Johnson, Boswell And The Abolition Of Slavery

| 24 July 2006
drawing shows three eighteenth century men at dinner table

A close up of a picture of a dinner given at Sir Joshua Reynolds' house. From the left it shows Boswell, Johnson and Reynolds. Reproduced by courtesy of the Dr Johnson's House Trustees

Dr Samuel Johnson, the great literary figure of the 18th century, was absolutely opposed to slavery. His biographer James Boswell however was an apologist for it.

In a talk given at Samuel Johnson's London home, Professor James Basker of Barnard College, Columbia University spoke about Johnson's views, and how, after his death, Boswell may have tried to suppress them in the run up to a vital parliamentary debate on slavery. You can download the complete text of the talk below.

painting shows black man in eighteenth century dress

Francis Barber, Dr Johnson's servant who lived in his London house for many years. Reproduced by courtesy of the Dr Johnson's House Trustees.

The talk also looks at Johnson's relationship with his black servant, Francis Barber, and touches on a 1787 dinner party when Thomas Clarkson, Bennet Langton and others persuaded William Wilberforce to lead the legislative fight in Parliament against the slave trade. Boswell was present at the dinner, but by the following year had become pro-slavery.

drawing shows dr johnson

Samuel Johnson. Reproduced by courtesy of the Dr Johnson's House Trustees.

Boswell called Johnson's opposition to slavery 'zeal without knowledge'. But Boswell's astonishing pro-slavery poem written in 1791 shows, at best, a willful ignorance of the physical cruelty, early deaths and family segregation that were facts of life for slaves in the Caribbean:

"Lo then, in yonder fragrant isle
Where Nature ever seems to smile,
The cheerful gang!--the negroes see
Perform the task of industry:
Ev'n at their labour hear them sing,
While time flies quick on downy wing;
Finish'd the bus'ness of the day,
No human beings are more gay:
Of food, clothes, cleanly lodging sure,
Each has his property secure;
Their wives and children are protected,
In sickness they are not neglected;
And when old age brings a release,
Their grateful days they end in peace."

Through the prism of the relationship between Johnson and Boswell, we see the wider issues and arguments as Britain took the first steps towards abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

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