BY RUNOKO RASHIDI*
Joseph Bologne: The Chevalier de Saint-Georges of France
In an essay titled The Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Edward Scobie documented the life of the African French composer, conductor, violinist, swordsman, equestrian and soldier of 18th century France, one of the most remarkable figures of the 18th century. Incredibly, this son of an enslaved African woman (Nanon, widely considered the most beautiful woman on the island of Guadeloupe) and a father who was a member of a wealthy family from the French Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe, rose to the top of French society through his mastery of fencing and his genius for classical European music. His diverse career is illustrated in the famous portrait done in London in 1787 by the American artist Mather Brown. In the portrait, Saint-Georges is dressed for a concert but holds a sword in place of a conductor’s baton.
Joseph Bologne, who was to become the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was born on Christmas Day 1745 and moved to France in 1755. In spite of his father’s status, Saint-George’s African heritage made him ineligible for the nobility and its titles under French law. Eventually, legal or not, he took the titles anyway. This was the age of Enlightenment in France, and yet philosophers like Voltaire were among those who argued that Africans were genetically inferior to Europeans.
A Code Noir [Law of Blacks], restricting and regulating the lives of African people, had been on the books in France since the 17th century. It is undeniable that he was gifted, but his inborn talents were magnified by relentless effort, permitting him not only to be better, but above all to overcome the racial barrier that put him in the disdained social class of “Mûlatres” (“Mulattos”) because his father was white and his mother was Black. Interracial marriage was officially prohibited, although some married in spite of the ban.
Because of his father’s wealth and status, St. Georges received the advantage of a superior education. At the age of 13, he entered an elite fencing academy and boarding school. Mornings at the academy consisted of classes in mathematics, history, foreign languages, music, drawing and dance. Afternoons were devoted to fencing. One of his classmates wrote that Saint-Georges was the most extraordinary man of arms ever seen. Eventually, he would be called “the god of arms.”
In all things athletic, he seemed to excel. He could often be seen swimming across the River Seine with only one arm, and in skating, his skill exceeded all others. As to the pistol, he rarely missed his target. In running, he was reputed to be one of the leading exponents in the whole of Europe.
In addition to his skills as an athlete, Saint-Georges was also an excellent dancer. Indeed, in regards to music, and despite racial barriers, Saint-Georges soon mastered both the harpsichord and the violin, and composed a sonata for flute and harp. He became one of the earliest French composers of string quartets.
Much has been made of Saint-Georges’ reputation as a Don Juan Noir [Black Don Juan]. Saint-Georges did have at least one serious romantic relationship, but racial attitudes made it impossible for him to marry anyone at his level of society.
By 1778, Saint-Georges had reached his professional peak as a composer. He published two symphony concertantes in 1776 and two more in 1778. In 1777, he wrote three violin concertos and six string quartets. Some people call Saint-Georges the Black Mozart. Early in 1779, Saint-Georges began performing music with Queen Marie-Antoinette at Versailles, at her request. He was one of the first Black Masons in France.
Saint-Georges’ trips to England introduced him to the anti-slavery movement. Eventually, he helped found a French group called the Société des amis des noirs [Society of the Friends of Black People]. Saint-Georges’ support for the liberation of enslaved Africans was well known in England, and no doubt sufficiently irritating to Britain’s slave cartel to make them try to eliminate him.
In September 1791, a delegation of Blacks asked the National Assembly of France to allow them to fight in defense of the Revolution and its egalitarian ideals. The Assembly approved a corps comprised mainly of Blacks, with 800 infantry and 200 cavalry personnel. Saint-Georges was appointed to be its colonel. Its official name was légion franche de cavalerie des Américains, but it soon became known to all as the légion Saint-George [Saint-George Legion]. The colonel chose his friend and protege Alexandre Dumas as lieutenant-colonel. Like his colonel, he was the son of a French aristocrat and an enslaved African woman. He later had a son, also named Alexandre Dumas, who won fame as author of The Three Musketeers.
Saint-Georges lived alone in a small apartment in Paris during the last two years of his life. In late spring 1799, an untreated bladder infection caused him to become weak and feverish. He died on June 10, 1799 (the year that Alexandre Pushkin was born). The newspapers celebrated his memory with respect and emotion. Since 1912, a street in Guadeloupe bears his name. In December 2001, the Paris City Council voted to change the name of a Paris street name from Rue Richepance to Rue du Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The name change was requested by African people from the French Caribbean.
The Dumas Family in France
“The name Alexandre Dumas is more than French — it is universal.”
“When I discovered that I was black I determined to so act that men should see beneath my skin.”
–Alexandre Dumas, pere
Just a short distance from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is the Pantheon, one of the most significant buildings in the whole of Paris. It was commissioned in 1750 and completed in 1789. Two years later, the Constituent Assembly converted it into a secular mausoleum for what they considered “the great men of the era of French history.”
My interest in the Pantheon began a few years ago when I found out that the African French writer par excellence Alexandre Dumas, pere, was being interred there.
Alexandre Dumas, pere (1802-1870), who lived a near-legendary life, is one of three outstanding men of African descent to bring distinction to that name in what has been called the golden age of France — that period from the mid-18th to the end of the 19th century. The first was born in Haiti and became General Thomas Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806), called “Alexandre the Greatest.”
He was the son of a plantation owner, Alezandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, and enslaved African woman, Marie-Cessette Dumas. After his father brought him to France, a dispute broke out between father and son regarding whether the mixed-race boy would be his father’s true heir. This dispute led to the son breaking off the relationship and, in 1786, enlisting in the army. The revolution in 1789 enabled gifted men of humble origin to rise rapidly, and, by 1792, Dumas was a lieutenant colonel and married Marie-Louise Labouret. The next year, he was promoted to general of the Army in the western Pyrenees. Eventually, he joined Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy, and later in Egypt where he questioned Bonaparte’s policies. The break between them was permanent. Denied a decent pension, the general soon died a man broken in spirit.
Gen. Dumas is the father of the great writer, Alexandre Dumas, pere, and the grandfather of Alexandre Dumas, fils (1824-1895). The latter Dumas is called the “remaker of the modern French stage.” He was the author of Camille, became president of the French Academy (the highest possible intellectual honor for a Frenchman) and the recipient of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor.
Alexandre Dumas, pere, the grandson of Marie-Louise Labouret, produced more than 250 literary works including plays, novels, political tracts and a cookbook. He was the writer of such immortal works as The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Black Corsican and The Black Tulip. Of course, he is the author of the deep, profound and famous expressions “One for all and all for one” and “Your work may be finished but your education is never completed.” Of course, my favorite expression by Dumas is “A man’s mind is elevated to the status of the women with whom he associates.”
As to how Dumas (nicknamed the “Mulatto”) saw himself, the distinguished African historian Dieudonne Gnammankou provided an excellent example. Gnammankou informed me that the outstanding African Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge once gave a performance of Othello at the palace of Versailles with Dumas sitting in the front row. According to Gnammankou, the performance was of such a superlative nature that Dumas leapt upon the stage and embraced Aldridge in an enormous hug and exclaimed that “I too am a Negro!”
Another interesting account is provided by Joel Augustus Rogers in his Nature Knows No Color-Line. “Alexander Dumas the Elder was rather proud of his Negro ancestry. When his daughter was to marry into an aristocratic family, he invited a large number of the Negroes of Paris. The bridegroom’s mother was shocked. To make it still worse, Dumas told her, `They are my relatives who wish to be present.’”
Toward the end of his life Dumas, pere, is said to have become a gourmet chef and wrote a cookbook that he considered, perhaps jokingly, his finest work! He was, by all accounts, a man who lived life fully.
In the Pantheon, Dumas’ sarcophagus lies just between those of his friend, writer Victor Hugo, and Emile Zola. I am proud to have taken two groups place flower bouquets atop it. On display just outside the crypt is a copy of the cover of Claude Ribbes’ book on Alexandre Dumas’ father, Gen. Alexandre Dumas, emblazoned with a reproduction of the elder Dumas on horseback and splendidly uniformed looking both heroic and decidedly African.
Approaching death, Dumas is supposed to have said near the end of his life, “I will tell her a story, and she will be kind to me.”
*Runoko Rashidi is an historian, anthropologist, lecturer and world traveler. To date, he has authored or edited 18 books about history and travel. He is currently based in Los Angeles and regularly leads African-heritage tours. His next tours are to Cameroon in December 2014 and Ethiopia in May 2015. For further information write to Runoko at [email protected] or call him at 323 920 6055.