According to the Victoria and Albert museum, Francis Williams (1700-1772)was the son of wealthy freed slaves from Jamaica who attended Cambridge University in 1758. However, Williams does not appear in the university records. Williams father John Williams had been freed by the will of his former master acquiring property which he used to educate his children.Francis is today celebrated in Britain as the first black writer and the first black man who challenged dominant racists notions about the inferiority of black people, as an educated black man.
The Victoria and Albert reports that Williams was sent to English grammar school and Cambridge University by the Duke of Montagu as an experiment to see whether a black person could benefit from education. Williams successfully completed his bachelor’s degree and returned home to teach reading, writing of Latin poetry and mathematics. He gently suggested the prospect of equality for Africans in his Ode to [Governor] George Haldane below.
Alike the master and the slave shall see
Their neck reliv’d, the yoke unbound by thee.
Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.
The second earliest black cantab who is also unrecorded in the university of Cambridge Alumni Cantabrigiensesis is George Bridgetower a violinist who is reported to have attended Trinity Hall between 1807-1812 to study a B.A in Music. George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1780-1860) was probably born on 1780,although some authorities give 11 October 1778. His birthplace was Biala in Poland, and his mother was a native of that country.His father a black man from the Caribbean, who went by the name John Frederick or Friedrich de August Bridgetower, apparently worked in the household of Prince Nikolai Esterházy, where he gave several differtent stories about his origins.The castle contained an opera house and a puppet theatre, and boasted the composer Haydn as Kappelmeister. Bridgetower was a talented violinist who made his performing début at age nine or ten, in Paris in April 1789. The journal Le Mercure de France raved about his performance, concluding that “his talent is one of the best replies one can give to philosophers who wish to deprive people of his nation and his colour of the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the arts.He visited Vienna later in 1803, where he performed with Ludwig van Beethoven.Bridgetower returned to England, in 1816 and continued his musical career, teaching and performing. He was elected to the Royal Society of Musicians on 4 October 1807, and attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he earned the degree of Bachelor of Music in June 1811.
Republished from the 100 Great Black Britons.
The first black student to have matriculated and graduated from the University of Cambridge was Alexander Crummell who matriculated at Queens'College in 1849.Crummell was a freed slave who with support from abolitionists studied at Queens' becoming a leading moral philosopher, a priest and a scholar who lived in Liberia after Cambridge. His teachings and scholarship was influential to leading African American pan africanist William DuBois.
The next group of recorded black cantabs were the earliest African scholars who joined Cambridge in the early 19th century. Most of these scholars were male children of prominent west African families.They also studied at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone. The earliest Fourah Bay alumni we have unearthed so far is George Guensey Nicole. He joined Christ College in 1875.
In 1893, Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford (below)from Fourah Bay college matriculated at Peterhouse. He later became a prominent lawyer, journalists, politician and panafricanist.
A year later in 1894, Arthur Quartey-Papafio, from a prominent Osu family in Accra,Ghana joined Christ College to study law like his former Fourah Bay school mate, Joseph Casely Hayford who was at Peterhouse. These six men are the earliest record of black students who studied at Cambridge, though only four of them are registered as having matriculated and graduated in their colleges.
Francis Williams: A Portrait of an Early Black Writer accessed (online)http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/francis-williams-a-portrait-of-an-early-black-writer/ Accessed from Victoria and Albert Museum,