The man who prepared the ground for the first post-colonial black state (he did not live to see it inaugurated), Toussaint Louverture (last post), was born a slave in Saint-Domingue circa 1743.
The first important black performer and composer of Western classical music, the Chevalier de Saint-George (not Georges), was born to a black mother and a white plantation owner on Guadeloupe (capital Basse-Terre) circa 1745. Residual racism makes us call him black.
This is the slow movement of a G major violin concerto of 1777. Fine, if a little sentimental by Mozartian standards. Anne-Claude Villars, violin; Orchestre de Chambre de Versailles, Bernard Wahl. YouTube image: Fragonard, Progress of Love: the Meeting (detail), Frick Collection, New York.
He was born Joseph Boulogne and acquired the name Saint-George after one of his father’s properties.
His father, Georges Boulogne, was convicted of murder in 1748 and fled Guadeloupe, where he was hanged in effigy. He may have spent his exile in Saint-Domingue. Did he take his family?
In 1755 or earlier, he returned to Basse-Terre, having been pardoned.
Joseph began to study under a black or mulatto violinist, his father’s estate manager, Joseph Platon. (On April 25 1780, Platon would play an unspecified Saint-George violin concerto at Port-au-Prince.)
Georges was ennobled in 1757 as Gentilhomme Ordinaire de la Chambre du Roi, a title that could only be inherited by children born in wedlock. But his family claimed noble ancestry anyway.
In 1759, he moved with his wife, daughter, slave-mistress and Joseph to Paris.
Joseph became an equally adept fencer and violinist. He took lessons in fencing and swordsmanship with La Boëssière and music lessons with Leclair and Gossec and perhaps Lolli.
La Boëssière, Wikipedia: “At seventeen he had acquired the greatest speed. In time, he combined with his prompt execution an expertise that finally made him without peer.”
In 1761, on completing his education, he joined the royal military household. He was also a swimmer, skater and duellist.
His music teacher Leclair was murdered in 1764, possibly on the orders of his ex-wife or other relative, or those of a jealous musician. (At least two attempts were made on Saint-George’s own life, for reasons that are unclear, in Paris in 1779 and in London in 1790.)
At some point in the late 1760s, Saint-George’s father returned alone to Guadeloupe, where he died in 1774. His wife and daughter were his only heirs. Joseph had to live on his earnings.
In 1769 Joseph became a member of Gossec’s new orchestra, the Concert des Amateurs, immediately holding the position of first violin. In 1773, he took charge of the ensemble and held the position until they were disbanded eight years later.
He was considered for appointment as director of the Royal Opera of Louis XVI, but was blocked by three Parisian divas who petitioned the Queen, insisting that it would be beneath their dignity and injurious to their professional reputations for them to sing on stage under the direction of a mulatto. Did Saint-George meet Mozart? He conducted the first performances of Haydn’s six Paris symphonies.
He was ready to embrace the Revolution. He was put in charge of a black and mulatto regiment of 800 foot soldiers and 200 mounted cavalry. They received the name Légion franche de cavalerie des Américains et du Midi, but were referred to as the Légion Saint-George. He appointed as squadron commander a mulatto born in Haiti: the future father and grandfather of the two authors called Alexandre Dumas.
The Legion helped General Menou turn back the Austrian invasion of Northern France and General Dumouriez defeat pro-Monarchy forces in Belgium.
In 1793, Saint-George played a role in the exposure of Dumouriez when he secretly turned against the Convention.
Despite military success, he was repeatedly denounced because of his aristocratic parentage and past association with the royal court (he had been a friend of Marie Antoinette). He was accused of a misappropriation of funds, dismissed from the army on September 25 1793, and imprisoned for eighteen months.
According to chevalierdesaintgeorge.com, he visited Haiti at some point after this, but no years are given. He is said to have been disillusioned there by “the struggle between Toussaint [...] and reactionaries like the mulatto general, Rigaud, who wished to restore the old order, including the reintroduction of slavery”. Rigaud later helped Napoleon in that reintroduction. If Saint-George had lived longer, he would have been disillusioned with Napoleon. He is said to have had contact with the Société des amis des Noirs.
Saint-George continued to lead orchestras, but struggled to find his place in a society no longer led by an indulgent aristocracy. He tried to rejoin the army in 1797, but was refused. He died in 1799 in comparative obscurity at the age of fifty-four. His mother seems to have died and his half-sister had disappeared.
He had had a reputation as a playboy, deserved or foisted on him, but never married. It was all but impossible for a Frenchwoman to marry a mulatto, even a fencing champion and “God of Arms”.
Charles Jean Robineau, The fencing-match between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d’Éon, probably painted for George IV, Royal Collection
The Chevalier d’Éon was a transgendered French diplomat, spy and soldier whose first forty-nine years were spent as a man and last thirty-three as a woman. An engraving of the painting says: “The Assaut, or Fencing Match, which took place at Carlton House on the 9th of April 1787, between Mademoiselle La chevalière D’EON DE BEAUMONT and Monsieur DE SAINT GEORGE.”
Robineau may be unknown, but this, enlarged, is a charming picture with many layers of interest. At the very least a fine eighteenth-century sporting image, like Raeburn’s skater and Zoffany’s cockfighters.
Chevalier de Saint-George is also the French name for the Old Pretender.
Columbus visited Guadeloupe on his second voyage and named it after the monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe in Extremadura. The French began to settle it after 1635. The French crown annexed it in 1674 during the Dutch wars. For a time it was under the control of the governor of Martinique. Britain held it for a time during the Seven Years’ War and during the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
In 1794 the National Convention abolished slavery in all French colonies. Louis Delgrès, a mulatto officer, led an uprising in 1802. Napoleon reinstated slavery when the French retook the island. It was held by Sweden in 1813-14. The Congress of Vienna gave it back to France.
In 1848, slavery was abolished completely. In place of the black slaves, indentured servants were imported from India to work in the sugar cane fields. (Why were freed black slaves not enough?) The first arrived on December 24 aboard the Aurelie. They came from the Coromandel Coast, Pondicherry, Madras, Calcutta and Malabar.
Just after the war, in 1923, Guadeloupe exported its first bananas. In 1925, after two decades of agitation, Poincaré granted French nationality and the right to vote to the Indian workers. The island fell under the Vichy government during the Second World War. In 1946 it became an overseas department of France. It is in the eurozone.
French Antilles (Wikipedia).