Great Jamaican Teachers

Francis Williams

A Teacher in 18th Century Spanish Town

Francis Williams, born around 1702, was

apparently the youngest of the three sons of

John and Dorothy Williams, free Blacks,

who, in 1708, with their sons, were granted

by the House of Assembly the privilege of

not being subject to slave evidence in court,

status reserved for Whites.


About 1716, the Duke of Montague, then Governor of the Island, proposed an experiment to

solve the problem, much discussed in Jamaica and elsewhere, as to whether a Black man

could equal a White man if given the same education and opportunity. He chose Francis

Williams because of the promise he showed, and sent him to England, where he studied at

first at a grammar school, and afterwards entered the University of Cambridge, where he

made considerable progress in mathematics and other branches of science. He also excelled in the study of the classics, an essential part of the education of an 18th century gentleman.

As a result he wrote a considerable quantity of Latin poetry in the accepted style of the

period and often addressed to Governors of Jamaica.

Having spent several more years in England, Williams returned to Jamaica, where the

Duke of Montague offered to give him a place on the Council which advised the Governor,

but this offer did not materialise. Under the Governor's patronage he opened a school in

Spanish Town, the capital of Jamaica. He taught reading, writing, Latin, and the elements

of mathematics, but there is no clear indication of who his pupils were. He trained one of

them who was Black to take over the school, so clearly he had Black pupils. Possibly

Coloured and even poorer White citizens of the capital may have ignored Williams' colour

and sent their boys to be taught by a Cambridge educated scholar.

It seems that Williams died around 1770. Unfortunately the teacher he had  trained to

continue to run his school suffered some form of mental break-down and there is no record of the fate of the school; it was in fact fairly common in the 18th and 19th century West

Indies, as elsewhere,  for schools  to disappear with the death of the individuals who had

started them.


Edward Long, whose History of Jamaica is one of the main sources of information on

Williams, was not at all flattering about Williams' character and behaviour. He described

him as 'haughty and opinionated'; accused him of looking down on his fellow Blacks, even

his parents, and treating his children and his slaves very harshly. Long suggested that he

adopted an exaggerated style of dress, including a very large wig, a ruffled shirt and a

sword, in order to secure great deference from those around him, especially the Blacks.

Some of these characteristics were undoubtedly copied from the Whites who dominated the

society, and seem understandable in one who must constantly have had to assert his

position in a society which had not previously had to accommodate an educated Black



Although Williams may not have been a particularly attractive character, and may have

expressed banal and conventional opinions, the following lines, translated from one of his

Latin poems, express the attitude of all civilised people, both then and now:



'The bountiful Deity, with a hand powerful and firm,

has given the same soul to men of all races, nothing

standing in His way. Virtue itself and prudence are

free from colour; there is no colour in a honourable

mind, no colour in skill.'




'Oh, these God-sent teachers . . . . of rural Jamaica, in those opportunity-starved years

of the early nineteen hundreds.'    

J. J. Mills - His own account of his life and times. (Kingston, 1969), page 41.