Christopher James Davis (1842-1870) – The Good Black Doctor

Dr Christopher James Davis (1842-1870). Photo source: Wellcome Trust Images.

Christopher James Davis was born at Whitehaven, St. Philip, Barbados on 23rd April 1842. He was baptised on 4th June the same year. He was the youngest of 10 children.

His Father, John Thomas Davis, was a Carpenter. His mother’s name was Mary Ann. His family were Wesleyan Methodists. Christopher Davis worked as a schoolmaster and Wesleyan Methodist preacher.

When the The Plymouth Brethren movement spread from British Guiana (now Guyana) to Barbados in the 1860’s Christopher James Davis was deeply influenced by their teaching. The young school master became a Brethren evangelist and helped found the church in Barbados. Three of his own family also joined the Brethren.

In 1866 the young Davis travelled to Britain to train as a physician at St. Bartholmew’s Hospital in London. His place at St. Bartholmew’s Hospital was secured by Dr. Thomas Mackern of Blackheath, South East London who visited Barbados and a number of other places in the West Indies in 1866 to preach the gospel and to promote the work of the Plymouth Brethren.

In London Davis settled in the north London suburb of Stoke Newington. He became one of the House Physicians at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where in the first year of study, he gained the examiner’s prize for proficiency in practical anatomy, and a junior scholarship in anatomy, physiology and chemistry.

He was an able and earnest evangelist. He preached to large congregations in many parts of the British Isles. He records in his gospel tracts some of the locations he visited, which included: Margate, Woolwich and Sheffield in England, Dunoon and Aberdeen in Scotland. In Aberdeen he pursued his medical studies where he completed his degree of MD.

“The Campaign of Sedan: the downfall of the Second Empire. August-September, 1870” Author: George HOOPER of Kensington

During the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 Dr Davis volunteered his services to assist the suffering and cholera-stricken peasantry of eastern France, especially at the Battle of Sedan. He devoted himself with skill and energy to the treatment of large numbers of sick and wounded and to the establishment of soup kitchens which gave food and life to multitudes of starving people. He was an enthusiast for his soup kitchens, so that, when on one occasion, the sister of the Protestant Pastor at Sedan (Miss Goulden) told him there was not sufficient soup, he took his watch from his pocket, gained as a prize at College and sold it to pay for the immediate needs.

He also ran a highly regarded Ambulance Service.

Dr. Christopher James Davis died in his prime from smallpox aged of 28 on 27th November 1870.  He was generally known as “Le Bon Docteur Noir” was greatly loved for his impartial service and was given a military funeral which was followed by troops of both armies, headed by the Mayor of Sedan who spoke highly of him at the service.

The tombstone for Dr. Christopher James Davis (1842-1870) records the high esteem in which he was held.  He was buried in the quiet graveyard at Fond de Givonne, just outside Sedan, France.

Grave of Dr Christopher James Davis known as “Le Bon Docteur Noir” at Sedan, Ardennes, France. Source: Plymouth Brethren Archive

Two Englishwomen, Emma Maria Pearson (1828–93) and Louisa Elisabeth MacLaughlin (1836–1921), wrote this of him:

“Dr. Davis, at Pongy-sur-Meuse, had 300 sick and wounded, all Bavarians. … Fever and diarrhoea were very prevalent, especially amongst the Bavarian troops, who ate large quantities of unripe grapes and apples. An application was made by a physician of colour, Dr. Davis, of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, who had established a hospital just across the Meuse for the services of Louise and myself in his Ambulance, not so much to nurse the sick (he had no wounded), but to see that the German orderlies did their duty, and to prevent the entrance of green fruit. Davis died of smallpox, about two months afterwards, at Pongy-sur-Meuse, where he had his Ambulance, beloved, and mourned by all who had ever come in contact with him.”

Emma Maria Pearson and Louisa Elisabeth MacLaughlin

The Lancet medical journal wrote on 10th December 1870:

…but his enthusiasm carried him beyond his strength, and, returning in an exhausted condition from a short visit to England, where he had been to seek further funds, he was attacked with small-pox, of which he died on the 27th November, at the age of twenty-eight…

The Lancet medical journal

The Times newspaper wrote on 24th December 1870:

…. Mr. Davis a coloured Barbadian Physician was highly honoured for the good work he had done. Although it was during the war, the gates of Sedan were thrown open and his funeral was attended by French, German, English and Prussian military. The Mayor of Sedan delivered “oraisen funebre” in his honour. His death is viewed as an irreparable loss

The Times newspaper

The Aberdeen free press wrote:

He was a blyth, handsome-looking man with exceedingly frank and affable manners who took a very earnest interest in the welfare of the poor and degraded classes of the poor in the city…

The Aberdeen free press

Christopher James Davis wrote several books: “Aids to Believers” had eighteen editions and was in print to the 1950’s, “Grace of God”, a religious tract “The Lord’s Coming” and his final evangelistic narrative “The Teachers Taught” is still in print with a number of publishers.

Below is a religious tract Dr. C. J. Davis sent to his friend Dr. A.T. Schofield a few days before he died on 27th November 1870 at Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital in Sedan (France) from smallpox.

The Good Black Doctor
by Dr. C.J. Davis

A. T. Schofield.

In the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, which culminated at Sedan, there was then a great International Hospital in the town, at the head of which was a distinguished doctor from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. He died there from confluent smallpox caught from a patient, and was so much beloved that he was given a military funeral, which was followed by the troops of both armies and headed by the Mayor of Sedan. This physician was Dr. Davis, generally known as “The Good Black Doctor.”

He came from Barbadoes, his father was an European, his mother, a Barbadian, he himself was as black as ebony, a tall and distinguished looking man. A few days before his death he sent me the following account of his last journey, one week before he succumbed to the fatal disease.

He had been staying with friends in Yorkshire and came up to London to cross over by the tidal express from Folkestone harbour, there being then no pier.

At Charing Cross he walked slowly along the platform looking for a seat, for the train was very full. At last, he found one next the platform and facing the engine in the first class carriage. Opposite to him sat a little old lady with very bright eyes, busily engaged in knitting. Next to her was her somewhat stolid and burly husband. In the far corner a gentleman sat reading The Times, while at Dr. Davis’ side were two elderly and prim ladies.

The doctor, being tired with his long journey from the North, put his hat upon the rack, and donned a dark velvet smoking cap, whose blue tassel and gold embroidery gave him a striking appearance. He leaned back in the seat, and with closed eyes heard the following conversation, for the train had hardly cleared the platform when the little lady opposite began, turning to her husband:

“What a handsome man, John!” “Hush, my dear, he may hear what you say.”

“And what if he does?” retorted the lady. “He can’t understand a single word.”

“Don’t be too sure of that.”

“Oh, John, you are so foolish. Cannot you see who he is?”

“Well, no, my dear; I cannot say that I do.”

“Why he’s one of those African Princes you read about that have come over to see the Queen. He’s as black as coal.”

(Dr. Davis gave a slight shudder as he heard this, for he was unduly sensitive on the point of colour).

“You can’t be sure my dear who he is,” said John feebly.

“I tell you he’s an African Prince,” said his little wife with decision. “Isn’t it awful, John, to think that the poor heathen is now leaving this country, and probably doesn’t even know he’s got a soul. I call it disgraceful.”

“Well, you cannot help it, my dear,” said John soothingly.

“Can’t I,” replied the lady with spirit. “I’d soon let him know if I could speak his language. It’s dreadful to think of.” John grunted, and the lady resumed her knitting with a sigh, for she had a kind heart.

Just then the train was passing the Crystal Palace on the right. Its panes of glass were shining like diamonds in the rays of the afternoon sun. The gentleman behind The Times began:

“Wonderful building that! how fine it looks, I hear its full of students of an evening. What advantages our young have now. There was nothing like it in my school life. Young men and women have much to be thankful for to-day.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” replied the little lady, to whom he seemed to be addressing his remarks. “I don’t see that children now are any better than we were; indeed in many respects they are worse. These huge places of amusement do a lot harm. Boys and girls do pretty much as they like now; while as for morality, the less said the better.”

Dr. Davis saw his opportunity, and in the purest English, said ― as he slowly opened his eyes and leaned forward ― “Morality, ma’am?”

The little lady nearly had a fit. She sprang right off her seat, and as she came down again, said faintly:

“Oh sir, I’m so sorry. I’d no idea you understood our language. I don’t know what you must think of me!”

“I think you said ‘morality’, ma’am?” repeated Dr. Davies.

“Yes sir, I did.”

“And what is morality, ma’am?”

“Morality, sir, is a very good thing. We couldn’t do without it. Could we, John?”

“Well no, my dear, I don’t think we could. At any rate, sir, we are not going to try.”

“Morality, sir, is a very good thing for both worlds,” added his wife.

“For both worlds?” he enquired.

“For both worlds, sir. There is another besides ours ― indeed, there are two; one called Heaven and the other is called Hell.”

“And what are they like, ma’am?”

“Heaven, sir,” replied the woman, delighted that she had now actually got into conversation with “the African Prince,” is where the angels are, and where all the good people go ― all gold and glass, and harps and happiness; and Hell, sir, is where the devil is and is a dreadful place, where all the bad and wicked people are ― all flames and horrid darkness; and we must go to one or the other when we die.”

The “African Prince” leaned forward full of interest.

“And how can we get to Heaven, ma’am?”

“Well sir,” said the little lady with a triumphant look at John, “it’s quite easy. Of course, you must be good, and kind to all, and forgive everyone their offences. And you must be baptized and sorry for your sins, and go to Church and take the sacrament, and love your enemies, help the poor and do as you would be done by, and — and that’s the way to Heaven. Isn’t it, John?”

“Quite right, my dear;” and then in a low voice, “But, if you go on with this conversation you’re sure to get into mess.” And then to Dr. Davis, who was still politely listening:

“I might say, sir, if you wish any further information on these matters, we have a most excellent clergyman at Folkestone who will tell you all you wish to know. I can give you his address.”

“Sir,” replied the black doctor, “we are travelling at fifty miles an hour, and I should like to be sure now of the way to Heaven.”

“Well sir,” interposed the little lady rather piqued, “haven’t I just told you word for word, just as it’s written in the Bible?”

“The Bible, ma’am?”

“The Bible, sir, the Bible is God’s Book, written to tell us the way to Heaven. You’ll find it all there exactly as I’ve said, and of course as my husband told you, if you would like to see our clergyman, you will find he knows all about it as well.”

“Oh ma’am,” said the doctor, “I should much like to see it in the Bible.”

“And so you shall sir,” replied the little lady, who proceeded to hunt in her bag. After she had rummaged it for some time without success, she turned to the unsympathetic John, “Have you got a Bible anywhere?”

“No, my dear, I haven’t; and you had much better leave the gentleman alone.”

Nothing however, could daunt the lady’s missionary zeal.

“Excuse me, sir,” addressing the gentleman in the corner, “Have you a Bible?”

“No, I have not, ma’am; and I consider these religious conversations in railway carriages most improper.

“Have you a Bible?” pursued the little lady, nothing daunted, turning to the two spinster ladies in turn.

“No,” replied each one in succession, “I’m afraid we have not.”

“Dear me,” said the little lady. “I fear, sir, we haven’t a Bible in the carriage. I’m so sorry. But I have told you word for word the way to Heaven; and as John, my husband, sir, says, our vicar will be most pleased to see you at Folkestone.”

“I wish I could see the passage now,” said Dr. Davies, with a sigh, as he leaned back again and closed his eyes.

The little lady gazed for a time earnestly at her hearer, and then she gave a little sigh, as she took up her knitting once more, and retired from the mission field.

There was a silence once more in the carriage as the train roared through the dusk of the evening.

After a while Dr. Davis slowly felt in his coat pocket, and drew out a small book. Leaning forward once more, and holding it out, he said to the lady, “Was that what you were looking for?”

“Oh dear, yes, sir. Why that’s the Testament ― the very book.”

“The Testament, ma’am?”

“Yes sir, the Bible has two Testaments; there is the Old Testament and the New.”

“And which is this, ma’am?”

“This, sir, is the New.”

“And which tells us the way to Heaven?”

“Why, the New, sir, that’s the very book.”

“Would you kindly show me the passage you spoke of, ma’am.”

“With pleasure, sir,” said the lady, bright again with missionary zeal, taking the book in her hand.

She then rapidly turned its pages, first one way and then the other. Then after casting her gaze on the ceiling for inspiration, turned them over again; the doctor’s eyes being fixed on her all the time.

After fumbling in vain for some minutes, and getting very red, she turned to her husband, “John!”

“Yes, my dear.”

“Do you know where that passage is that tells us the way to Heaven?”

“No, I don’t, Maria; and you see what a mess you’ve got into. I haven’t the least idea where it is.”

In despair, the lady rapidly turned over the pages once more, but all in vain. “I’m afraid, sir, I can’t lay my hands on the exact passage. I know it’s just about here. My poor head is not so young as it once was, and I can’t think of the verse. But it’s all there, sir, exactly as I told you, for I know it by heart.”

“Would you allow me, ma’am,” said Dr. Davis, very politely, gently taking the Testament out of her hands, and turning the leaves over to the Gospel of St. John, chapter 3, verse 16, which he indicated with his finger. “Was that the passage?”

“Oh dear, yes sir, why, they are the very words. Just as I said. Now sir, you can read it for yourself, and see it’s all true,” and she lay back triumphantly.

“Would you allow me to read this passage aloud, ma’am?”

“Certainly sir, do.”

So Dr. Davis read: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

“There sir,” said the lady in high spirits, and evidently without any suspicion of the storm about to burst, “the very words I told you. I’m so glad you’ve found it. I knew it was there.”

“One moment ma’am, I should first like to say a word to the gentleman in the corner. ‘Sir, I don’t know who your are, or what you call yourself, but of one thing I am sure. The man that says that a British railway carriage is not a place where a supposed heathen (which thank God I am not) may learn the way to Heaven is unworthy of the name of Englishman’!”

The little lady quietly applauded.

“But as for you ma’am,” he continued, “you are ten times worse. I came into this carriage and you believed me to be a heathen Prince, and seemed anxious to tell me the way to Heaven; so I asked you, and you told me I had to do this, and that, and the other, and you have never opened your month to tell me one word of what Christ has done for me. Not one syllable of all you told me is to be found in this glorious text; and no word that it contains has passed your lips. You have utterly misled me. Your Religion is two Letters Short. It is ‘D-O,’ do; and mine is ‘D-O-N-E,’ done; and this makes all the difference.”

The poor missionary collapsed, while the supposed heathen proclaimed the glorious Gospel of the Cross to a now attentive audience, until the train drew up at Folkestone Harbour Station.

On his way to the boat in his mackintosh for a fine rain was falling, Dr. Davis felt a slight tug at his overcoat. Turning round he found the two spinster ladies at his heels.

“Oh, sir,” said the one who had given the pull, “you will excuse us, but we could not let you go without thanking you for the blessing your words have been to us.”

“We always thought we had to do our best to get to Heaven, and never understood that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ had done all the work of Atonement for us, and that we can now know that we are saved.” * [*I write all this to you in order that you who believe the Son of God may know for certain that you already have the Life of the ages. – 1 John 5. 13. (Weymouth).]

“Sir,” she continued, her eyes full of tears, “we shall have to thank God to all eternity for this afternoon.”

In a week Dr. Davis himself had passed away to his Eternal Rest.

A. T. Schofield.

Dr. C.J. Davis

Tribute to Dr. Christopher James Davis – Le Bon Docteur Noir by NHS Grampian and University of Aberdeen Medical School.

Dr. Christopher James Davis - Le Bon Docteur Noir

Our thanks to Harriet Pierce of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society for sharing the story of Barbadian Dr. Davis with us.

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