Francis Williams – a portrait of a writer

This full-length portrait shows the Jamaican scholar and writer Francis Williams. It was painted around 1745 by an unknown artist who was most likely based in Jamaica – through the window we see (probably) Spanish Town, the beach and bright azure sky. The rest of the picture copies the style of formal European portraits, which the artist may have seen in the form of printed reproductions.

Francis Williams was born in Jamaica in around 1692 to John and Dorothy Williams. Francis's exact date of birth is not known, but when he died in 1762 he was reportedly 'aged seventy or thereabouts'. John Williams was not emancipated from slavery until 1697 – if Francis was born before then, he was born into slavery.

Following his emancipation, John Williams became a successful and wealthy merchant, buying land and slaves of his own. Francis had two elder brothers, John and Thomas, and a sister, Lucretia. As emancipated slaves, the Williams family were free to live and work, but they were not automatically granted the same legal and civil rights as white Jamaicans. In February 1708 John Williams succeeded in having a special local law passed that granted him the right to trial by jury, and prevented slaves from testifying against him. When John Williams died in 1723, his estate included land, slaves and debts owed to him by prominent members of Jamaican society. John Williams' independent wealth secured an education for Francis and his brothers.

Almost everything we know about Francis comes from a book called the History of Jamaica, written by Edward Long and published in London in 1774. Long was not an impartial biographer, and it is likely that his racism led to him underplaying Francis's achievements. The book describes Francis as 'haughty, opinionated … [and with] the highest opinion of his own knowledge', but this portrait was owned by Long's descendants until it was given to the V&A.

While we might not trust all of what Long says about Francis's education, he certainly became a member of Lincoln's Inn (one of the professional associations for barristers) in London on 8 August 1721. Francis then returned to Jamaica shortly after the death of his father. It appears that he spent the rest of his life there; he ran a school in Spanish Town, teaching Black students reading, writing, Latin and mathematics.

Today, Francis William's status is made problematic by the fact that he and his family profited from the labour of enslaved Africans. However, his existence as a rich, educated free Black man who wrote Latin poetry was a direct challenge to the theories of white supremacy that underpinned the transatlantic slave trade.

Benjamin Zephaniah on the portrait of Francis Williams

Background image: Francis Williams, the Scholar of Jamaica, unknown artist, about 1745, Jamaica. Museum no. P.83-1928. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London