Composer, Abolitionist, Hero: The Extraordinary Life of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Chevalier_de_Saint-Georges

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Mather Brown, 1787.

While you’re celebrating the holiday next week, have a drink for the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born Christmas Day, 1745.

Not only was he gorgeous enough to pull off that wig, he was also a champion fencer by the time he was twenty, a classical composer who inspired Mozart, Marie Antoinette’s personal music teacher, an active abolitionist, and (there’s an and!) he was the colonel of the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe.

So how did he achieve all of this? Well, it wasn’t easy. As a black man in eighteenth-century France, the odds were stacked against him. He was born Joseph Bologne in Guadaloupe to George Bologne de Saint-Georges and Anne Nanon, his sixteen-year-old Senegalese slave. George was married, but he loved Joseph and his mother, and he broke convention not only by acknowledging them, but providing for them. When Joseph was seven, George took him to France to be educated, and he brought Anne to France two years later. In France, Anne was free, and George set them up in an apartment in Saint-Germain.

As a teenager, Joseph drew attention for his extraordinary skill at fencing. While he was a popular student, not everyone was happy to see him succeed. He was mocked by Alexandre Picard, a fencing master from Rouen, which led to a public match between the two while Joseph was still a student. It drew a huge crowd as it was viewed as being about more than just the sport. The public was divided between people who were in favor of slavery and those vehemently against it. Never mind that it was a match between an adult professional and a child, it was held up as almost a demonstration about the validity of slavery.

Though he had significantly less experience, Joseph handily defeated Picard. It was quite an achievement, and it helped to push public opinion a little further in the right direction. Joseph’s father was so proud of his victory, he gave him a horse and buggy. Not long after, Joseph graduated from the fencing academy, becoming a chevalier. He took his father’s title and became the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

In addition to his considerable skill with a sword, Saint-Georges was an exceptionally talented musician. In 1769, he played violin in Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs. He became a concert master within two years, and played his first solos by 1772. His performance was much remarked upon, especially among the ladies of Paris, who were particularly fond of the handsome chevalier. He was fond of them too; he had at least one serious romantic relationship, but French law prohibited interracial marriage, so Saint-Georges remained unmarried until his death.

When Gossec took a position at another orchestra in 1773, Saint-Georges took over as director, and under his leadership, Le Concert des Amateurs became one of the best in Europe. He was such a success that when his father died in 1774, Saint-Georges was able to support himself and his mother from his earnings, eventually tutoring and performing with Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

By the mid-1780s, Philippe, duc d’Orléans became Saint-Georges’s patron, giving him an apartment in the Palais-Royal. It was with Philippe that Saint-Georges became involved with the abolitionist movement in France and England. When Philippe sent Saint-Georges—by then a celebrity—to England to secure the Prince of Wales’s support, his chief of staff, Brissot, privately asked Saint-Georges to meet with eminent abolitionists in England to ask for their advice on how to advance the movement in France.

Saint-Georges quickly became a court favorite in England, and the Prince of Wales had his portrait painted by Mather Brown in 1787 (above), which everyone agreed was an excellent likeness. While there, he met with abolitionists William Wilberforce, John Wilkes, and Reverend Thomas Clarkson. He spent the next two years between the two countries, continuing his work with the movement and having British abolitionist literature translated into French for the Société des amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks), a group he co-founded with Brissot.

St Georges_from_London_Morning_PostIn 1789, the Morning Post published this cartoon, titled “St. George and the Dragon,” (right) with the dragon symbolizing the slave trade. Note the woman boxing in the background—that’s his friend, the Chevalière d’Eon, a French spy, diplomat, and transgender woman.

We’ll get there.

When the Revolution erupted, Saint-Georges sided with the revolutionaries, eventually becoming colonel of his own regiment, the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. It attracted volunteers from all over the country, including Thomas Alexandre Dumas, the legendary father of author Alexandre Dumas. Dumas took over from Saint-Georges when he was arrested and very nearly executed during the Terror. Saint-Georges was held for months without ever being accused of any crime, and though he was eventually released, he was unable to reclaim his position in the army.

While he was imprisoned, his mother passed away at the age of sixty. During the Terror, she had taken the name Citizen Anne Danneveau in an attempt to help Saint-Georges by concealing her own African origins. She had lived out her life as a free woman in Paris, and left all of her belongings to her son, who had remained close with her until the end.

Though it was nowhere near the end of the struggle for emancipation in France, Saint-Georges was able to see some progress before the end of his life. Slavery was abolished in French colonies by the National Convention on February 4th, 1794.

By the time he passed away of a bladder infection in 1799 at the age of fifty-three, Saint-Georges was a legend. US President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.” He had tutored a queen, founded a regiment, and furthered the abolitionist cause in England and France. In 2001, the Paris City Council named a street in his honor, the Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George. He left behind an impressive body of classical composition that can still be heard today. Listen to it this week and remember the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

Banat, Gabriel. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow. (2006)

Bardin, Pierre. Joseph de Saint-George, Le Chevalier Noir. (2006)

Duchen, Jessica. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: The Man Who Got Under Mozart’s Skin. The Independent, February 7th, 2016.

Garnier-Panafieu, Michelle. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. AfriClassical.com, January 1st, 2016.