Francis Williams: Poet, Scientist, Polyglot

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During the time of the transatlantic slave trade, slaves were not regarded as humans and subjugated to the worst form of inhuman treatment. European countries like Britain made slaves out of every baby birthed by enslaved women. There were some few slave-trading and slave-owning countries, however, that had a little bit more relaxed legislation despite still being very racist. Spain allowed for manumission; it was instances like this that afforded enslaved individuals a tiny window at freedom which they grasped. People like Francisco Mernandez, Juan Garrido, Juan Valiente and others including John Williams, the father of Francis Williams.

Francis Williams

John Williams was freed by his master in 1699 out of free will in Jamaica. This gesture was practically unheard of in the Jamaican society of that time which regarded people of African descent as human implements. John Williams certainly must have been an individual of extraordinary character to be able to procure such favour from his master. Within a decade and against all odds he had acquired properties and became quite wealthy. He got married to his wife Dorothy Williams and they had two sons Francis and Thomas.

Francis Williams was born in 1702. Black families like the Williams were extremely very rare during those times; there were only a few number of free slaves that were ever in a position to own property or attain social status. Also, Jamaica’s sugarcane industry was booming and heavily relied on labour from slaves so there was an overwhelming majority of Africans in slavery in Jamaica compared to free Africans and the figures kept rising throughout the 18th century. And even rarer was an educated black family. John Williams being a wealthy man ensured that his boys got an education. Furthermore, through the private bill system of Jamaica during those times the Williams gained rights that were hitherto almost exclusive to whites.


Francis travelled to western Europe where he was educated[1]. There are talks of Francis being one of the subjects of a social experiment initiated by the 2nd Duke of Montagu. John Montagu who sponsored a number of Africans in higher institutions to determine whether Africans accorded the same level of education with whites would match the intellectual achievements of their white counterparts.

This claim as regards Francis might not be accurate because records of Francis Williams have not been found at Cambridge university[2] which he was purportedly sent to. Besides, his father John was wealthy enough to send Francis to any university as long as he was accepted. But even if the talks were true, Francis Williams clearly did not only match the intellectual capacity of the white Europeans but marginally exceeded it.

Not only did he obtain degrees in Mathematics, Latin and Literature, but against the backlash of racial condemnation, the literary works of Francis Williams was extraordinary, even the white population acknowledged how good his works were. He was quickly embraced by some in the literary community in London and became quite famous. His ballad “Welcome, welcome, brother debtor” particularly increased his fame. His popularity was such that some composers were jealous and tried to copy and claim ownership of his works. Williams is generally most remembered as a poet of merit with a specialty in Latin verses. He composed Latin odes for many governors of Jamaica; one of his best pieces was “An Ode to George Haldane”. Francis clearly excelled and thrived in England and in 1723 he took an oath of citizenship and became a citizen.

Francis Williams became good friends with men of science some of whom were members of the Royal Society most notably Dr Williams Chelselden. Chelselden was an English surgeon and teacher of anatomy and surgery. He introduced Francis to the Royal Society and they attended the society’s meetings.

The Royal Society was recognized in 1660 by King Charles II and granted a royal charter. It is a society of learned individuals in different academic fields; the society seeks to promote academic disciplines or related disciplines like arts. It is the oldest national scientific society in the world[3].

The proposal for Francis William to become a member of the Royal Society was rejected. Sadly for such a body of highly learned men, he was rejected because of the colour of his skin. Poignant indeed for a society of such status. New members were admitted by existing members or fellows and a majority of the members rejected Williams due to his skin colour.

Francis yearned to return to Jamaica even though he knew he would not enjoy the kind of support he got from the white community in England. He eventually returned to Jamaica in the mid-1720s, upon his arrival he sought a seat in the Jamaican Assembly. This drew condemnation from many of the white population and he was abruptly rejected by the incumbent governor Edward Trelawny.

His quest of becoming a political office holder in Jamaica frustrated, Francis Williams set up a free school for African children where he taught, reading, writing, Latin and mathematics. The free schools available in Jamaica at the time were only accessible to white children of poor parents that couldn’t afford to pay for their children’s education.

Francis Williams faced numerous challenges in the course of running the school. Notable was an advocate of slavery Edward Long who constantly put up a barrage of attacks and insults. Long was a polygenist who believed that the white race was a different species of the human race. He was the descendant of English immigrants to Jamaica and was of high social status. He vehemently opposed and discouraged the school’s operations.

At one time he was quoted saying “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.”. Referring to Francis Williams he said “Whilst he acted in this profession, he selected a Negroe 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 that every African head is not adapted by nature to such profound contemplations.” This, of course, is completely false.

He countlessly directly attacked Francis in the footnote to his essay when he said: “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.”. At another time he attacked and insulted Francis “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.” Mr Edward Long indeed hated Francis Williams and what he represented for no reason at all.

When the Dean of Middleham Reverend Robert Boucher Nicholls read one of the ode’s of Francis, he couldn’t contain his indignation of the colonists that compared blacks to apes and exclaimed “I have never heard an orang-utan has composed an ode. Among the defenders of slavery, we do not find one half of the literary merit of Francis Williams.”


The memory of Francis Williams is best preserved in a painting of him done by an unknown artist in 1740. The painting is 26 inches by 20 inches in size. In the painting, his expensive clothing, marks of a higher learning and his self-assured posture are very noticeable. Francis Williams stands on a black and white marble floor in the middle of his library surrounded by fine furniture that only the rich can procure. Behind him is an impressive array of books neatly arranged on a tall floor-to-ceiling shelf partly concealed by a blue curtain that has been pulled back by a long cord tied in a complicated knot. He is most fashionably dressed in expensive looking clothing; a white wig, blue velvet silk-lined coat, and breeches, white silk waistcoat and stockings. Also, behind him is a window that opens to a beautiful landscape of green lands with clear blue waters and houses that were further in the background. Close to him is a fine chair and a carved tripod table, and on top of the table are instruments of science and literacy; an open book, quill pens, a compass, and a celestial globe. There is a terrestrial globe on the marble floor. He is dark skinned with an intentionally depicted oversized head to indicate his intellectuality, his hands and feet were also made smaller to illustrate his status as a gentleman. He indicates with his right hand towards a space on the sixth shelf; this might be an indication of a hole in the system of bookish knowledge or space for accommodation of new ideas. There are gold colours present on some objects in the painting; dots of gold on the spine of the books, the gold coloured thin chord, the wide strips of gold trimming running down the edge of his fine coat.

The portrait was presented by Viscount Breasted M.C and Messrs. Spink and Son Ltd to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1929 through the National Art Collections Fund. And can still be found in the museum today.

Francis Williams, although born at a time when there was a profound acceptance of racism and slavery, a time when most of the European population regarded Africans as an entirely different species of humans not capable of intelligence; he still rose despite being disadvantaged to the highest social status in the society. He lived in a time when only 5% of Britons were literate. A position most white folks at the time could never dream of attaining. He clearly contradicted popular opinion at the time on the ability and intelligence of Africans. He died in 1770, having achieved great feats and his name proudly etched in the history books.



  1. Carretta, Vincent (June 2003).
  2. Francis Williams was allegedly sposored in the University of Cambridge.
  3. Hunter, Michael. “Royal Society”. Encyclopædia Britannica.

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Francis Williams: Poet, Scientist, Polyglot

by Editorial Team time to read: 7 min