Great Men of African Heritage in 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.