Francis Williams: An Eighteenth-Century Tertium Quid

By Ronnick, Michele Valerie | Negro History Bulletin, April-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Francis Williams: An Eighteenth-Century Tertium Quid


Ronnick, Michele Valerie, Negro History Bulletin


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. …

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