Freya Johnston

The Son He Never Had

The Fortunes of Francis Barber: The True Story of the Jamaican Slave Who Became Samuel Johnson’s Heir

By Michael Bundock

Yale University Press 282pp £20 order from our bookshop

On Wednesday 28 January 1756, the Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood made a brief entry in his journal: ‘Had Derby well whipped, and made Egypt shit in his face.’ The punishment was not a one-off; Derby, a famished slave, was repeatedly caught eating his master’s sugar canes. Later that year, Thistlewood again inflicted ‘Derby’s dose’: ‘made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put in a gag whilst his mouth was full & made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.’

More than ten thousand pages of Thistlewood’s diaries survive, chronicling in the terse, unreflective manner of a very long shopping list the rapes, floggings, degradations and mutilations he inflicted on his slaves. Intelligent and modestly wealthy, Thistlewood was free to enjoy a cultured existence, pursuing his interests in reading and horticulture. He won local renown for his gardens, lent and borrowed a wide range of books, and even penned a few sniffy remarks about Dr Samuel Johnson –