Listed alongside Solomon Swaile, who was committed on suspicion of high treason, and William Titcomb, discharged with no evidence that he really had married two wives, is Edward Francis. Described as “the Black”, he was “ordered to be Discharged paying his Fine.”1 Nestled within this list of trial accounts from June 1692, Francis’s case is easily skimmed over. More information on the case can be found in the London Lives database, which holds four pieces of digitised testimony collected in January and February 1692. 

Francis was an enslaved person labouring for Thomas Dymock, Keeper of the Lions at the Tower of London.2 In 1691 he had acquired a “parcel” of rat poison and over the course of several months, he had slipped it into various foodstuffs taken by the Dymocks. Initially, Francis poisoned “his Mrs”, Thomas Dymock’s wife. She was ill at the time and this, in combination with the rat poison, appears to have killed her. Several months later, Francis slipped poison into “a Skillet of Watergruill” and “a Draught of Ale” taken by Thomas Dymock; Dymock’s second wife, Rebekah; Dymock’s daughter, Ann; and Johanna Lickfield, the maid. Francis’s actions may have gone undetected had it not been for the cat, which died after eating some of the poisoned food. The Dymock’s questioned Francis, who eventually confessed, and the authorities were called.3

On the surface, this tale of plotting and poisoning appears to fit within a paradigm of resistive freedom-seeking. Indeed, Thomas’s line of questioning, reported by Rebekah Dymock, seems to state this. After getting Francis to confess to the poisonings, Thomas asked “you thinke to geet your Liberty by killing me?” to which Francis “said yes”.4 Rebekah’s testimony produces a narrative that conceptualises Francis’s actions as a resistive push for freedom, grounded in a binary of enslaved versus free status.

Edward Francis Panel in front of the Tower of London. Based on research by Royal Historic Palaces

Recognising that Rebekah Dymock likely had her own agenda, it seems appropriate to unsettle the narrative she crafts about Francis’s actions. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot notes, “historical narrative is a bundle of silences”.5 This idea is evident in Dymock’s testimony. She recounts a specific set of questions that frame Francis’s efforts as confined to a binary of freedom versus enslavement. Initially, Thomas declared that Francis “deserved Hanging Long before For breaking Lockes and Mary [many] Theefts”.6 The poisonings thus emerge as part of a broader strategy used by Francis to seek freedom. Then, Thomas asked a series of questions that push Francis to recount how he went about slipping poison into the foodstuffs. Finally, Thomas asked, “what hurt have I don to you that you should be goe bloody to me to kill me”? Francis “was Sielent”.7 Thomas then tried to fill in this silence, asking if Francis sought “Liberty” to which Francis “said yes”. Crucially, Rebekah leaves out the rest of the conversation between Thomas and Francis, claiming she did “not now well Rememr prtichlers [particulars]”.8 Silencing Francis’s words, Rebekah makes sense of his actions through a paradigm of resistance, an attempt to secure “Liberty”.

The term “Liberty” is entirely absent in Francis’s own testimony. In fact, he offers no motive for his actions. I want to suggest that Francis’s silence hints at a self-awareness about the ways in which the binary of “enslaved” and “free” status was itself constituted in the wake of racial slavery.9 Francis was astute enough to realise that the technologies of race, as they were deployed in late-seventeenth-century England, were not quite able to make sense of his legal subjectivity.10 As such, Francis’s actions and testimony are best considered a strategy employed to navigate a growing precariousness that was beginning to define the lives of those racialised as black in seventeenth-century England as racial slavery developed across the Anglo-Atlantic World.11

The murkiness of Francis’s legal subjectivity is evident in his court sentence. As mentioned, Francis was discharged after paying a fine of ten Groats. The precise felony that Francis was charged with is unclear, however, the sentence seems distinctly less violent when compared to punishments deployed against enslaved people in the English colony of Barbados. Enslaved people in the colony could be “severely whipped” for the “offer” of violence “to any Christian”. Indeed, in 1675 at least thirty-five individuals had been executed after two enslaved men were overheard discussing a conspiracy.12 In the Barbadian context, where enslaved people of African descent had been considered real estate since 1661, extreme acts of racial violence were deployed against those who posed a threat to the system of racial slavery. As scholars of Atlantic slavery have noted, these individuals were considered “defective commodities”, and thus subjected to extreme violence as an example to other enslaved people.13

Within England, the legal situation was murkier. As David Lieberman has discussed, the long eighteenth century was, in part, defined by the emergence of a divide between “public” and “private” wrongs. The former types of wrong were considered breaches to the rights of the community as a whole, while the latter were injuries against the rights of individuals. In his reading of the writings of William Blackstone, an English jurist, Lieberman suggests these categories mapped onto a divide in the ways in which cases were settled. Public wrongs were resolved through the prevention of crime, the protection of the community, and the punishment of the wrongdoer whilst private wrongs could be resolved through private settlements between each party. Crucially, private wrongs were closely tied to the protection of property.14

This, admittedly slippery, divide between public and private wrongs emerged alongside the development of racial slavery across the Anglo-Atlantic World. One of the foundations of racial slavery was the assumption that enslaved people were property. As Stephanie Smallwood has discussed, the Middle Passage was marked by racialised processes of commodification that rendered African people and people of African descent commodities for the Atlantic market.15 Building on Smallwood’s insights, Jennifer Morgan has argued that histories of early modern political economy must reckon with the ways in which ideas like commerce, finance, and property were entangled with the racialised processes of commodification that enabled Atlantic slavery.16 Returning to Francis’s sentence, the apparent leniency seems to suggest that the case was conceptualised as a “private wrong” because Francis, as an enslaved person racialised as black, was considered property. His actions were deemed less a threat to the wider community and more an injury against Thomas Dymock’s property rights. In attempting to poison the Dymocks, Francis had rendered himself a “defective commodity” and, as such, the case was resolved through a private settlement.

The legal murkiness of racial slavery within England meant Francis was not executed, as enslaved people in Barbados were in 1675. As Holly Brewer has discussed, the late-Stuart monarchy struggled to legalise slavery within England. A legal precedent had been established in 1677, however, this was shaky at best. In May 1677 the King’s Bench agreed to hear Butts v. Penny, a trover case, possibly brought by Thomas Butts on behalf of the Royal African Company.17 The court ruled in favour of Butts, declaring “that Negroes being usually bought and sold among Merchants, as Merchandise, and also being Infidels, there might be a Property in them sufficient to maintain Trover”.18 This shaky legal precedent likely left Francis’s subjecthood murky. On the one hand, he was racially commodified as the property of Thomas Dymock, as shown in the use of a private settlement. On the other hand, he had a degree of legal subjecthood denied to enslaved people in the Caribbean, evident in his ability to testify.19 

Francis was likely aware of the murky legal subjecthood he possessed and acted accordingly. As an enslaved person labouring in the Tower of London, he lived alongside individuals incarcerated for “public wrongs”. Experiencing a distinct form of incarceration – the immobility imposed on enslaved people closely surveilled by white slaveowners – Francis perhaps recognised the ways in which his situation differed from the Tower’s prisoners.20 Indeed, as Misha Ewen has demonstrated, Francis may have attempted to flee enslavement in the late 1680s. Rendered conspicuous by a commodified blackness exemplified by the “Silver collar about his Neck”, he was re-captured.21 It was perhaps in this moment of re-capture that Francis turned to poison, believing it was only by killing the Dymocks that he would be able to flee enslavement. Maybe he recognised that, even if caught, the English legal system would be unable to neatly fit his actions into notions of “public” and “private” wrong.

It remains unclear what became of Edward Francis. The last trace I have been able to find is the account of his sentence – his dischargement from prison after paying his fine. How he paid this fine is unknown. His case offers a moment in the long history of Atlantic slavery when those ensnared in the wake of racial slavery recognised and navigated the forces engulfing them. Rather than slot his attempts to poison the Dymocks into a continuum of resistance, an attempt to gain freedom itself constituted in the wake of racial slavery, it seems more appropriate to attend closely to Francis’s own words, actions, and silences. Tracing his actions through the broader legal context, we are able to glimpse the strategies of an individual keenly aware of the hostile environment that increasingly impacted the lives of those racialised as black in seventeenth-century London.

You can find the four pieces of testimony on the Edward Francis case here:

Edward Francis: https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=LMSLPS15003PS150030020 

Rebekah Dymock: https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=LMSLPS15003PS150030018 

Thomas Dymock: https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=LMSLPS15003PS150030015  

Johanna Lickfield: https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=LMSLPS15003PS150030017       

Jamie Gemmell, University of Edinburgh


[1]“Old Bailey Proceedings: Accounts of Criminal Trials,” Harvard University Library, June 29, 1692. London Lives, s16920629-1, https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=s16920629-1&submit.x=25&submit.y=20
[2]Historic Royal Palaces (Misha Ewen), “The Life of Edward Francis: Black History at the Tower of London,” Historic Royal Palaces Blog, November 15, 2021, https://blog.hrp.org.uk/curators/the-life-of-edward-francis-black-history-at-the-tower-of-london/
[3]Edward Francis, “Sessions Papers – Justices’ Working Documents,” London Metropolitan Archives, January 16, 1692, London Lives, LMSLPS150030015, https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=LMSLPS15003PS150030020
[4]Rebekah Dymorke, “Sessions Papers – Justices’ Working Documents,” LMA, February 3, 1692, London Lives, LMSLPS150030018, https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=LMSLPS150030018&submit.x=0&submit.y=0.
[5]Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015), np.
[6]Dymorke, “Sessions Papers,” https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=LMSLPS150030018&submit.x=0&submit.y=0
[7]“For blacks in diaspora, both quiet and the quotidian are mobilized as everyday practices of refusal.” Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 4.
[8] Dymorke, “Sessions Papers,” https://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=LMSLPS150030018&submit.x=0&submit.y=0.
[9] Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).
[10]For scholarship that theorises race as a technology see: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Introduction: Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race,” Camera Obscura 24, no. 1 (2009): 7-35; Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Malden: Polity, 2019); Alana Lentin, Why Race Still Matters (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2020).
[11]This attention to strategy is informed by Jennifer Morgan’s recent work on the seventeenth-century Black Atlantic. Jennifer L. Morgan, “Partus sequitur ventrem: Law, Race, and Reproduction in Colonial Slavery,” Small Axe 55 (2018): 1-17; Jennifer L. Morgan, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).For an overview of the position of those racialised as black in seventeenth-century England see: Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (London: Routledge, 2020).
[12]Acts, passed in the island of Barbados (London: Printed for Richard Hall, 1764), 114-115 ECCO, dist. Gale; Jonathan Atkins, “Gov. Sir Jonathan Atkins to Sec. Sir Joseph Williamson. Barbadoes,” October 3/13, 1675, CO 1/35, no. 29. CSP, dist. ProQuest.
[13]Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).
[14] David Lieberman, “Mapping Criminal Law: Blackstone and the Categories of English Jurisprudence,” in Law, Crime, and English Society, 1660-1830, ed. Norma Landau (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 139-161.
[15]Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (London: Harvard University Press, 2008), especially Chapter Two.
[16]Morgan, Reckoning, 57.
[17]Holly Brewer, “Creating a Common Law of Slavery for England and its Empire,” Yale Legal History Forum, October 14, 2014; Holly Brewer, “Slavery, Sovereignty, and “Inheritable Blood”: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery,” American Historical Review 122, no. 4 (2017): 1038-1078.
[18] Creswell Levinz, The reports of Sr. Creswell Levinz, … never before printed, vol. 2 (London: Printed by E. and R. Nutt and R. Gosling), 201. Trover is a legal action that allows a person to reclaim the value of personal property wrongfully disposed of by another person. 
[19] Acts, 93.
[20]Historic Royal Palaces, “The Story of the Tower of London: Mighty Fortress, Royal Palace, Infamous Prison,” Historic Royal Palaces, https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/the-story-of-the-tower-of-london/#gs.goe0xn; Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 9.
[21] Historic Royal Palaces (Misha Ewen), “Edward Francis: An Enslaved African who Lived at the Tower of London,” Historic Royal Palaces, https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/edward-francis/#gs.godura.  For more information on individuals who fled enslavement in England and Scotland see: Peter Fryer, Staying Power: A History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 2018); Simon P. Newman, “Freedom-Seeking Slaves in England and Scotland, 1700-1780,” English Historical Review 570 (2019): 1136-1168.

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