The holidays are over and I am happily reminiscing about my time 4 years ago, when I had the privilege of going to the island of Guadeloupe. My trip was the inspiration for this project and resulted in my first story called “Treasure Hunt on Butterfly Island.”
The Mystery of Butterfly Island
I had come across the story of France’s, actually Europe’s most famous Classical Music Composer of the 18th century named Joseph de Bologne while doing some research on famous Black authors, musicians and more from Great Britain of the same time period. His name is also spelled Joseph Boulogne. He is often labeled the first Black composer of African descent and there’s this whole mysterious narrative about him. His European title was Le Chevalier de Saint George. Chevalier is French for knight. Joseph de Bologne was known as the Knight of Saint George
While I was doing my research, I saw the portrait of Joseph de Bologne with a link to his music and I wondered who is this handsome guy but passed by on to other more pressing matters as I was a bit disinterested in the son of a slave by a rich French plantation master. Who cared about his music? He was relegated to the bottom of French society and history. How could his music be remotely interesting or worth a listen?
In college, I loved French and it was my minor area of study. I spent some time in France. I took tons of classes in French history, culture, literature, culinary arts you name it… and in NOT one of my classes had his name ever appeared or was he ever discussed. He was best friends with Queen Marie Antoinette – one of the most defining figures of French culture, King Louis XVI…his father was a trusted advisor to the French kings and his mother was somehow this slave who his dad treated just like a regular wife.
His education was amazing…he was not only a classical music composer…he was a super athlete – having swum across the Seine River in Paris they say with one hand. He was the fencing champion of Europe – a swordsman par excellence. There was so much more, he was a knight and became a General in the French military.
And we NEVER talked about this man in any of my university courses on French history, music etc...I was curious as to why he was buried from view! Of course, the usual mantra of oh he was a black person after being so beloved in France, he was now hated by subsequent generations to never be discussed again except by in-the-know musicians.
I gladly devoured everything about this composer as I learned more. The most famous biography written of him is by Gabriel Banat, a noted virtuoso violinist, 23-year member of the New York Philharmonic, musicologist, author, teacher and Holocaust survivor who was born in Romania
His book “Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow,” is an ambitious work designed to explain why “this son of an African slave and a French plantation owner” on the island of Guadeloupe was such a prominent personality in French society in the 18th century. Mr. Banat, a well-celebrated and accomplished musician did a fabulous job in his book breaking down Joseph de Bologne’s music and his style and influence, but unfortunately like many European authors in their approach to the enslavement of black peoples in the Americas, Africa and Caribbean resorted to a very stereotypical portrait, which left me with more questions than answers.