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Fears and Cares Attend the Great
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD A Poem About Being Jailed for Debt, and A Typical and Yet Very Not Typical 18th Century Gentleman
How Long Is This Post? About 4,500 words, or 20 minutes.
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Without planning to, I’ve been talking a lot lately about 18th century debtors in jail, like artist William Hogarth’s dad, and the jailed British debtors who inspired the creation of the British American colony of Georgia (although they didn’t benefit from it because approximately 0—yes, zero—British debtors have ever been found to have come to early Georgia).
Today, as the winter holidays approach, and as more and more businesses refuse to take cash, forcing us to whip out our plastic to pay for stuff— giving a cut of our money to the card companies and our data to the insurance industry— we can at least comfort ourselves that credit card debt prisons are not a thing. Although maybe I shouldn't give them ideas.
So long as debtors’ jail remains a problem of the past, I think we can safely enjoy a short 18th century poem on the subject.
Hey, if you're tempted to flee at the first mention of poetry, wait!
I'll sum up the content for you first. Here’s what the poem is about.
The British poet, Francis Williams, speaks in the voice of an experienced prisoner in a debtors’ jail (in London, likely). In the poem, he is kindly taking a freaked-out and newly imprisoned debtor under his wing.
Cheer up, the veteran prisoner says! After all, things could be worse! Debt collectors aren’t allowed to hassle you in prison, “this poor but merry place”!
The veteran breaks the bad news that a newbie in debtors’ jail is expected to bribe the jailer in cash, or else hand him his coat as payment.
Look, says the veteran prisoner, the best and wisest way to deal with prison is NOT to sit around getting mopey, fretting about being in jail, and thinking about your wife and kids trying to survive on the outside.
No, he says, the wisest thing to do is to accept that, as we might say today, shit happens.
Even though you’re going through a tough time in life, he says, you should firmly reject sitting around feeling sorry for yourself.
After all, the lowliest people and beggars who have hit bottom “find contentment”, he says, while the rich and important are constantly worrying about their responsibilities, and afraid of losing everything, their status and money.
Annette’s Aside: Brits, this reminds me of Fletcher (played by Ronnie Barker) giving kind advice to his young cellmate Lennie Godber (played by Richard Beckinsale, Kate’s father) in BBC’s classic sitcom Porridge. If you don’t remember it, here it is, with all its mid-1970s attitudes. Btw, Fletch’s homophobic comment might be balanced against the series introducing a sympathetically-portrayed openly gay character, Lukewarm, and the actor who played him, Christopher Biggins. Yes, that’s why he’s famous. :)
So here’s Francis Williams’s poem:
Welcome, Welcome, Brother Debtor
Welcome, welcome, brother debtor, To this poor but merry place; Where no bailiff, dun, or fetter, Dare to shew a frightful face. But, kind Sir, as you're a stranger, Down your garnish you must lay; Or your coat will be in danger: You must either strip or pay. Ne'er repine at your confinement From your children or your wife: Wisdom lies in true resignment, Through the various scenes of life. Scorn to show the least resentment, Though beneath the frowns of fate; Knaves and beggars find contentment; Fears and cares attend the great.
Captured by Painting
Sometimes, a picture really grabs your attention, and the portrait above totally grabbed mine! I was hurrying through the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, on my way to see the exhibit on afternoon tea, but I came to a screeching halt in front of this truly bloody awful painting.
This portrait stopped me in my tracks not because it's bad, but because there are very few depictions of black Brits in the 18th century. This is not because white British artists in an overwhelmingly white Britain didn’t want to paint black people. On the contrary, they were fascinated, as artists tend to be by unfamiliar sights. William Hogarth must have painted most of the black Londoners of his day: Click this for an example.
There are very few black people in 18th century British art because, while there have always been British people of color, there were very few black people in 18th century Britain. But there were many, many black British people elsewhere.
The bloke in the picture above was British: He just didn’t live in the British Isles. He lived in Jamaica. You can see a typical West Indian scene through the window behind him, all palm trees and Spanish architecture. You don’t get a view like that in Hampshire or Essex.
That the painting comes from the the West Indies also helps explain why it’s so bad. In a predominantly rural place, thousands of miles from London, there wasn't a lot of demand for portraits or the artists to paint them.
That said, the V&A museum curators speculate that the man in the portrait may have painted it himself. Makes sense, since the desired accomplishments of rich people included not only being a bit familiar with other languages, being a bit of a good conversationalist, and being a bit musical, but also being a bit artistic. Although in this man's case, if he did paint his own portrait, I would suggest that maybe art wasn’t really his best thing. I mean to say, just look at those little legs and enormous head.
Or maybe he wasn't the artist. Maybe he didn't even commission the portrait.
But, yes, he existed, and yes, he was rich: Check out those clothes, that furniture, and that library. Oh, and in case you’re tempted to think the portrait is really of a servant in uniform, note: He has his hand firmly on an open book, like, “This belongs to me, and look at my clothes, do I look like I spend my days on housework? I am rich enough to have oodles of time just to read books, cheers.”
Rich, yes. But British? Yes. And not just because Jamaica belonged to Britain.
As the 18th century British economy boomed on both sides of the Atlantic, posh people in Britain’s colonies identified more and more proudly as Brits.
That was true in mainland American colonies, even formerly proudly independent Puritan Massachusetts, that eventually became part of the United States (although nobody knew for sure this would happen until it did! Contingency, again!)
And the rise of British identity and pride was, unsurprisingly, just as true among free people in Jamaica and the other British colonies that did not become part of the United States (Let me say this again, louder: NOBODY KNEW ABOUT AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE YET.)
So yes, the man in the portrait was a posh Brit. What made him unusual was that he was of African descent.
A Surprising Gentleman
The man in the portrait was named Francis Williams. He was born in Jamaica around the turn of the 18th century, somewhere between 1690 and 1701 (dates that historians have found vary). He may have been born into slavery, but at least from childhood on, he was free.
That's because, by the end of the 17th century, Francis Williams’s parents, John and Dorothy Williams, were what were then known as free people of color. I’m not sure how Dorothy became free, but the historians and museum curators agree that John was freed from slavery in his enslaver’s will.
This freedom alone made Francis and his family very unusual in 18th century Jamaica.
The vast majority of people in the islands of the British West Indies were enslaved Africans forced to grow sugar by a handful of very rich slave-owning white sugar planters, making fortunes as more and more Brits at home got hooked on sugar.
Annette’s Aside: Big Sugar has lately been getting the kind of attention that Big Tobacco started getting decades ago. In case you missed it, here’s one reason why (the sugar industry is now being accused of paying scientists to blame fat for the obesity epidemic) And here’s another (sugar is suspected of being as addictive as cocaine, and I believe it).
The most profitable 18th century American colonies churned out drugs by the barrel-load, indeed the shipload. Think slave-grown tobacco in Virginia and Maryland, which still came a very, very distant second in profitability to all the slave-grown sugar coming out of Brazil and the West Indies. Britain’s sugar, grown in the West Indies, was worth more to the economy than all the combined products of the mainland colonies that would one day be the United States.
Sugar, grown by enslaved people (yeah, I will keep reminding us of that), was king. So it's not a coincidence that sugar-growing Portuguese Brazil and the sugar islands of the West Indies, like Britain’s own Barbados and Jamaica, were where the vast, vast majority of enslaved Africans ended up after being trafficked in the slave trade— not in the mainland colonies that later became the US.
In the sugar cane fields and sugar processing factories, enslaved people led lives of utter misery in brutally exploitative systems that extracted money from their forced work. But I bet you already knew that. That’s ok. Never hurts to really think about what that means, for men, women, and children then, and for us now.
A Family’s Wealth
John and Dorothy Williams, formerly enslaved in Jamaica, were not only very, very unusual in becoming free: They were even more unusual in becoming wealthy.
Isn’t it funny that Francis Williams in Jamaica had the same name as the poet who wrote that poem above? What a coincidence!
Well, Francis Williams was a pretty common name in the 18th century.
But now you mention it, this Francis Williams was also the poet who wrote Welcome, Welcome, Brother Debtor.
Yup! Francis Williams, free man of color and Jamaican, was a poet, a mathematician, and philanthropist. He was educated in England, and trained as a lawyer in London. He may have been the first black student at Cambridge University, although the jury is still out on that, since the evidence is a bit lacking.
When Williams returned to Jamaica, he founded and taught in a tuition -free school for free people of color to give other free black Jamaicans educational opportunity.
You know, the story of Francis Williams reminds me a little of the much later story of Mary Church Terrell, celebrated African-American women's rights and civil rights activist, organizer, and leader in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. Terrell was born into slavery in Tennessee, but she grew up in privilege (and was educated to M.A. level) because her parents, former slaves who were the children of slaveowners, each founded successful businesses, and spent a lot of money having their daughter educated.
You can read more about Mary Church Terrell in this post:
As we’ll see, though, any resemblance between Mary Church Terrell and Francis Williams ends here.
Knowing What We Know
At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, this was all the curators gave us in their label:
Fair enough. I hate museums that give us feet of text to read. Who’s got time and footwear for that? Who can read for ages about a subject they know little or nothing about, standing uncomfortably on a concrete floor? Not me, that’s for sure.
And this was the first I had heard of Francis Williams.
My plan for this NBH Road post was to show you the portrait and label, so you could go “wow”, and then leave it at that. Because, hey, history goes on and on and on, and I have to decide when to call it a day. Says the woman who never finished giving a single college lecture by the end of the period, and who sometimes resorted to shouting stuff to her students as they dashed desperately for the door.
Anyway. I was supposed to be on break this past week.
However . . . I made the mistake of looking up Francis Williams on Wikipedia. And from there, I was lured to a scholarly article by a professor of classics (Latin and whatnot) named Michele Valerie Ronnick, who clearly got tempted away from her own field by modern history, a much more interesting subject than speaking to dead Romans, if you ask me. She wrote about Williams in 1998, for what was then called the Negro History Bulletin.
And then I found another article, this one by T.H. McDermot for the Journal of Negro History in 1917 (not a typo, published during the First World War, and understandably a bit past its prime).
Oh, no! Now I was diving in. As historians usually do, I decided to head first to the most recent academic article I could find, since those usually give the reader a crash course in previous scholarship.
The latest article I found on Francis Williams was published by Vincent Carretta in Early American Literature in 2003, and it’s called Who Was Francis Williams?
Vincent Carretta is not officially a historian, but we let him hang out with us, because he’s THE scholar of Olaudah Equiano, man of the world, autobiographer, and most famous black Briton of the 18th century. Dr. Carretta has dedicated his life to Equiano. He might actually have been studying Equiano longer than Equiano was alive.
As a literature scholar, though, Vincent Carretta, in his article on Francis Williams, doesn't address all my historian questions. Like, where did John Williams get his fortune, since it wasn't entirely inherited from the man who had enslaved him, and, ooh, was that slaveowner John’s father?
Vincent Carretta tells us important things though, including this: Almost all that's known about Francis Williams comes from the work of a racist writer of the time, named Edward Long.
Edward Long wrote an influential book called History of Jamaica. Like other white people who were determined to excuse slavery (and ease their consciences) by suggesting that Africans were the intellectual inferiors of whites, Long mocked Francis Williams’s poetry, just as Thomas Jefferson later tried to argue that black Boston poet Phillis Wheatley wasn’t really all that.
But Long wasn’t the only white Englishman who raised his voice on “race”. White Englishmen who were friends of Olaudah Equiano spoke up for Williams, arguing that black people had the same intellectual capacities as whites.
This is especially striking considering that members of Britain's elite had, since the Middle Ages, dismissed the innate equality of most white people, describing them in nasty stereotypes: Short, ugly, stupid, dull, lazy, untrustworthy, etc.
And then there were Englishmen who, fascinated by the novelty of seeing human beings with dark skin, genuinely wanted to know if the differences were only skin-deep, if black people were capable of being educated.
Williams’s education in England, Carretta says, and that of other British people of African descent, was sponsored by the Duke of Montagu for that very reason: The Duke was curious to find out if black people could be educated.
So, yes, despite the hesitation in the V&A’s label with the portrait, Francis Williams was educated in England—although historians still don't seem to agree on whether the bills were paid by his dad, John, or by Lord Montague.
And on a very different subject, one of the V&A’s articles on the Williams portrait casually mentions that Francis Williams inherited slaves from his father, John, and continued to work them on his land.
Francis Williams and Slavery
Yes, of course, I get that many of my readers are shocked. Some of you may be upset. Fanning yourselves, even. Offended that I have even mentioned this part of Francis Williams’s life.
Oh, well. I'm bound to get cancelled in the end, and the only question is whether it will come from the American left or American right. Might as well get on with it.
This news isn’t a total shock to historians, or even news. The Williams family were not alone. They were among the tiny minority but fascinating people of African descent in the Americas who owned enslaved people. Interested? Check out one of my earlier posts about historian T.H. Breen’s Myne Owne Ground, a famous book about Anthony Johnson, a free black tobacco planter in early Virginia who owned servants, and at least one enslaved man.
(Please note, however, that anyone who simply grabs this factoid and doesn’t hang around to read the context, to misuse it for political or self-promotional purposes, is an utter sleazebag, a fool or both. And I am being kind. )
Let’s be clear: In slave societies like early Virginia and Jamaica, most people were poor and enslaved, with only a few people rich and free. These were utterly unequal societies.
So what kind of people would we be, if we lived as free people in 18th century Jamaica or Virginia? You’re probably going to tell me you would have stood up against slavery.
Yeah. Right. Sure. Of course you would, you social justice warrior, you. Hey, um, while we’re on the subject. check out my recent piece on the Highland Scots of early 18th century Georgia, if you haven’t already. These lads pretty much decided, given the limited options open to them, that they would be rather be rich and free than poor and dependent, thanks, and they then swallowed any moral qualms they might have had about slavery:
Laing, didn’t anyone oppose slavery in this period?
Yes! Millions of early 18th century people opposed slavery!
And almost all of them were slaves.
If you think that’s mind blowing, just wait until I tell Nonnies sometime about the month I spent in Virginia, along with a dozen or so professors of early American history and culture. We were locked in a room by historians of Africa, and they made us listen to them. It was life-changing stuff, I tell you. Because you know what? Truth sets us free. Or did. And will again. Or we’re truly shafted.
Francis Williams, Free Man of Color
Francis Williams, as we have already seen, was a scholar (look at his impressive personal library in his portrait!) He was a poet. He was rich.
And he was discriminated against. He could not enter politics because he was black. He could not join London’s Royal Society because he was black (they also kept out women until 1945). He was belittled by
scumbags people like Edward Long.
Mockery is a common practice among prejudiced and entitled people. They mock and discriminate against people they hate for acting normally. That's what discrimination is all about.
Williams was even mocked for being a black man who held his wealth through slavery, which was exactly how anyone wealthy in Jamaica became wealthy.
Yes, Francis Williams was a privileged man. Yes, he was far better off than the enslaved people of Jamaica. He shared much in common with the privileged whites of the island, except for the racism.
Without racism, though, it became increasingly hard for people to justify being slaveowners in an age when the rights and freedoms of the individual were under discussion.
How did you justify owning and exploiting people and their descendants forever, even your own children? To admit that slaves were people and own them anyway was to admit to being bloody evil in the 18th century. Ask Thomas Jefferson, whose embarrassed (and embarrassing) wrestling with this subject makes for fascinating reading. Curious? See his book Notes on the State of Virginia, in which his discussion of slavery is buried deep, like he can’t avoid the subject, but hopes you won’t read that far.
Yes, I'm talking about Tom “All men are created equal, oh, bring me an iced tea, would you, Sally? Hey, is that my slaves’ work area hidden under my lawn? Never noticed that, even though I designed it” Jefferson. The man who blamed mean old King George III for making Americans do bad things, like slavery. Uh huh.
But I digress.
So . . . Many British elite whites in the 18th century, including Jefferson, knew or suspected that blacks were their intellectual equals. Some privileged British non-slaveowners were curious to confirm this, since they weren't personally invested in the answer. In general, the absolute worst racist thinking was yet to come, in the 19th century.
Why not sooner?
Eighteenth century Brits weren’t much into believing in “personal responsibility” as a cause of your life sucking. Bad luck, that’s what they blamed. Sure, black people were people, this thinking went, but while it was a shame that their lot in life was to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, that's just the way the cookie crumbles. Sad, sucks to be you if you're enslaved, but it is what it is.
You can see this kind of fatalism in the autobiography of 18th century white indentured servant William Moraley, who saw himself and enslaved people as pawns of fate.
Interested? Here’s my “interview” with William Moraley:
So while prejudice against difference among the 18th century English may have been inevitable, full-blown racism was not.
Racism invented the unscientific idea of race. Race is the idea that skin color reflects significant and hard-wired internal differences among people, and racism says that some people, based on shallow physical differences, are intrinsically better than others.
Racism offers an easy-to-grasp fake explanation for differences between groups and among individual people that are actually caused by class, culture, individual personalities, and, yes, racism itself.
Indeed, many conversations in the US about “anti-racism” in the tortured COVID era are ironically grounded in racist beliefs: That our outward appearances really do reflect unchangeable differences among us.
This Brit in America has been thinking about this stuff for decades. I think about this every time I am asked my “race” on an official form. I'm not keen on being summed up as “white”, which lumps me in with all sorts of people I’d rather not be lumped in with, thanks, and I very definitely do not identify as White, a capitalization formerly favored only by the sort of people who wear pillowcases on their heads.
Obviously, I just raised all sorts of questions I've no intention of answering in a soundbite, but for now: Racism has confused us all, poisoned relations among human beings, and provided powerful and/or hateful people with all sorts of excuses for being evil.
Dang. This is a huge subject. There are a zillion academic history books that piece together how we got into this mess, and I've already written about a few of them, as you see in the links above. But we’re just getting started.
Ya know, I often wish I could do a Vulcan mindmeld, like Mr. Spock on Star Trek, telepathically downloading a bunch of info at once to NBH readers’ brains, so you aren’t tempted to say “Yes, but . . .”. Nah, I don't want to brainwash you, no worries. But I don’t do debates either. My challenge at NBH is to explain complicated things, like the history of racism, in dribs and drabs, especially when people have opinions about history in a way they generally don't about astrophysics or molecular biology (whatever those are) , and a preference for quick explanations so they can make their minds up what they think, file it away, and get on with their lives.
To quote the former physics teacher of one Nonnie I chatted with recently, “confusion is the beginning of knowledge.” As a historian, I can only add that when we're doing our jobs properly, we don't draw lines under our views and call it a day, except where firm facts are concerned. Everything else is contingent. Which is not to say I think race or racism is contingent. Oh, hell no: Race is NOT a thing. Racism IS a thing, although how people define racism is another story.
Bizarrely, Francis Williams’s (self?) portrait ended up in the hands of racist writer Edward Long’s descendants, from whom the V&A acquired it.
The V&A’s art curators cannot say for sure, but they do say they don’t know who painted it, or why. Their research continues.
And meanwhile, the only text stuck on the museum wall is removable, and it’s a quick summary of what the curators currently think are the most reliable facts. I don’t blame them at all for not emphasizing Williams’s slaveownership in something the public reads in passing.
Ever heard the expression that a little learning is a dangerous thing? In the hands of people willing to misuse facts, to rip them out of context, and unwilling to learn more, this stuff can be used to hurt people today. As it was when Edward Long wrote his amateur, racist, and self -serving history of Jamaica.
As usual, I am willing to talk about these knotty issues because I believe in grabbing the bull by the horns, however high the risk of goring, and anyway, I never do anything in just a few words, do I, eh?
NBH, like academic history itself, is a long-term project, of one historian bringing you along for the ride, as she tries to understand, bit by bit, through the work of professional historians and museum curators, the wacky world of human beings, before we’re all replaced by robots.
And to think (sob): I was just going to show you that photo of Francis Williams, say ”How about this, huh?” and leave it at that.
But that's not how we roll at NBH. Discovering history (not just trivia) is to learn not only to tolerate complication and gray areas and uncomfortable facts, but to delight in exploring them. The trick is to have decency and goodwill, to be willing to learn, and to keep an open mind on the past without disappearing into crazy conspiracy world. Because seriously? Neither of us looks good in a tinfoil hat.
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