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Black Musicians

There are many examples of Black men who served in the British army and the Royal Navy as musicians, drummers and trumpeters. Less well known are those who were professional or amateur musicians. Black artists from a variety of social backgrounds were performing in Britain from the 16th century. One such was Julius Soubise, the son of a Jamaican slave and protégé of the Duchess of Queensberry, who was a keen violinist.

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'Juba' at Vauxhall Gardens
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Joseph Emidy, Acclaimed Teacher and Performer

Those who made a name for themselves in the world of professional music often came from a background of enslavement. One such musician was captured by the Portuguese from the Guinea coast and sold into slavery in Brazil. Around 1795, 'Josh Emede' (as he is called in the ship's records of the Indefatigable) was forced by the British navy to play reels and jigs for the crew. Later known as Joseph Emidy, he settled in Falmouth, a cosmopolitan community at the time. A classical musician, he earned his living as a music teacher, giving lessons for a variety of instruments, including the piano, violin, cello and flute. Emidy's skills as a teacher and concert musician seem to have been in high demand, as requests for his services appeared in Falmouth and Truro newspapers.

Emidy playing the violin (painting) - opens new window
'A Musical Club, Truro'
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George Bridgetower, Close Friend of Beethoven

Polish-born George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower was the son of a self-proclaimed African prince and a Polish woman. He played the piano and the violin and was a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven wrote the famous Kreutzer Sonata in May 1803 specially for Bridgetower, and together they played in Vienna. Letters written by Beethoven introducing Bridgetower to Viennese society show that the two men were close friends. One particularly cordial letter, possibly written after their May performance, says 'Be so kind as to wait for me at half past one at Taroni's coffee house…we shall then go to the Countess Guicciardi's where you have been invited to dinner. Signed Beethoven.'

From the age of 10, Bridgetower appears to have been held in high esteem in London musical circles. He accompanied another young violinist at a concert under the patronage of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) on 2 June 1790. At the Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey, Bridgetower and another young man, both dressed in scarlet coats, helped to pull out the stops for the organists. Bridgetower toured England and Europe giving concerts in Bath, Rome, Dresden and Vienna. He married an English woman, and records show that he died on 10 September 1859 in Peckham, London.

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Buskers and Street Musicians

As well as highly acclaimed professional musicians like Emidy and Bridgetower, there were Black street buskers who entertained London's public. Billy Waters, a fiddler, was one such character and a common sight outside the Adelphi Theatre, in the Strand, in the 1780s. Identifiable by his wooden leg and military-style outfit, he was famously caricatured by the cartoonist George Cruickshank.

Billy Waters may have ended up on the streets of London as one of the Black poor who had fought in the American War of Independence. From workhouse records, it seems that Billy became ill and spent his final days at St Giles's Workhouse where he was elected 'the king of beggars'. A verse from his will reads:

Thus poor Black Billy's made his Will,
His Property was small good lack,
For till the day death did him kill
His house he carried on his back.
The Adelphi now may say alas!
And to his memory raise a stone:
Their gold will be exchanged for brass,
Since poor Black Billy's dead and gone.

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Billy Waters - Soldier, Actor and Musician
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References and Further Reading

Buckingham, James Silk, Autobiography (2 vols), London, 1855

Edwards, P., and Walvin, J., Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade, London, 1983

McGrady, R., Music and Musicians in Early Nineteenth Century Cornwall: The World of Joseph Emidy - Slave Violinist and Composer c.1770-1859, Exeter, 1991

Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, London, New York and Ibadan, 1977

Young, L., 'My Hero Joseph Emidy', BBC History, October 2001

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