private bill system of the Jamaica Assembly, they had gained rights accorded almost exclusively to whites. “Those who stood highest in the social scale,” according to W. J. Gardner, “were such as had been manumitted by private acts of the assembly.”(3)
Of the 128 laws enacted by private bill during the eighteenth century by a government that was patently reluctant to grant privileges to any black people, only four laws pertained to rights for white men. The first of these private bills was passed into law in 1708 and referred solely to John Williams. “Acting on the petition of John Williams,” the legislature conceded to him the right to be “tried according to the known laws, customs, and privileges of Englishmen.”(4)
Why these rights came to John Williams remains obscure. “Someone fairly high up in Jamaica must have been taking a special interest in the Williams’ family, and that interest in view of the collateral facts must have been based on something of note in John Williams, Senior.” Clearly, Williams had attained an importance worthy of special attention for some reason but not, however, without stirring up a certain amount of rancor.(5)
According to the historian W. J. Gardner, he “soon after nearly lost the social status he thus acquired through having incurred the displeasure of a member of the house of assembly. The latter had called him a `black negro.’ Williams … simply retorted by calling his antagonist a ‘white negro.’ Still the retort was thought of sufficient importance to engage the attention of the learned legislators, by some of whom it was proposed to revoke the act of 1708, so far as it related to the culprit.”(6)
The result can be traced in the records of the legislature for April 5, 1716, when another act was entertained that concerned the entire Williams family, who were mentioned member by member. The intent of the private bill was a protective one that sought “to prevent negroes being evidence against Dorothy the Wife and John, Thomas and Francis, sons of John Williams, a free negro.” The attorney general’s “report upon an Act passed in Jamaica” was read in May 1717.(7)
Suffice it to say, the lot of the average disenfranchised black person vis a vis life in the West Indies could hardly bear comparison. In William Dickson’s Letters on Slavery (1789), we find disturbing accounts of violence against black people in Barbados. “An elderly negro woman, who worked out in Bridgetown … looked up to me for protection. One evening she came to me, bathed in her blood, from a very large gash in her head … she said she knew (and I am pretty sure, I know) the white man who cut her, and that a great many negroes saw the deed done. This was no proof. Her owner, therefore, was obliged to bear the expence [sic] and the loss of her labour.” The narrative continues with a description of “a valuable and inoffensive negro man” who “was attacked, one evening, when going on his owner’s business, by a white man, who, with one stroke of his cutlass, severed one of his hands from his body. His owner, who could produce no white evidence, was obliged quietly to put up with the damage and the poor fellow with the loss of his limb.”(8)
For Francis Williams, however, life offered much rosier prospects. “It appears that John, Second Duke of Montagu was anxious to know whether a negro lad, trained at a grammar school and then at a university would be found equal in literary attainments to a white man.” And so the youngster was brought to England for schooling. Williams, however, was not alone. Many other black boys made the same trip for the same reasons during the eighteenth century. A few years later, the duke of Montagu and his duchess sponsored two other blacks. The first was “Job Ben Solomon who had been redeemed from slavery in Maryland on the discovery of his claimed royal status and literacy in Arabic.” The second, Ignatius Sancho, “whose literary works provided one of the period’s most discussed publishing events,” included Lawrence Sterne among his correspondents.(9)
This sort of “social experiment” was in vogue in England at this tine. Black people were perceived as exotic “others” and were kept like house pets by some of the British aristocracy. This alluring quality of “otherness,” based in the main upon differences in physical appearance like skin color or facial features, was as potent then as it is now and forms a fairly common theme in European literature. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano (1429-1503) provides a good example of its erotic charge in his poem Loquitur Puella Fuscula:
Quod sim fuscula, quod nigella, et ipsae Fusco in pectore nigricent
papillae, Quid tum? Nox nigra, fusculae tenebrae, Nocturnis colitur Venus
tenebris, Optat nox Venerem Venus tenebras Et noctes Venerem tenebricosae
Delectant, pueri in sinu locata Lusus dura facit improbasque rixas. Ergo
his in tenebris latebricosis, His nos in latebris tenebricosis, Lecto
compositi, quiete in una Ductemus veneram, toroque vincti Condamus
tenebras, sopore ab ipso Dum solis Venus excitet sub ortum.
[Translation: So what if I am dusky, what if I am a little dark and on my dark chest the nipples themselves are black. What then? Night is black and the shadows are dark. Venus is revered in the darkness of the night. Night hopes for Venus, Venus hopes for darkness and the shadowy nights delight Venus, held in the embrace of a boy as long as she teases and brings on shameless spats. Therefore, we in these hidden shadows, in these shadowy hiding places, ready for bed, together in repose, let us make love, and bound to our couch let us
store up the shadows until Venus awakens from sleep itself under the rising sun.](10)
This “beauty in blackness” was brought with great splendor to the English stage during the reign of Queen Anne, who asked Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones in 1604 to create a masque for female blackamoors who were to be played by the Queen and the ladies of her court. The result was A Masque of Blackness in which “the actors actually painted themselves black at the first performance.” Regardless of the merit the masque had as a spectacle, its theme conformed “in most respects to the convention of white superiority.” The beautiful daughters of Niger,
Who though but black in face, Yet are they bright And full of life and
light. To prove that beauty best, Which not the colour, but the feature
Assures unto the creature (102-8),
felt certain levels of anxiety about their skin color. They therefore journey to Britannia, where the sun that blackened their skin in the first place “doth never rise, or set (191),” in order to be “washed white” by the moon.(11) There is, of course, Shakespeare’s Othello.
The question of skin color and its relation to moral worth appeared in many other arenas. There is, to be sure, almost no end to the writing on the contrast between the moral equation of whiteness with “goodness” and of blackness with “evil.” In the Latin language, Roccho Pirro described Benoit of Palermo (fl. 1550) “the son of a negress slave,” as nigro quidem corpore sed candore animi praeclarissimus quem et miraculis Deus contestatum esse voluit (truly outstanding with a black body in fact, but with a whiteness of soul–whom God wanted tried by miracles).(12)
In England, we have the epitaph from the second half of the eighteenth century on Sambo’s grave. “Of all of the graves of black servants perhaps the most remarkable is near Lancaster, at one time a flourishing slave-port … The local story has it that Sambo died of grief when his master returned to the West Indies without him. The sentimental tale seems hardly likely and the inscription makes no mention of it, stating in fact that Sambo died on arrival.” It reads:
Here lies Poor Sambo A faithful Negro Who Attending his Master from the
West Indies Died on his Arrival at SUNDERLAND … And many a teeming Cloud
upon him drips But still he sleeps–till the wakening Sounds Of the
Archangels Trump [sic] new life impart Then the GREAT JUDGE his approbation
founds Not on Man’s COLOR but His–WORTH OF HEART.(13)
By the late eighteenth century, the question of blackness was an economic, religious, and academic issue. At times, however, the issue could draw a laugh as it does in passages from Olaudah Equiano’s best-selling autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789). Equiano wrote “a Black cook, in melting some fat, overset the pan into the fire under the deck, which immediately began to blaze, and the flame went up very high under the foretop. With fright, the poor cook became almost white, and altogether speechless.” Concerning his first glimpse of some white slavers and their ship, he remarked, “I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief … I asked … if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces and loose hair.”(4)
But the discussions mostly remained serious, and as the slave population grew in the colonies during the eighteenth century, arguments to determine whether black people “were things or humans were no mere abstractions debated in the ratified atmosphere of the courts.” Many of the “more grotesque” views came “from the pens of the slavery lobby,” and during the period, “slavery became synonymous with blackness.”(15)
Stimulated by the appearance of black people in English households and schools, men like David Hume began to take note of the experiments of men like Lord Montagu. The experiments on these “guinea-pigs in the age of Enlightenment,” as Janheinz Jahn puts it, brought with them notoriety. Francis Williams’ learned accomplishments, which certainly sprang from some sort of higher training in Latin and mathematics, but not from the completion of the B.A. degree from Cambridge, for which there ii no proof, drew Hume’s fire.(16)
In a footnote to his essay, “Of National Character” (1748), he stated that “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered the symptoms of ingenuity; though low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly.”(17)
About twenty years later, the theories of Hume on this topic were attacked in an essay “Strictures on Mr. Hume’s Character of the Negroes,” published in Gentleman’s Magazine in May 1771. The author maintained that “Blacks, if properly educated are capable of the same improvements as Whites. About forty years ago, Mr. Williams, an African of fortune, who dressed like other gentlemen in a tye wig, sword, etc. and who was honoured with the friendship of Mr Chelselden, and other men of science was admitted to the meetings of the Royal Society and, being proposed as a member, was rejected solely for a reason unworthy of that learned body, viz. on account of his complection [sic]. The vulgar; indeed, used sometimes to jeer and insult him in the streets; but such philosophers as Mr Hume, and those of Crane-Court, might have known, that souls are of no color, and that no one can tell, on viewing a casket, what jewel it contains.” Williams’ friend and probable sponsor, Mr. Chelselden, was none other than one of Britain’s finest surgeons, William Chelselden.(18)
By the 1730s, Williams had returned to Jamaica with the idea of taking, under the aegis of his patron, a seat in the Jamaica Assembly. But the incumbent governor Edward Trelawny objected to this. Williams therefore “set up a school in Spanish Town where he taught reading, writing, Latin and mathematics for a number of years.”(19)
Long described Williams’ efforts to run the school in unflattering terms and asserted that “Whilst he acted in this profession, he selected a Negroe [sic] pupil, whom he trained up with particular care intending to make him his successor at 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 [sic] 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 and [sic, i.e. the] 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.”(20)
Hampered as we are by lack of information about educated black people in the West Indies, we do know that there were other educated black people like Williams’ protege. They might may have lost their names in terms of the historical record, but not their mental faculties. A passage from William Dickson’s Letters on Slavery published in 1760 told of “a very valuable negro” called “John.” “He was master of one of our fishing boats,” and “my father placed unlimited confidence in him. John was a tolerable scholar. He could read very well. He gave me in my infancy a great deal of good advice, and particularly just before I was coming to England for education in the year 1761 … he gave me a pretty good notion of the customs and manners of England, and of the things which would be taught at school.”(21)
Long also described Williams as unattractively as he had portrayed the would–be successor. “In regard to the general character of the man,” wrote Long, “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; he affected a singularity of dress, and particularly grave cast of countenance, to impress an ideas 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 and learning, 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.”(22)
Long’s verbal descriptions can be compared to a small oil portrait of Francis Williams, 26 inches by 20 inches in size. Here we see the work in the naive style of an unknown artist of the British or American school about the year 1740. Francis Williams stands in the middle of his library in Spanish Town “surrounded by the handsomest contemporary furniture that money could procure.” He is “surrounded by his books, standing on a black and white marble floor, most fashionably dressed in white wig, black velvet silk-lined coat and breeches, and white silk waistcoat and stockings.”(23)
Behind him in the window is a landscape with an uncertain subject. It has been suggested that it is the Spanish Town Square or the Spanish Town Prison. It might well be the latter, if any credence can be put in the unproved statement that Williams was the author of the song, “Welcome, Welcome Brother Debtor.” Near him is “a very fine mahogany chair and carved tripod table with an open book upon it (headed Newton’s Philosophy), also the pair of celestial and terrestrial globes on the table and the floor; the terrestrial globe is inscribed The Western or Atlantick Ocean.”(24)
The portrait was presented in 1929 by Viscount Breasted M.C. and Messrs. Spink and Son Ltd. through the National Art Collections Fund to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Without a doubt, one can see a certain similarity to the details mentioned by Long. The wig, the expensive clothing, the marks of learning, and the self-assured manner are all clearly visible. Nevertheless, a closer look at the dynamics of the painting reveals the artist’s real message about his sitter. In his eyes, Francis Williams was a divided man, who lived the life of “double-consciousness,” so well described by W.E.B. Du Bois in his essay “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” “It is,” Du Bois tells us, “a peculiar sensation this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness.”(25)
The elements of this bipolar opposition in the painting are many. Williams stands on one of the lines that separate the black and white marble tiles and literally stands between several different worlds. On the left side of the painting, we look out to the sparkling blues and greens of the sunny Jamaican landscape–the outside realm, the sensual, pleasurable world of the vita activa. These details locate Williams in terms of physical geography. The relative unimportance of this information in terms of the larger scheme of things, however, is indicated by the globe of the Atlantic Ocean, which has been placed in front of the window in the foreground of the painting.
The higher realm is depicted on the right side of the painting. Here is the inner world of learning, the life of the mind, the vita contemplativa. Hovering above the tripod table and its instruments of science and literacy–the text, the compass, and the quill pens–is the celestial globe, which represents the loftier sphere of life. Behind it is an impressive array of books arranged on tall floor-to-ceiling shelves. The volumes, touched here and there with gilt, are partly concealed by a black curtain that has been pulled back by a long chord tied in a complicated knot. Williams, whose over-size head indicates intellectuality and whose small hands and feet indicate his status as a gentleman, points with his right arm toward a space on the sixth shelf, which in turn represents both a hole in the system of bookish knowledge, and the space that is needed to accommodate new ideas. The black curtain like his black coat and black skin conceals its interior wealth. The dots of gold on the spines of the books, the gold color of the thin chord, and the wide strips of gold trimming that run down the edge of his coat tell us where Williams’ true values lie–in books, of course, for this is the room of a scholar, but more so in his heart.
These details point out the extremely marginalized position Williams occupied during his life. With a foot set firmly neither in the world of the whites nor that of the blacks and unable to claim full-fledged membership in Old World England or in New World Jamaica, Williams was truly a tertium quid, a third thing. He was born black and free in a privileged family on an island mainly populated by black slaves and had obtained an education that exceeded that of the average Jamaican, regardless of color. The artist has well perceived the precarious yet elevated nature of his sitter’s position, for all the objects in the painting are up on legs of some sort, and Williams maintains this position like the white stockings that hang loosely on his legs. He is both a native and an exile.(26)
No doubt in the eyes of Edward Long, Williams was the living embodiment of a Eurocentric caricature. Long found “a very strong example” of William’s vanity “in the following poem, which he presented to Mr. Haldane, upon his assuming the government of the island; he was fond of this species of composition of Latin, and usually addressed one to every new governor.” Let us try to read, ut pictura poesis, the poem as we did the portrait:
Intergerrimo et Fortissimo
GEORGIO HALDANO, Armigero, insulae Jamaicensis Gubernatori; cui, omnes morum, virtutumque dotes bellicarum, In cumulum acesserunt,
DENIQUE venturum fatis volventibus annum
Cuncta per extensum laeta videnda diem,
Excussis adsunt curis, sub imagine clara
Felices populi, terraque lege virens.
Te duce, quae fuerant male suada mente peracta 5
Irrita, conspectu non reditura tuo.
Ergo omnis populus, nec non plebecula cernet
Haesurum collo te relegasse iugum,
Et mala, quae diris quondam cruciatibus, insons
Insula passa fuit; condoluisset onus 10
Ni victrix tua Marte manus prius inclyta, nostris
Sponte ruinosis rebus adesse velit.
Optimus es servus Regi servire Britanno,
Dura gaudet genio Scotica terra tuo:
Optimus heroum populi fulcire ruinam; 15
Insula dura superest ipsc superstes efts.
Victorem agnoscet te Guadaloupa, suorum
Despiciet merito diruta castra ducum.
Aurea vexillis flebit jactantibus Iris,
Cumque suis populis, oppida victa gemet. 20
Crede, meum non est, vir Marti chare! Minerva
Denegat Aethiopi bella sonare ducum.
Concilio, caneret te Buchananus et armis,
Carmine Peleidae scriberet ille parem.
Ille poeta, decus patriae, tua facta referre 25
Dignior, altisono vixque Marone minor.
Flammiferos agitante suos sub sole iugales
Vivimus; eloquium deficit omne focis.
Hoc demure accipias, multa fuligine fusum
Ore sonaturo; non cute, corde valet, 30
Pollenti stabilita manu, (Deus almus, eandem
Omnigenis animam, nil prohibente dedit)
Ipsa coloris egens virtus, prudentia; honesto
Nullus inest animo, nullus in arte color.
Cur timeas, quamvis, dubitesne, nigerrima celsam 35
Caesaris occidui, scandere Musa domum?
Vade salutatum, nec sit tibi causa pudoris,
Candida quod nigra corpora pelle geris!
Integritas morum Maurum magis omat, et ardor
Ingenii, et docto dulcis in ore decor; 40
Hunc, mage cot sapiens, patriae virtutis, amorque,
Eximit e sociis, conspicuumque facit.
Insula me genuit, celebres aluere Britanni
Insula, salvo non dolitura patre!
Hoc precor; o nullo videant te fine, regentem 45
Florentes populos, terra, Deique locus!
[Translation: To a most upright and brave man, George Haldane, warrior, governor of the island Jamaica for whom all the gifts of character and warlike courage have been accumulated. Finally the revolving fates are bringing in the coming year, and everything seems to be pleased through the lengthy day. Under your famous image, the fortunate peoples have shaken off and are free from cares, and the land grows green with law. With you as leader, everything that had been done with bad intent is now without effect and will not happen again under your watch. Thus all the people, even the common folk, see that you have cast off the yoke that would cling to their neck and also the evils, which once with terrible torments the innocent isle suffered. It would have grieved this burden, if your conquering hand already famous in war had not willingly come to give help to our ruined affairs. You are the best assistant to serve the British king, while Scotland rejoices in your talent. You are the best of heroes for forestalling the people’s calamity. You, yourself, will last as long as the island does. Guadeloupe will acknowledge that you are the victor and will gaze down upon the camp of her leaders rightly destroyed. Golden France with her scattering flags will weep and with its people grieve over defeated towns. Know well, man dear to Mars, that it is not my part as an African to sing about the wars of military leaders. Buchanan should sing of you, Achilles’ equal, and write about you in the assembly and in arms. That poet, the glory of his homeland, is more worthy to recount you deeds, he is scarcely less accomplished than the sublime Vergil. We live under a sun that drives its own flame-bearing team. All eloquence is lacking in our homes. Accept this then, coated in soot from a mouth trying to sing. Its power comes not from the skin, but from the heart. Set up by a powerful hand (nourishing God, denying nothing, has given the same souls to all kinds), virtue itself is colorless, as is wisdom. There is no color in the soul, nor in art. Why do you fear or why do you hesitate, my very black muse, to climb up to the lofty house of the western Caesar? Go and greet him. Let there be no reason for you to be ashamed that you have a pure (white) body in a black skin. Worth of character, fire of intellect and sweet grace in a learned mouth decorate an African to a higher degree. A wise heart, love of virtue and of country distinguish him more from his comrades. The island gave me birth, famous Britons brought me up. The island will not suffer while you, its father, are safe. This thing I pray: May the earth and the sky see you ruling without end the flourishing peoples.](27)
The poem has come down to us through a single source, Long’s History of Jamaica. It is not the first example we have of a black person working with Neo-Latin after the Renaissance. Williams followed in the tradition of Juan Latino, professor at Granada during the sixteenth century, as well as two figures from the eighteenth century, Anton Wilhelm Amo, professor at Wittenberg, and James Capitein, who wrote in Latin and Dutch. The poem was composed in 1759 in honor of the incoming governor George Haldane. Little is left in Jamaica to mark his term as governor because of its brevity, for he died on July 26, 1759, three months after assuming office from battle wounds he had suffered before his arrival. He was buried at Half Way Tree in the parish of St. Andrew.(28)
Williams’ welcome, probably made on behalf of himself and Spanish Town, is cast in the form of the poetic panegyric that Claudian made popular in the fourth century A.D. The poem with its classical heritage and pastoral touches describes the sense of jubilation and hope in Jamaica at Haldane’s arrival. The idea of writing an extended bucolic poem about the island using classical forms also occurred to William Beckford, who wrote in 1790 that “I have often thought that a Georgic might be composed from the various seasons of Jamaica, the progressive labours of the negroes, the tendence of the cattle, the cultivation of the fields, the manufacture of sugar, and from the various descriptions and reflections which they naturally occasion.” William Dickson thought enough of Williams’ effort to place lines 31-34, pollenti … color along with a caption, “Francis Williams, a Negro Poet and Mathematician” on the frontispiece of the 1789 edition of his Letters on Slavery.(29)
In Williams’ eyes, the Jamaican earth grows green with law, terraque lege virens (4), and the personifications of various places take note of Haldane’s reputation as an accomplished soldier, vir Marti (21). At that point, the poem adopts the tone of a recusatio as Williams leaves the epic depiction of Haldane’s deeds to his own countryman, George Buchanan, one of the best Latin poets in the sixteenth century, caneret te Buchananus et armis (23). This apparent act of modesty allows Williams not only to liken Buchanan to Vergil but also to acknowledge Haldane’s background and the sizable proportion of Scotsmen in Jamaica, who “by the 1760s … made up as much as a third of the entire white population.” By 1788, one writer observed that “of the Europeans, the Scots are the most numerous.”(30)
Line 27 with an Ovidian tone, flammiferos agitante suos sub sole iugales, further highlights Williams’ understanding of his local situation in terms of climate and race. He is aware of the theories of his day that linked climate with levels of civilization and maintained that extremes in temperature limited human capacity. Thus for black people in warm climates, eloquium deficit onme (28).
By divesting skin color of its value, non cute, corde valet (30), Williams invests himself in the cloak of humanity, and thereby writes himself into being. The injunctive, phatic function of his words is clear–“I am the product of Montagu’s utopian experiment. In me are fused the conflicts of Caribbean colonialism and hegemonic European culture. But in formal terms of welcome to Haldane and in the language of scholars, I will also tell you about myself.”
Here Taine’s triad of “race, moment and milieu” come together in a manner that should matter to students of negritude. Having made clear his liabilities, Williams addresses on his own terms and in a phrase of his own making his very black muse, nigerrima … Musa (35-36). His reference to the house of the western Caesar, Caesaris occidui … domum (36), followed by his overt allusion to Vergil for insula me genuit (43) certainly brings to mind Vergil’s Mantua me genuit, follows the convention of contemporary Augustan age poetry in England, and demonstrates the extent of his learning.(31)
At various points in the poem, William displays his training in Latin poetry. Line 19 for example, aurea … Iris, uses the fleur-de-lis to represent France by metonymy. Line 39 plays with the possibilities of translation. Maurum magis literally means “the Moor the more.” Furthermore, the overall shape of the poem depends upon a ring composition. The last line of the poem, florentes populos, terra, Deique locus (46), is clearly related to the fourth, felices populi terraque lege virens (4). As long as Haldane governs, heaven and earth will see the peoples of Jamaica flourishing like happy plants. Through this crescendo from people and earth to people, earth, and heaven, a hierarchy of governance becomes apparent. The people look to Haldane, and Haldane looks to heaven.
With his reference, however, to his very black muse, nigerrima … Musa (36), Williams breaks new ground and makes a powerful claim to the title of first black poet of the western hemisphere. Within the constraints of the classical paradigm and through this act of mythopoeisis, Williams gives birth to himself. Only Lucy Terry (1730-1821) preceded him with her poem in English about a Massachusetts Indian raid written in 1746, but not published until 1893. While her skin was black, her poem was not. In Williams, the two come together in a manner that not only anticipates certain issues of twentieth century negritude, but I think must be marked out as the actual beginning of Caribbean studies. About Francis Williams, Countee Cullen might have written the final lines of his poem “Yet Do I Marvel”:
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him
(1) See for instance T. H. MacDermot, “From a Jamaica Portfolio–Francis Williams,” Journal of Negro History, April (1917), 147-59; Locksley Lindo, “Francis Williams–A `Free’ Negro in Slave World,” Savacou (1970), 75-81; Anthony J. Barker, The African Link (London: Frank Cass, 1978), 163-64; Voices in Exile: Jamaican Texts of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, eds. Jean D’Costa and Barbara Lalla, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1989), 9-12. Paul Edwards and James Walvin, Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade (London: Macmillan, 1983), 59; James Walvin, Black and White: The Negro and English Society, 1551-1945 (London: Penquin Press, 1973), 84; 2 Lindo (n. 1), 72.
(2) Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (London: T. Lownudes, 1774), 2 vols., 2. 476; For information about Edward Long see The Dictionary of National Biography, 22 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1922), 12. 100-1; W. J. Gardner, The History of Jamaica (New York: Appleton, 1909), 207.
(3) Patterson, The Sociology of Slavery (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1967), 95; Gardner (n. 4), 171.
(4) Samuel J, and Edith F. Hurwitz, “A Token of Freedom: Private Bill Legislation for Free Negroes in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” William and Mary Quarterly 1(1967), 423-31; Hurwitz (n. 7), 425.
(5) MacDermot (n. l), 150.
(6) Gardner (n.4), 206-7.
(7) Journal of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, 14 vols., (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1924), 3. 223; 3.225; ibid., (n. 11), 3.227.
(8) Patterson (n. 5), passim; William Dickson, Letters on Slavery (London: J. Phillips, 1786), 136-7.
(9) Gardner (n. 4), 207; see also F.O. Shyllon, Black People in Britain, 1555-1833 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 60-2. For biographical details concerning John, Second Duke of Montagu (c. 1688-1749); see The Dictionary of National Biography, (n. 3), 13.700-1; Edward Scobie, Black Britannia (Chicago: Johnson, 1972), 26-7; By 1788, Scobie estimates that there were over fifty such students … in London. “By the late 18th century, there was a considerable literate black population” who were educated in England according to Paul Edwards and David Dabydeen, Black Writers in Britain, 1760-1890, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1991), ix-x; Barker (n. 1), 26; Walvin (n. 1), 83-4; Paul Edwards and James Walvin, eds., Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade, (London: Macmillan, 1983), 70-3; Barker (n. 1), 26.
(10) Musae Reduces, 2 vols., ed. Pierre Laurens (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975), 1. 134; all translations are my own.
(11) John A. Meagher, Method and Meaning in Jonson’s Masques (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 1-2; Black Personalities, (n. 18), 12; The lines here quoted of the Masque of Blackness have been taken from C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, eds., Ben Jonson, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1941).
(12) H. Gregoire, De la Litterature des Negres, (Nendeln: Kraus, 1971), 82; all translations are my own.
(13) Black Personalities, (n. 18), 158; William Blake’s poem, “The Little Black Boy,” was published around the same time between 1789-1790 in The Songs of Innocence, expresses the same sort of sentiment. The poem begins “My mother bore me … and I am black, but oh my soul is white.”
(14) Walvin, (n. 1), 177-87; Paul Edwards, “Black Writers of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” in The Black Presence in English Literature, ed. David Dabydeen (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1985), 56; Black Personalities, (n. 18), 119.
(15) Black Personalities, (n. 18), 40-41.
(16) Janheinz Jahn, Neo-African Literature: A History of Black Writing, (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 34; Through private correspondence 21 May 1993 with Dr. Mark Nicholls, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cambridge University Library I learned that “sadly while we have come across the story of Francis Williams before, there is no documentary evidence here to confirm it.”
(17) David Hume, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Bell & Bradfute and W. Blackwood, 1825), 521-22.
(18) Gentleman’s Magazine, May (1771), 595-96; for information about William Cheselden, (1688-1752) consult The Dictionary of National Biography, (n. 3), 4. 192-94.
(19) Long (n. 3), 476; for information about Edward Trelawny, (1699-1754) see The Dictionary of National Biography, (n. 3), 19. 1101-102.
(20) Long (n. 3), 476; for information about Edward Trelawny, (1699-1754) see The Dictionary of National Biography, (n. 3), 19. 1101-102.
(21) Dickson (n. 14), 182.
(22) Long (n. 3), 478.
(23) I am deeply grateful to Katherine Coombs from the division of Prints, Drawings and Paintings of the Victoria and Albert Museum for information about the portrait of Francis Williams (inventory # P.83-1928) and to the Picture Library for help obtaining the color copy and the right to print in this essay. For a spacious look at blacks in art see The Image of the Black in Western Art, 4 vols., (Fribourg: Office du livre, 1976-). The work, however, does not examine the portrait of Francis Williams. See also Alistair Hennessy “Penrhyn Castle,” History Today 45 (1995), 44-5 describing eighteenth-century watercolors of the Jamaican countryside, and the little known painting of the negro horn player at Erddig, Clwyd; H. Clifford Smith, Country Life, Oct. (1944), 649.
(24) Rosalie Smith McCrea noted this while collecting data for her dissertation entitled “The Image of the Black in British Painting: 1760-1840.” My thanks to Katherine Coombs for bringing this to my attention; Voices in Exile (n. 1), 130, n. 5; Smith (n. 41), 649.
(25) In Black Britannia Edward Scobie gives a brief description of the furnishings in the room, and provides the titles of certain volumes on the shelf. Katherine Coombs (n. 40) states in private correspondence dated 3 February 1995 that “none of the books by the scholar’s head have anything written on their spines.” R.W. Symonds finds value not in the subject of the portrait, but in his mahogany furniture. See his “Early Import of Mahogany for Furniture, II,” Connoisseur 94 (1934), 375-81; W.E.B. Du Bois, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” in The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Viking Press, 1986), 8.
(26) Orlando Patterson (n. 5), 46, says that “the common view that the leading members of early Jamaican white society came from the gentry and upper middle class sectors of English society” is not supported by the data. As to the military, Gardner (n. 4), 171 noted that “the condition of the white soldiers located on the island was deplorable.” For a glimpse at day- to -day life of a free white man who was Williams’ contemporary in Jamaica see Thistlewood: In Miserable Slavery, 1750-1786, ed. Douglas Hall, (London: Macmillan, 1989). Thistlewood’s diary consists mainly of brutal and coarse descriptions of a harsh way of life. He used his small knowledge of Latin to make frequent notes with abbreviations in Latin of his numerous sexual exploits with slaves.
(27) Long (n. 4), 478; Long’s pronounced prejudice against Williams extends to the footnotes and commentary he inserted into the poem’s text. These have been deleted from this version of the poem. The translation is my own.
(28) Jahn (n. 31), 30-6; see The Journal of the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, (n. 11), 10. 365, 370 for Thursday and Friday, January 26 and 27 1758, for information on Haldane’s appointment. See also 11.43, 47, 63 for June 1, 1759, July 11, 1759 and November 14, 1759 to obtain information about Haldane’s arrival, his plans for fortifications on the island, and the greetings of the town of Kingston to him and his reply. Today on the north shore of the island at Port Maria can be seen the ruins of Fort Haldane, marked by the Jamaica Historical Society in 1962; Voices in Exile (n. 1), 130.
(29) For information on this shift away from the prose panegyric see Robert Browning, “The Later Principate: Poetry,” in P. E. Easterling and E. J. Kenney, eds., The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 25; William Beckford, A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica, 2 vols., (London: T. and J. Egerton, 1790), 2.401.
(30) Patterson (n. 5), 45; for information on this point see Barker (n. 1) 96-9.
(31) On this point see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Writing, `Race,’ and the Influence It Makes,” in Loose Canons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 45; Edward A. Jones, Voices of Negritude, Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1971.
(32) For information on Lucy Terry and her poem “Bars Fight” consult Roger Whitlow, Black American Literature (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1973); Whitlow (n. 58), 84.
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