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Francis Williams: working in the background

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries a number of black scientists had close involvement with the Royal Society, though were not recognised at the time.

Francis Williams, pictured, is shown in a contemporary portrait to stand amongst objects of his learning; books, a globe, a telescope. He is also fashionably and expensively dressed, every bit the eminent man of culture and science. If we look closely, Williams is resting his hand on a book entitled “Newton’s Philosophy”.

Francis Williams was born in 1702 to John and Dorothy Williams, a free black couple living in Jamaica. This was an increasingly unusual category as the sugar industry, which relied on slave labour, expanded during the 18th century. Their relative wealth and stability meant that Francis was able to receive an education.

It has been suggested that Williams was a social experiment by the Duke of Montagu, who wanted to demonstrate that a black student could match the intelligence and achievements of whites. Francis was later able to attend Cambridge University; however, this does not appear in the university’s records.

Francis was also a popular poet of Latin verses and odes, as well as having political aspirations in Jamaica. His aspirations were, however, frequently denied; his election to the Royal Society – appearing as a single line in the archives – was refused. In an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine from May 1771, an unnamed author wrote that the refusal was "on account of his complexion".

"[Williams] was admitted to the meetings of the Royal Society, and, being proposed as a member, was rejected solely for a reason unworthy of that learned body, viz. on account of his complexion"Gentleman's Magazine, May 1771

Unfortunately there is no more information surrounding this proposed election than in these two sources; the article and the Royal Society archives.

Edward Long, author of the two volume History of Jamaica (1774), used his book to undermine Williams as well as the education of black people more widely. Noting that Williams had established a school in Spanish Town, Jamaica, he suggested that a black pupil had been sent "mad", where "the abstruse problems of mathematical intuition turned his brain". He used this as an example to put across his racist belief that "every African head is not adapted by nature to such profound contemplations". Long goes on to attack Williams personally, arguing that "he was haughty, opinionated, looked down with foreign contempt on his fellow Blacks", as well as accusing him of "cruelty".

William’s successes in mathematics and verse earned him recognition amongst his supporters. At the same time, there were deep prejudices held against him, against the colour of his skin, that would prevent him from taking up his deserved place in science and society.